Black-throated blue warblers are known to nest in the Black Mountain region of Kentucky. Photo by Brian Henry.

Ten Birding Hotspots in Kentucky

1. Long Point Unit of Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, Fulton County

At the far southwestern corner of Kentucky lies one of our most interesting bird-watching locales.  The Long Point Unit of Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge is primarily a waterfowl refuge area. The area is mostly closed from mid-October to mid-March, but an observation tower at the south end of the main entrance road off KY 1282 southwest of Hickman offers a great vantage point for seeing a variety of waterfowl and bald eagles.  In recent years, this area has hosted the largest flock of greater white-fronted geese to have ever occurred in Kentucky–up to 10,000 birds! Afternoon light is best for viewing the loafing waterfowl. The “Long Point tower” is well known to area bird watchers.  Bald eagles strafe the geese several times a day, typically putting large numbers into the air.  If you visit the tower and the area is devoid of birds, try birding the local farmland roads for awhile and return later in the day.

Spring may offer shorebirds and a glimpse of a rail in the shallow water “moist soils units” that occupy many of the open areas.  Forest songbirds abound in the woodlands including northern parulas, yellow-throated warblers, and prothonotary warblers.  In summer, breeding woodland songbirds are present in good numbers and a variety of herons and egrets can be seen if water remains in the shallow impoundments.  This is also a good area to see a couple of western Kentucky summer specialties, Mississippi kite and fish crow.  In fall the impoundments are typically dry, but songbird migrants can be plentiful along the woodland edges.

Kentucky’s little piece of Reelfoot Lake also hosts a variety of interesting plants and animals, and some of the huge bald cypress trees are centuries old. Mosquitoes (sporadically from April through September) and deer flies (June and July) can be bad, so don’t forget some insect repellent.

2. Ballard Wildlife Management Area, Ballard County

Ballard Wildlife Management Area and associated state lands to the south in Ballard County (Barlow Bottoms WMA) offer excellent year-round birding.  The majority of the Ballard Wildlife Management Area is closed from mid-October to mid-March, but a public viewing loop is accessible 365 days a year unless floodwaters prevent access.  Waterfowl, especially geese, and bald eagles can be observed from along the public loop throughout the winter.  In some years, large numbers of red-headed woodpeckers inhabit the bottomland forest tracts of the WMA.

During the time of the year that the WMA is open, birds of all types abound in the variety of habitat types.  Extensive tracts of bottomland hardwood forest harbor a great diversity of forest birds including Acadian flycatchers, great crested flycatchers, northern parula, and a few American redstarts.  Spring and fall migration can be excellent for warblers and other songbirds, especially along the edges of the various woodland tracts.  At least three pairs of bald eagles nest on the WMA, so a few are typically in any month.  Barred owls are as thick as flies, so it is not uncommon to see or hear one at any time of day or night.

During the summer and fall, the impoundments at Ballard WMA often begin to lower because of reduced rainfall, and herons, egrets, and shorebirds are sometimes abundant.  In part because of all the water, biting flies especially mosquitoes (April through September) and deer flies (June and July) can be quite annoying.

3. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area/Kentucky Lake/Lake Barkley, Marshall/Livingston/Lyon/Calloway/

One of Kentucky’s premier birding areas is the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and associated Kentucky Lake (to the west) and Lake Barkley (to the east).  These two lakes and the forested peninsula between them offer great birding at any time of the year.  The lakes and campgrounds are covered with people in the warmer months of the year, so many bird watchers prefer to visit the area from mid-October to mid-April when the birds outnumber the humans!  However, even in summer you can get away from most of the activity by driving back roads of the “LBL” and enjoying breeding songbirds and colorful butterflies.

Winter birding in the area offers great opportunities for studying a variety of waterbirds (the lakes are large and a spotting scope is quite useful), including double-crested cormorants, pied-billed and horned grebes, waterfowl (both dabbling and diving ducks), and gulls (ring-billed, herring, and Bonaparte’s are usually around), as well as bald eagles.  Woodpeckers abound in the forests and sparrows are typically abundant in the floodplain fields where weeds are allowed to grow.

Spring and fall offer excellent migrant songbird birding, with warblers, vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, orioles, and other forest and forest-edge species often abundant. The last week of April and first week and a half of May can offer spring birding as great as anywhere in the eastern United States, with 30 species of warblers often present for those who know the songs and are willing to visit a variety of habitats.

Some bird watchers bring boats, canoes, or kayaks to the Land Between the Lakes area as there are many hundreds of miles of embayment shorelines to explore. Shallow water areas attract many species of waterfowl, herons, egrets, and shorebirds in early spring and again in fall.

4. Sloughs Wildlife Management Area, Henderson/Union counties

Tucked away in the quiet bottomlands of western Henderson County and northern Union County, about 10 miles west of Henderson is the Sloughs Wildlife Management Area.  This public land holding is separated into several units, the most accessible and diverse of which is the Sauerheber Unit, accessible from KY 268 northwest of the community of Geneva.

Much of the WMA is closed from November 1 to March 15, but a drive along KY 268 in the winter often yields a number of species of geese and ducks. Also, in recent years a flock of tundra swans has wintered on the WMA and is sometimes in view from this road.

Between March 15 and November 1, the WMA is entirely open and many gravel and a few paved roads run between and through the various units, which extend westward and southwestward from the Sauerheber Unit. Maps and advice on areas to visit are available at the headquarters (open only M-F, 8:00 – 4:30 CT).  During spring one must be aware of the Ohio River levels in the vicinity of Evansville, Indiana—most of the area can become inaccessible due to high water. If resources indicate that the river is at or above flood stage, you might as well try bird watching somewhere else!

Birdlife at the Sloughs is always abundant, whether it be nesting songbirds like prothonotary and yellow-throated warbler, indigo bunting, great crested flycatcher, and tree swallow, or during migration when a variety of warblers, vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, orioles, and others can be abundant.  Some of the waterfowl management units at the Sauerheber Unit are great for marsh birds like sora and American bittern in spring and fall. During winter, a resident flock of geese often includes Canada, snow, greater white-fronted, and a few Ross’s, and dabbling ducks including mallard, northern pintail, and gadwall are often numerous.

5. Peabody Wildlife Management Area, Ohio and Muhlenberg counties

One of Kentucky’s newest great birding areas is the Peabody Wildlife Management Area, which is situated mostly in Ohio and Muhlenberg counties in the west-central part of the state.  A permit is required to visit the WMA ($12.50 per year and available from several local “quick-marts” in the vicinity). There are a number of public roads that pass through the various units of the WMA, but if you care to walk off the roads at all, you will need to purchase a permit.  Public hunting is available on the WMA through most of the fall and winter seasons, so precautions should be taken to avoid putting yourself in proximity to hunters using the area.

Peabody WMA is mostly recovering surface-mined land dominated by grasses, forbs, and young trees interspersed with pine thickets and deciduous woodland tracts and sprinkled with lakes and ponds. Birding here is rewarding throughout the year, but it is one of the favorite destinations for local bird watchers during winter because of the number of raptors that use the area.  Favored areas for raptors are the open grasslands where small mammalian prey is most abundant, and it is not uncommon to find northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, and short-eared owls (dusk or dawn) during winter.  The area also harbors large numbers of sparrows and reliable winter species include Savannah, American tree, field, white-crowned, white-throated, song, and swamp sparrow.  Impoundments within the area sometimes have a good supply of geese and ducks.

Springtime marks the arrival of a number of grassland and early-successional breeding birds that are hard to find in comparable abundance elsewhere in the state.  These include such uncommon species as willow flycatcher, Bell’s vireo, grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows, dickcissel, and blue grosbeak, not to mention loads of prairie warblers, yellow-breasted chats, field sparrows, indigo buntings, and orchard orioles.  Many of these species remain to breed, so the area is typically hopping with activity, even on mid-summer mornings.  Wooded tracts offer another suite of species including blue-gray gnatcatcher, northern parula, yellow-throated warbler, prothonotary warbler, and several woodpeckers.

By fall, song has decreased on the WMA but fall migrants are common in all habitats. Warblers and others can be found along woodland edges, and by mid-October a dozen species of sparrows can be found by working weedy areas, patches of shrubs and small trees, and along woodland edges.

6. “Transient Lakes,” Warren County

Perhaps the most unique birding area in Kentucky is a series of lakes collectively called the “Transient Lakes” in southern Warren County near the communities of Rich Pond and Woodburn.  The lakes are considered “transient” because they form only during periods of above-average precipitation and are otherwise simply depressions in relatively flat farmland.  The largest and most famous of the lakes is referred to as McElroy Lake and is situated on the east side of KY 884, about two miles north-northeast of Woodburn. A companion lake is situated on the west side of US 31W about two miles north-northwest of Woodburn and is called Chaney Lake.  McElroy is entirely privately owned, but thanks to the courtesy of the landowner, birders are welcome to park along the roadway and walk out along the margin of the water (when present) to view the bird life.  Chaney Lake is a State Nature Preserve owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but access is a bit difficult via an unmarked easement from US 31W.  Other smaller bodies of water are present on private land both east and west of US 31W in the vicinity of Woodburn. The best manner in which to become familiar with bird watching in these areas is to monitor the BIRDKY listserve and to visit the website of the Kentucky Ornithological Society for directions.

The nature of the Transient Lakes is somewhat difficult to describe. They form because the area is dominated by limestone bedrock that has been eroded beneath the soil for thousands of years by rainfall percolating down into the subsurface.  The entire region is riddled with caves and underground passages, many of which fill with water after periods of rainfall.  The lowest depressions in this region fill with water after heavy rains, sometimes being fed for months by springs that drain areas of land higher than the surrounding depressions like the one that holds McElroy and Chaney lakes.  Unfortunately, once the rains subside and the subsurface water levels begin to fall, the lakes drain like bathtubs, often as quickly as they filled.  This being the case, sometimes the lakes are not present for months or even years, but periods of abnormally wet weather in winter and spring typically cause them to rise for at least several weeks. And when they do, both birds and bird watchers descend upon them in a rush.

The difficulty of becoming familiar with the nuances to bird watching at the Transient Lakes is quickly forgotten the very first time you visit the area when rain has been copious and the lakes are “alive” with birds.  A spotting scope is useful here, but local bird watchers are typically willing to share their spotting scopes and recent sightings. In a nutshell, the theme at the Transient Lakes is waterbirds, waterbirds, waterbirds.  These oases of shallow water in the otherwise desolate open farmland of the Highland Rim region of Kentucky are magnets to waterbirds of all types. In late winter and early spring, grebes and ducks can be abundant. Sandhill cranes often stop over and rest during late February and early March. In April and May, later dabbling ducks, American coots, and shorebirds take over and the occasional odd gull, tern, heron, or egret may be found. Typically the lakes will not last into summer, but on rare occasion they have and in such rare years a number of waterbirds may nest.

Vegetation is sparse at McElroy Lake, so it offers the best shorebird habitat, but at Chaney Lake herbaceous vegetation is taking over the former agricultural fields and there is a fairly extensive swamp forest.  These differences make a visit to both worthwhile in maximizing the birds one can find during a day’s visit.

In addition to waterbirds, a variety of other avian visitors can be found including swallows (abundant on cool days in spring), American pipits (frequently found on mudflats surrounding the lakes), and raptors such as osprey and peregrine falcon are sometimes seen.

7. Mammoth Cave National Park, Edmonson/Barren/Hart counties

Notable for the extent of its forest cover in an otherwise largely agricultural areas, Mammoth Cave National Park affords the songbird lover a rich diversity of forest and forest edge habitats full of woodland birds. It is accessible west of I-65 from the communities of both Cave City and Park City.  Park maps are available at the visitor center.

Being largely forested, the park is not especially birdy in winter, although it is certainly inhabited by an impressive supply of woodland species.  Mammoth Cave is in its songbird glory during migratory periods and in summer, with something different around every corner.  Just about any trail or lightly traveled road within the park offers good birding, but some of the favored areas are the landings, parking areas, and picnic grounds at the Houchin’s and Mammoth Cave ferries (that cross the Green River); woodland edges and trails around the visitor center (best when not busy on late spring and summer weekends); Turnhole Bend and Cedar Sink trails, and the long (and relatively strenuous) First Creek Lake Trail.  In addition there are miles of backcountry trails that offer great forest birding for this part of the state.  Woodland songbirds are the highlight of the park, including locally good numbers of cerulean warblers, which are most often encountered along the river (the ferry crossing points are good for them).  Other species that occur frequently in the park include blue-winged and prairie warbler (overgrown fields), northern parula, yellow-throated warbler, worm-eating warbler, ovenbird, Kentucky warbler, Acadian flycatcher, summer and scarlet tanagers, and red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos. At night the Park is a great place to hear whip-poor-wills (mid-April through mid-July) and barred owls (near river crossings).

In addition to offering great birding, the spring wildflower displays on some of the more moist (lower) portions of the trails are exceptional during April and butterflying is excellent from April through September.

The area has a large deer population, so the number of ticks can sometimes be annoying.

8. Red River Gorge/Natural Bridge State Resort Park, Powell/Wolfe counties

One of Kentucky’s biologically richest regions is the western margin of the Cumberland Plateau, where a diversity of habitats and beautiful geological features (clifflines, bluffs, and caves) occur.  Situated within the heart of this region is the federally designated Red River Gorge Geological Area and Natural Bridge State Resort Park.  The area’s main avifaunal feature is a rich woodland songbird population, including some of the most easily accessible areas to find them. A paved loop road traverses some of Kentucky’s most beautiful scenery as it winds through “the gorge.” Winter season visits allow great views of the clifflines, but it is from mid-April through mid-October when birding is best.

Woodlands in this area harbor excellent populations of a number of nesting warblers including northern parula, black-throated green, yellow-throated, pine, worm-eating, black-and-white, ovenbird, hooded, and Swainson’s (locally distributed in moist, rhododendron-filled gorges).  Red-eyed, yellow-throated, and blue-headed (locally distributed) vireos and Acadian flycatchers are also common.  In the Rock Bridge area is the state’s only nesting population of red-breasted nuthatches. Ruffed grouse are well distributed but hard to come by; driving backroads in early morning or hiking the trails are the best ways to try to run across one. During migratory periods, large flocks of songbird migrants can be found moving through the woodlands, especially along ridgelines. The Geological Area is part of Daniel Boone National Forest, and there are many additional miles of roads and trails in the vicinity that can yield excellent birding opportunities.

This region harbors a relatively stable population of venomous snakes (which are typically hard to find in Kentucky).  Encounters with copperheads and timber rattlesnakes on trails and along roads are not that common, but birders should always be aware of the possibility.

9. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Bell/Harlan counties

Situated in far southeastern Kentucky, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park offers another alternative for excellent woodland songbird study.  Winter can be relatively inactive, but migratory periods are excellent, especially along the Park’s “Ridge Trail.” During the breeding season, woodland songbirds, especially warblers, are abundant. Commonly encountered species include northern parula, yellow-throated, worm-eating, black-and-white, ovenbird, and hooded. Swainson’s warblers are locally distributed in some of the moister, rhododendron-filled gorges.  The park also offers some higher-elevation bird watching where the Ridge Trail attains an altitude of 3,000 feet or more. In these areas, a few rare Kentucky breeding birds can be found including veery, black-throated blue warbler, Canada warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, and dark-eyed junco. The best areas lie between Hensley Settlement and White Rocks.  Hiking the Ridge Trail is also a good place to hear or see common ravens, which occur regularly in Kentucky only in the southeastern mountains.

One unique bird watching opportunity at Cumberland Gap is the chance to view migrating raptors.  The Pinnacle Overlook, prominently marked on park maps, is an excellent vantage point for scanning open skies for hawks as they migrate along the Cumberland Mountain ridge.  Numbers of hawks are highest on sunny days in September and October, but some movement can be detected on many days from August into November and again from late March to mid-May.  At least 10 raptor species have been observed migrating over the Park; most prominent is the broad-winged hawk migration during the latter two weeks of September, but also seen regularly are bald eagle, osprey, and peregrine falcon.

10. Black Mountain, Harlan/Letcher counties

Kentucky’s highest peak, Black Mountain, lies astride the Virginia state line in southeastern Kentucky. This is the only place in Kentucky where elevations are greater than 4,000 feet above sea level.  Along with the high elevation is a slightly cooler climate and different vegetation that more closely resembles woodlands of the northern United States than nearby areas in eastern Kentucky.  Along with this northern vegetation one can find Kentucky’s best populations of several nesting songbirds.  These include the veery, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Blackburnian warbler, dark-eyed junco, and rose-breasted grosbeak.

Black Mountain is also one of only a few places in the state where common ravens are regularly observed.  These spectacular birds are more often heard than seen, but any glimpse you get makes the trip worthwhile.

Black Mountain is privately owned, but a state highway (KY 160) runs most of the way up the mountain and over a gap into Virigina. A smaller public road goes all the way to the highest point, which lies at an abandoned fire tower near an FAA radar facility.  There are a few places to pull off and walk along both roads, but be prepared for cooler temperatures than in the valleys below.

Besides nesting birds, Black Mountain has a rich wildflower and butterfly diversity, and any trip up the mountain from late April through mid-October can yield special non-bird finds.

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