Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge is situated in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway along the Illinois River near Havana, Illinois. It is an important link in the chain of resting and feeding areas for waterfowl, shorebirds and other migratory birds in the flyway. The refuge has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site. Early explorers in the late 1600s had difficulty finding their way up the Illinois River because of the numerous channels, backwater lakes, and sloughs in the vicinity of present-day Lake Chautauqua. The rich natural resources found along the river attracted and supported a vast Native American culture as evidenced by the numerous archeological sites scattered along the bluffs and floodplain of the river. European settlers went to work in the 1800s transforming the landscape by draining wetlands, plowing prairies, and clearing forests. By 1923, half of the 400,000-acre floodplain was sequestered by drainage and levee districts. The Chautauqua Levee and Drainage District was organized in 1916 to convert 3,608 acres of wetlands to cropland. Flood damage to district facilities was overwhelming, and the district abandoned its efforts in 1926. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Chautauqua Refuge by executive order. The order authorized the Service to purchase the failed Chautauqua Drainage and Levee District.
Today the refuge is managed for waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife -- and it can attract 10,000 individual shorebirds on a single day during migration.
Each fall, up to 250,000 waterfowl and more than 20,000 shorebirds seek the food resources and sanctuary found on the Chautauqua refuge. It is not uncommon to see 10,000 shorebird individuals on a single August day, including Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers and Black-bellied Plovers, along with dowitchers and Stilt Sandpipers. More than 27 species of shorebirds including Wilson's Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope and Buff-breasted Sandpiper have been counted here. In addition, thousands of waders including Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons and smaller numbers of Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons rest and feed here after the breeding season.
At least 27 species of waterfowl have used the refuge for fall and spring stopover sites during migration, along with swan species, gulls and various tern species including Black Tern. American White Pelicans, often numbering in the hundreds, also feed in the deeper waters at the refuge.
Bald Eagles nest on the refuge and as many as 175 eagles can be found on the area in late fall through spring.
Lake Chautauqua also offers copious habitat for migratory and breeding songbirds including Prothonotary Warbler, American Redstart and Pileated Woodpecker.
This site was chosen as an IBA because it met the criteria for Shorebirds, Waterfowl, and Wading birds.
The damming of the Illinois River and other land usage changes along the river have resulted in longer duration of and deeper floods than those that historically occurred. Levees do not allow the shallow ponds to drain properly into the Illinois River and keep the water level artifically high and stable.