Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, which is the oldest of Indiana's three federally-owned preserves, was established in 1966 to provide needed habitat for migratory birds and endangered animal species. Although most popularly known for its migratory waterfowl and nesting Bald Eagles, this Important Bird Area also contains a significant piece of one of the most seriously compromised wooded habitats within the state - bottomland forest. Despite being fragmented, this landscape supports populations of several WatchList species of birds; Red-headed Woodpecker and Prothonotary Warbler are notably abundant in these swampy woods.
This 7,724-acre refuge is located on the convergence of Jackson and Jennings Counties near the town of Seymour in rural southeastern Indiana. In addition to the bottomland forested areas, Muscatatuck offers an interesting conglomeration of habitat types, which include lakes and ponds, marshes, shrublands, early successional fields, and deciduous forest.
Having nearly 280 bird species recorded on the property since its inception in 1966, the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the most diverse bird assemblages in the southeastern quadrant in the state of Indiana. Also, given the mosaic of habitats which have been restored and preserved on the property, which includes forest, wetland, and grassland, this multiplicity of avian species can be found at Muscatatuck throughout the year during the breeding, non-breeding, and migratory months.
At least 10 species of conservation concern utilize the various habitats at Muscatatuck for nesting during the breeding season. WatchList birds which can be found during the summer months at this IBA include Red-headed Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, and Henslow's Sparrow; of these, the Prothonotary Warbler nesting population is the most significant, probably numbering over 50 pairs. The abundance of this neotropical species is probably a direct consequence of the refuge's management for the productivity of another cavity-nesting bird - the Wood Duck. Muscatatuck likely has the largest breeding population of this waterfowl species in the state, with late summer (post-breeding) counts sometimes totaling an excess of 1000 individuals. Notably, in some summer months, the rare Yellow-crowned Night Heron can also be found in the biomes shared by the Prothonotary Warblers and Wood Ducks.
In addition to the species diversity found in the grasslands and the upland and palustrine forests, the marshes and larger open waters within the refuge support an interesting mix of state-endangered avian species. American Bittern, Least Bittern, Trumpeter Swan, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Common Moorhen, and Sandhill Crane have all been found at Muscatatuck, and most are annual in their occurrence. Also, this IBA has been utilized as a fall stop-over point for the ultralight-led Whooping Cranes from the Operation Migration project since 2003.
The primary threats to bird populations at the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge are a direct consequence of land use immediately outside the boundaries of the refuge. The surrounding lands are largely developed as agricultural fields, thereby fragmenting and isolating the habitats within the refuge from a larger, more natural landscape. This situation negatively impacts the breeding success and population recruitment of many species, especially neo-tropical migrants, through increased nest predation and cowbird parasitism.
Muscatatuck also has extensive marsh habitats within the refuge and the respective infrastructure which can be implemented to manipulate water levels to create mudflats or seasonally flooded impoundments. Unfortunately, notable congregations of shorebirds have not been recorded within the refuge during spring and fall migrations over the last 10 years. More studies need to be performed to help ensure a balance between the implementation of habitat management and creation of foraging sites for these migrants with the demands of the large populations of transient and nesting waterfowl.