Pine Creek Gamebird Habitat Area is a 700-acre complex of grassland/oldfield habitat and shallow wetlands located in rural Benton County. Originally operated as farmland, the agricultural practices were retired when the land was purchased in 1993 for pheasant hunting. Since that time, 208 bird species have been recorded on the property, which represents more than half of the official Indiana state list.
In 1996, Ducks Unlimited and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources began collaborating on wetland restoration at Pine Creek. Currently, an approximate 150 acres of the property has been restored to a wetland habitat type. The wetlands were created by damming a drainage system that drained the whole basin. A variety of shallow wetland habitats are developing as the marsh community is reestablished, including emergent marsh (especially cattails and marsh grasses), mudflats, and wet grassy meadows. The former drainage ditch was not filled, but it has largely silted in over the years. This area provides some deeper water on the property (probably no deeper that 4-5 feet). The waterlevels at Pine Creek can seasonally fluctuate with rainfall levels and snow melt (as well as management decisions) and can very from >100 acres of open water to virtually dry in the main basins. This variability attracts different species over the course of the year and is a crucial component in the success of the marsh in attracting a wide variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and various other wetland species.
The surrounding uplands are undergoing old field succession and are dominated by various grasses and prairie forbs; for the most part, the plant community in these areas are allowed to develop naturally. The small ridges and bluffs which are dispersed between the wetland units are dominated by shrubs and tree line vegetation.
Pine Creek Gamebird Habitat Area supports one of the most diverse wetland and upland bird communities in central Indiana. During spring and fall migrations, large congregations of waterfowl and shorebirds can be found in the restored wetlands when appropriate conditions and water-levels prevail. Although diving ducks can sometimes be found, migrant dabblers are usually the dominant group of waterfowl; Blue-winged Teal in particular seem to have a preference for the Pine Creek wetlands with peak numbers often reaching over 400 individuals on early spring and late summer days. Blue-winged Teal have also been confirmed as breeders at Pine Creek, along with Wood Duck and, at least on one occasion, Hooded Merganser.
In addition, Pine Creek typically holds the most diverse and largest congregations of migratory shorebirds in west-central Indiana. Semipalmated Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, plus Solitary, Spotted, Least, Semipalmated, and, especially, Pectoral Sandpipers are usually common visitors during migration. A draw-down in the main wetland complex during the spring of 2005 also illustrates the site's potential for the American Golden-Plover; a flock of over 1300 individuals were found on the exposed mudflats during early May. This event deserves special notice given west-central Indiana's importance for the staging of north-bound golden-plovers, which is a species placed on Audubon's WatchList.
The wetlands and associated cattail vegetation also support migratory and breeding waterbirds. Migrating rails (usually Sora and Virginia Rail) and large flocks of Sandhill Cranes are often seen along the marshy edges, and a pair of Least Bitterns are thought to breed on the property.
In the upland areas, which mostly consists of a mix of grassland and old field habitats, several WatchList species can be found during the summer months - Willow Flycatcher, Bell's Vireo, and Dickcissel all breed here. Pine Creek also supports one of the largest breeding populations of Sedge Wren in Indiana; up to seven pairs of these state-endangered birds have nested on the property. In addition, an impressive array of hawks can be found in the uplands during the non-breeding season as well as sizeable flocks of sparrows. Pine Creek also regularly supports some of the largest flocks of Tree Swallows found in Indiana; late summer and early fall counts often exceed several thousand individuals.
The major threats to the birds which utilize the Pine Creek Gamebird Habitat Area are mostly resultant of natural events and pressures to the upland and wetland areas. Since the grassland/old field complexes are allowed to progress without suppression, nesting species such as Willow Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, and Dickcissel may face significant habitat losses in coming years to natural vegetative succession. For the wetlands, local water levels are dependent on rainfall, so habitat availability for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds can vary greatly each season given weather patterns. Considering the slight depth of the impoundments and their apparent lack of microtopography, excessive rainfall or sharply contrasting drought conditions can either inundate the wetlands with water or completely dry exposed mudflats, respectively. This can be especially problematic given Pine Creek's importance for migratory shorebirds relative to other properties in central Indiana.