Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: D. Scott Clark/Tandemstock.com

Birding the States

Birding in Kentucky

Check out Kentucky for mountains rich with warblers and lakes with waterfowl galore—and the long-time home of John James Audubon.

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
1 4 57,239

If birding had shrines, one of them would be located in Kentucky, where legendary painter and naturalist John James Audubon lived and worked in the early 19th century. Today’s John James Audubon State Park, on the Ohio River at Henderson, pays tribute to one of the most important figures in the history of ornithology—and it’s a rewarding birding site as well.

Several wildlife management areas in northwestern Kentucky are among the state’s best birding locations for waterfowl and wading birds. The huge Land Between the Lakes area is home to waterbirds, raptors, songbirds, and more.

Eastward, into the Cumberland Plateau and the main Appalachians, the birding focus turns toward vireos and warblers, especially in sites such as Red River Gorge Geological Area. There’s even a great spot for shorebirds at a fish hatchery near Daniel Boone National Forest. 

Kentucky Birding Hotspots

 


Red River Gorge Geological Area

One of Kentucky’s most stunning landscapes, the Red River Gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest is known for scenic rock formations and rugged canyons. It’s also home to beautiful hardwood forests filled with nesting birds.

One place to enjoy the bird life is the Rock Bridge area, east of Pine Ridge. Here, breeding birds include Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Cerulean Warbler (scarce), Hooded Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.

It’s worth driving Red River Gorge Scenic Byway (Highways 77 and 715), stopping at various recreation areas and trails. The Gladie Visitor Center on this route (closed in winter) can provide maps and information about the area.


Minor E. Clark Fish Hatchery

Set on the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest about 50 miles east of Lexington, this fish hatchery has more than 100 ponds that produce bass, catfish, muskellunge, and walleye for stocking in area lakes. The site has also produced a bird list of around 230 species, making it one of Kentucky’s top hot spots.

Fifteen or more species of ducks may be seen here from fall through spring (Wood Duck and Mallard nest). But it’s shorebirds for which the hatchery is best known.

When water levels in ponds are low, fall can produce a notable assortment of shorebirds, with the peak coming in late August and September. Around 30 species have been seen here, including rarities such as Piping Plover, Hudsonian Godwit, and Red-necked Phalarope. (Even Wood Stork has showed up.)Bonaparte’s Gull is seen with the common Ring-billed in winter. Bald Eagle can be found for most of the year. Nesting birds include Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Orchard Oriole.

Just a few minutes east, Cave Run Lake is worth checking from fall through spring for waterfowl and Bald Eagle.


Falls of the Ohio State Park

This site along the Ohio River on the bank opposite Louisville is entered from the Indiana side. Because of the location of the state line, though, part of it is in Kentucky, and birders from Kentucky consider some of the birds theirs.

Falls of the Ohio is most famous for its amazing display of Devonian-age fossils exposed on the rocky river bottom. Fossils such as corals, sponges, bryozoans, snails, and  brachiopods are best seen from June to November when water levels are low.

During those drier periods shorebirds can be common on and around the rocks, muddy shore, and sandbars. August is usually the best time for species such as American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Least Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. The peak for Dunlin is the first week of November. Some shorebirds can be present in late April and early May, as well.

Some of the notable birds found at and near the falls in summer are Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon.

Waterfowl can be present on the river in winter. During that time masses of Ring-billed Gulls may include Bonaparte’s Gull or rarities such as Iceland Gull or Lesser Black-backed Gull.


Berea College Forest

Two sites near Berea less than five miles apart offer a fine birding experience, especially in spring migration.

The Berea College Forest, accessed from a parking lot on Highway 21 east of town, has been studied and managed by the college since 1898. Trails winding uphill here offer splendid lookout points, as well as excellent birding for migrant and breeding songbirds and other species. The forest has a cumulative bird list of more than 150 species.

Nesting birds include Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Cedar Waxwing, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole.

A short distance east, 150-acre Owsley Fork Reservoir boasts a bird list of around 190. It can have ducks in winter, as well as Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, and Horned Grebe. Both Osprey and Bald Eagle are seen except in summer. Nesting birds include many of the same species as Berea Forest, such as Wild Turkey, Broad-winged Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Blue Grosbeak.


Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

This 14,000-acre forest has an interesting history, having been given to the people of Kentucky in 1929 by a German immigrant who had made a fortune in the whiskey business. Located 20 miles south of Louisville, it’s an Audubon important bird area with species list of about 180.

Management activities have focused in part on providing breeding habitat for species such as Blue-winged Warbler and Henslow’s Sparrow. Other nesting birds include Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.

Bernheim Forest’s habitats, from grassland to glades to mature forest, make it an excellent site for songbird migration. Species such as Osprey, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, and Sandhill Crane have been seen occasionally.

More than 35 miles of hiking trails are available for exploring, and the arboretum conducts educational programs throughout the year.


Ballard Wildlife Management Area

Located about 30 miles west of Paducah, Ballard WMA comprises 8,300 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, fields, oxbow lakes, scrubby fields, and cropland. It can be accessed on Highway 473 northwest of the community of Bandana.

In migration the area is home to tens of thousands of geese and ducks, and wetlands can have wading birds in summer. The bottomland forest has typical nesting birds such as Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Prothonotary Warbler. Bald Eagle nests here.

More than 20 miles of road pass through the area, and although much of it is closed in winter, a two-mile section remains open for wildlife viewing. Ballard also has an elevated observation platform and a walking trail into a bald-cypress swamp.


Sloughs Wildlife Management Area, Sauerheber Unit

One of Kentucky’s most productive birding sites is located in the agriculture-dominated bottomland of the Ohio River about ten miles west of Henderson. The Sauerheber Unit of Sloughs Wildlife Management Area is reached via Highway 268 northwest of the community of Geneva. Parts of it are closed in winter.

The site’s bird list of around 250 includes many species of geese, ducks, wading birds, and shorebirds attracted to the local wetlands. Patches of bottomland forest and fields also attract a wide range of other birds.

Wildlife-viewing platforms are placed along Highway 268. There’s an observation tower at Anderson Pond, and a short distance west is the Fish and Wildlife office. Even if it’s closed, visitors can still pick up information at a box here. Unpaved roads provide access to varied habitats in the unit’s interior.

Greater White-fronted Goose and Tundra Swan might be seen in winter among the other waterfowl, and Bald Eagle is present throughout the year. Species such as American Bittern, Least Bittern, King Rail, Virginia Rail, and Sora are seen occasionally in wetlands in spring and fall, and muddy spots can have 20 or more kinds of shorebirds. The area’s forests are home to Wild Turkey, Red-headed Woodpecker, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Summer Tanager. Grassy areas host Northern Bobwhite and Dickcissel.


Land Between the Lakes

Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area is a 170,000-acre tract of land that was established when the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were dammed to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. This peninsula between the more-or-less parallel lakes encompasses a large tract of undeveloped forest, more than 300 miles of shoreline, and many recreation areas, campsites, and trails.

The huge lakes attract waterfowl and gulls, and Osprey and Bald Eagle nest in the area. In late winter, flocks of Sandhill Cranes pass through, and American White Pelican is common in spring and fall.

Forest, scrub, and grassland are home to a wide diversity of breeding songbirds. As one example, an area on the eastern side of the peninsula, which includes a bay called Honker Lake and the park’s Woodlands Nature Station, has recorded around 200 species of birds. The list includes around 20 species of wintering ducks and nesting birds such as Wild Turkey, Double-crested Cormorant, Little Blue Heron, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated

Warbler, and Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, and Orchard Oriole.

Birders visit the two dams in winter to look for gulls, with many rarities appearing with the common Ring-billed and Herring.


John James Audubon State Park

The great naturalist and bird artist John James Audubon moved to Henderson, Kentucky, in 1810 to operate a store. It would be more than two decades later before he would gain fame for his paintings.

The people of Henderson raised money in the 1930s to create a park memorializing Audubon, and today’s state park includes a museum with art and family artifacts. It’s also a fine birding site, with forests, field, and ponds set beside the Ohio River. Trails wind through much of the property.

Birds nesting here include Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole.

The park has acquired an extensive new wetlands area, with a Bald Eagle nest, that will open with handicapped-accessible trails. Audubon State Park is a focal point of the annual Ohio Valley Birding Festival in April.


Reelfoot Lake

A famed destination for wildlife observation, Reelfoot Lake also bears witness to one of the country’s oddest geological events. A series of massive earthquakes in the winter of 1811-12 changed the course of the Mississippi River, creating this 15,000-acre lake. It’s said that the river actually ran backwards for a time during this cataclysmic event.

Reelfoot Lake is a large area, and its bald cypress lined shore is a combination of state park, national wildlife refuge, wildlife management area, and private property. Most of it lies within Tennessee, but part of the national wildlife refuge, the Long Point Unit, stretches into Kentucky, and it’s one of the state’s top birding sites. Note that some areas are closed in winter to allow waterfowl to rest undisturbed.

Waterfowl and wading birds can be abundant at Reelfoot, and its bottomland-hardwood forest and fields are home to a wide range of birds. The species list for the Long Point Unit alone is more than 210. Access roads run south into the area from Highway 1282, and there’s an observation tower in the center.

Nesting birds here include Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Mississippi Kite, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Dickcissel. Reelfoot Lake is most famous for its Bald Eagles. Many pairs nest around the lake, and in winter hundreds of eagles gather here.

The national wildlife refuge office is located on Highway 157 in Tennessee, on the eastern side of the lake.

Birding Trail

Kentucky's Audubon Birding Trail 

Taken by itself, this is one of the shortest birding trails on the continent, with only three major stops. But it is a must-see historical complement to the 20 wildlife trails that wind their way around the Bluegrass State. It features the area of Henderson, where John James Audubon lived for several years while beginning his epic Birds of America. By following the hiking paths in the state park here, you can almost literally walk in his footsteps and perhaps watch descendants of the very birds that inspired the artist two centuries ago: kingly wild turkeys, coveys of northern bobwhites, brilliant golden prothonotary warblers, and shaggy-headed belted kingfishers. Along forest streams you’re pretty sure to see Louisiana waterthrushes bobbing and teetering at the water’s edge and little green herons lurking in the shadows, and hear red-eyed vireos singing repetitive whistled phrases from the treetops. Farther along the trail, lakes and marshy sloughs provide a winter home for migratory waterfowl, including wigeons, American black ducks, mallards, teal, and impressive numbers of Canada geese. Great blue herons stand at attention along the shorelines and build bulky stick nests in colonies high in the trees, just as they did in Audubon’s day. —Kenn Kaufman