I can always count on Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Refuge when I need a Loosiana Delta fix. This musky backwater with its willow groves, bald cypress, cottonwoods and buttonbush is the antithesis of the cool clear, swift mountain streams common to the Western Carolina mountains.
Situated at the confluence of the Nolichucky and French Broad Rivers at the eastern end of Lake Douglas just north of Newport, Tenn., in Cocke County, Rankin Bottom swells in the summertime behind the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Douglas Dam to flood most of the 1,255-acre Rankin Wildlife Management Area.
The flooded willow groves of Rankin Bottoms are great places to explore by canoe or kayak from late spring through Labor Day, while TVA keeps the water level up (992 feet target level) during summer. The wet and wild habitat is home to prothonotary warblers, willow flycatchers, Baltimore and orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds, yellow-throated vireos, osprey, common egrets, wood ducks plus a large colony of cliff swallows under the bridge across the French Broad at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s boat launch and many, many more.
TVA begins to lower Lake Douglas around Labor Day and as the water recedes exposing mudflats, Rankin Bottoms becomes a hotspot for migrating shorebirds, waders and waterfowl. Various species of sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, yellowlegs and others can be seen in fall and spring migration. I have also seen white pelicans and tundra swans at Rankin. Different species of terns and gulls are also commonly found at Rankin Bottoms from fall through spring.
My birding buddy, Bob Olthoff, and I took a trip up to Rankin Bottoms recently (Aug. 7). It not only looked like Louisiana, it felt like Louisiana. It was around 77 degrees Fahrenheit when we got there at about 8 a.m. and it just got hotter and muggier.
The water was still high. There was a bit of exposed shoreline but we didn’t find any shorebirds.
It was still a great day. We must have seen a couple of hundred common egrets. There were lots of great blue and green herons around also. And ospreys were hanging around on a couple of nests. There is quite an impressive nest on an old railroad trestle just up the French Broad a few hundred yards from the bridge. It looks like it has been refurbished continuously for a number of years. It’s at least 3-feet high and 3-feet across.
We stood along side the railroad track at one point, overlooking the bottom and recorded about 20 species. These included a good cross section of water birds and passerines like common egret, great blue heron, green heron, wood duck, double-crested cormorant, eastern kingbird, prothonotary warbler, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, red-eyed vireo, Baltimore oriole and others.
We also encountered my first of the year, monarch butterfly and a beautiful fresh male black swallowtail nectaring on buttonbush. Bob and I have found zebra swallowtails at Rankin bottoms in the past.
To get to Rankin Bottoms from Waynesville, take I-40 west to exit 432 B. That will put you on U.S. 25/70. Follow U.S. 25 east out of Newport to Rankin Hill Road (I would estimate about five miles, but I have never measured it). Follow Rankin Hill Road to the railroad crossing. At the crossing take Hill Road to the left and follow it to the bottoms.
If you go looking for shorebirds as the water recedes this fall, you may want to go in the late afternoon. Most of the mudflats are east of the road and it can be a difficult sun field in the morning. Shorebird viewing is best when Douglas Lake is between 980 and 990 feet. When the level drops below 975 feet all of Rankin bottoms is exposed and shorebirds begin to move downriver. To get reservoir elevation call 800.238.2264, Douglas Reservoir is #07.