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Big South Fork National River
and Recreation Area (BISO)

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Big South Fork - NPS SiteBSFNRRA (Stedman)

Friends of the Big South Fork

Big South Fork of the Cumberland River at Bear Creek Overlook

Photo by Stephen J. Stedman

This view is looking west at the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River from the Bear Creek Overlook in Big South Fork, McCreary County, Kentucky. Here the river is traveling west to east for 5-6 miles.

Location:  The park extends within Tennessee from the Tennessee-Kentucky border in the north to near Rugby in the south, a distance of about 50 miles (in Kentucky it extends north to near Whitley City, McCreary County); narrower east to west, lying midway between Jamestown on the west and Oneida on the east in the counties of Morgan, Fentress and Scott, Tennessee.
Physiographic Area:  PIF 21 (Northern Cumberland Plateau); BCR 28 (Appalachian Mountains)
Tennessee IBA Site Map - Big South Fork.bmp (80006 bytes)
Geographical Coordinates: 

    Leatherwood Ford--Lat. 362838N  Long. 0844010W
Elevation Range:  700' - 1800'
    876' Leatherwood Ford
Size:  125,310 acres--90,310 in Tennessee and 35,000 in Kentucky (about 100,000 acres in federal control)
USGS 7.5' quad:  In 6+ quads

Description:  The BISO preserves the canyon of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and two tributaries, Clear Fork and the New River, that merge to create the Big South Fork, as well as many other tributaries that flow into it. The Big South Fork River flows northward through the park for about 49 miles and is free-flowing for about 37 miles until it is affected by the headwaters of Lake Cumberland. Many canyon walls in the park are quite imposing, as viewed from the abundant available overlooks, and there are many other rock formations, including arches and rock houses, that provide scenic opportunities for visitors.
    The park is largely forested with most of the forest being 50-70 years old, but some pockets of older growth exist. "The general forest type is mixed-oak with mixed-mesophytic pockets. This is divided into an upland community on the plateau and a ravine community. The upland vegetation types range from Red Maple-dominated stands on poorly-drained flats to Virginia Pine-dominated stands on dry ridges and cliff edges. On the broad flats and gentle slopes are the mixed oaks with hickory. Ravine communities are generally dominated by more mesic species--Beech, Sugar Maple, and Yellow Birch-with oaks on the middle and lower slopes. Hemlock is prominent in the narrow gorges and along streams. River Birch and Sycamore typify the floodplains" (National Park Service). In the lower levels of the gorge a forest of Eastern Hemlock and White Pine with rhododendron understory is quite common. Significant changes to much of the forest took place during 1999-2003 when an outbreak of southern pine beetle occurred, reducing by more than 50% the evergreen component of the park's forests (Stephen J. Stedman).

IBA Criteria:  1, 2, 3, 4f, 5

Red-breasted Nuthatch at nest hole.

Photo by Stephen J. Stedman

This Red-breasted Nuthatch at its nesting cavity represented the first documented nesting of the species on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee.

Ornithological Importance:   The site is a large, mature forest that contains a high density of neotropical species and individuals, Threatened and In Need of Management species, and several species found in more northern latitudes or higher elevations. Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, in the period 1994-2005, has been documented nesting in the park with records of 2 begging juveniles August 6, 1995, Grand Gap, Scott Co., an agitated pair in June, several records of individuals in June, and a nest record in Kentucky (Stephen and Stedman 2002).
    Note 1. Northern Saw-whet Owl, a Tennessee Threatened species, is detected irregularly (but may occur regularly) in the winter in the Big South Fork. An 100-Point Count survey (80 in Tennessee and 20 in Kentucky) was conducted in the period 2000-2002. Totals were--2000 (5 TN, 5 KY), 2001 (0), and 2002 (3 TN, 2 KY). For a complete summary of these surveys, see Northern Saw-whet Owl Survey Results 2000, 2001, 2002. Additional park Tennessee records include--February 13, 2004 (1) Divide Road, Scott Co., and February 21, 2004 (1) Duncan Hollow Road, Scott Co. A single bird was heard June 7, 2000 providing the first summer record for the site (Stedman and Stedman 2002). These records and those of adjoining Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky reveal that there may be a significant regular wintering population of this threatened owl in the area.
    Note 2. The number of Swainson's Warblers, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, is among the highest in the state found in the rhododendron/hemlock  habitat. A survey between May 6 - June 30, 2000, yielded 15 Swainson's Warblers (7 TN, 8 KY) at 10 locations (5 TN, 5 KY). A survey between May 16-July 9, 2003, detected 14 Swainson's Warblers (11 TN, 3 KY) at 10 locations (8 TN, 2 KY). At least 25 pairs occur in the Big South Fork.
    Note 3. The site contains a high density of species indicative of older forests and several species normally found further north or at higher altitudes. It is estimated that 20,000 pairs of breeding neotropical songbirds are present. This figure is based on the fact that since the park contains about 125,000 acres, it seems safe to assume 1 pair of breeding neotropical migrant per 6 acres for 20,000. Actually, the number of breeding pairs is far higher in that there are probably 20,000 pairs of Red-eyed Vireos alone (Stephen J. Stedman).
        The density of the forest is reflected in the population of the Brown-headed Cowbird, a parasitic species detrimental to many forest species but requiring open spaces to frequent. The species was detected only 3.4% of the time in the 100-Stop Breeding Bird Survey 1997-2005, for a total of 35 individuals, an average of 3.9 birds per year. Another example of forest density is reflected by the lack of American Robins, a common species, but one that also requires openings. It was detected during the same survey period only 2.7% of the time for an average of 3.2 birds per year. In contrast, the Red-eyed Vireo, the most common species found on this survey and a species of the forest, was found on 94.7% of stops for an average of 219.8 birds per year or 2.2 birds per stop!
        Population densities are high of many neotropical nesting species. The table below in Note 4, Top 20 Neotropical Species Breeding Bird Survey, and the table in Note 5, Top 20 Neotropical Point Counts, document these substantial numbers. The species assemblage within the top 20 in each group highlights the habitat of older forests that make up the site. Fifteen out of the 20 top species are dependent on this forest habitat type. This complement of species includes Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.
        The Blue-headed Vireo, normally a more northerly or higher altitude species, was detected 5.8% of the time in the 100-Stop Breeding Bird Survey 1997-2005. A total of 62 individuals were counted for an average of 6.9 birds per year.
    Note 4.
A Breeding Bird Survey was conducted 1997-2005 consisting of 100 stops (75 in Tennessee, 25 in Kentucky) for 5 minutes each. A total of 78 species were detected of which 43 species (55.1%) were neotropical. There were 16 species of warblers. Of the top 20 neotropicals, 10 species were warblers. Number of individuals was exceptionally high for many species. Red-eyed Vireo averaged over 219 birds per year, Ovenbird 155, Hooded Warbler 94, Black-throated Green Warbler 54, and Scarlet Tanager 51. The table below summaries the top 20 neotropicals. In addition, a 30-stop (24 stops in Tennessee and 6 in Kentucky) night point count was conducted 1997-2005. Species detected were Barred Owl, Chuck-will's-widow, and Whip-poor-will. In the 9-year survey, a total 451 Whip-poor-will's were counted for an average of 50.1birds per year with the highest one year total of 60 birds. For a complete summary of the Breeding Bird Survey 1997-2005, see Results of a 100-Stop Breeding Bird Survey... In addition, an 100-stop Breeding Bird Survey was conducted 1994-1996. About 70 stops were the same as stops, 1997-2005, but 30 were different. Also, the stops were completed using three routes (33 stops each) per year rather than four routes (Stedman 1998).

Top 20 Neotropical Species Breeding Bird Survey
1997-2005 (100 stops--5 minutes each)

Breeding Bird Survey
Totals No. Individuals

Highest No.

No. Stops
Red-eyed Vireo1,978219.825494.7%
Hooded Warbler85094.412561.1%
Indigo Bunting765859657.1%
Black-throated Green Warbler49154.67036.6%
Scarlet Tanager46051.16344.7%
Worm-eating Warbler36240.25134.4%
Pine Warbler32836.45130.4%
Black-and-white Warbler313354632.2%
Wood Thrush28131.24226.9%
Yellow-billed Cuckoo27130.15725.5%
Yellow-throated Warbler17719.73217.9%
Prairie Warbler13014.41910.6%
Eastern Phoebe12013.32112.7%
Yellow-breasted Chat11312.62210.2%
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher9410.4169.7%
Acadian Flycatcher9310.3158.4%
White-eyed Vireo707.8146.9%
Eastern Wood-Pewee677.4187.2%
Northern Parula677.4136.1%


    Note 5. Point counts were conducted in the 2-year period 2003-2004. A total of 36 points were surveyed, 24 in Tennessee and 12 in Kentucky, for a period of 10 minutes each. In all, 66 species were detected of which 36 species (54.5%) were neotropical. There were 15 species of warblers of which 10 species are represented in the top 20 neotropicals. The table below lists the top 20 neotropicals counted. For a complete summary of the point counts, see National Park Service Inventory Results Summer 2003 and National Park Service Inventory Results Summer 2004

Top 20 Neotropical Species Point Counts
2003-2004 (36 points--10 minutes each)

Point Count Totals
No. Individuals

Highest No.

Red-eyed Vireo1547780
Hooded Warbler683434
Black-throated Green Warbler6532.533
Indigo Bunting5527.531
Scarlet Tanager4924.528
Yellow-billed Cuckoo482431
Acadian Flycatcher3718.520
Black-and-white Warbler301525
Northern Parula2914.518
Worm-eating Warbler2914.515
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher2713.515
Yellow-throated Warbler201013
Wood Thrush199.511
Yellow-breasted Chat199.512
Pine Warbler178.59
White-eyed Vireo1689
Eastern Phoebe157.59
Blue-headed Vireo136.59
Prairie Warbler136.57



Site Criteria



Avg. No Season

Max. No. Season

Years of Data



Northern Saw-whet Owl (T) (See Note 1 above.)

W, B(?)




6, 7


Swainson's Warbler (NOM) (See Note 2 above.)


25+ pairs



6, 7

3, 4f

Habitat: Large and natural; Land Birds (See Note 3 above.)


20,000+ pairs of Neotropical migrant songbirds



6, 7

5Monitoring: Breeding Bird Survey (See Note 4 above.)B  1997-20056
5Monitoring: Point Counts (See Note 5 above.)B  2003-20044
Season1   B = Breeding, W = Wintering, SM = Spring Migration, FM = Fall Migration
Source 2  1-Atlas Breeding Birds of Tennessee 2-Breeding Bird Surveys 3-Christmas Bird Counts
4-Point Counts 5-Refuge Counts 6-Personal observations (Stephen J. Stedman, Barbara H. Stedman)
7-Other (BSFNRRA Central Node)

Ownership:  National Park Service
   Contact:  National Park Service, 4564 Leatherwood Road, Oneida, TN 37841, 423-569-9778 (headquarters), 423-286-7275 (Visitor Center in Tennessee), 606-376-5073 (Visitor Center in Kentucky), 423-569-5505 (fax). Tom Blount and Leslie Morgan with the Resource Management Office, BISO.

Conservation Concerns:  Potential concerns are water pollution, recreational development/overuse, and mineral rights.

Management Program:  None.

Submitted by:  Stephen J. Stedman, Tennessee Tech University, P. O. Box 5053, Cookeville, TN 38505, 931-372-3763, sstedman@tntech.edu

Additional Contributors:   Tom Blount, Leslie Morgan

Stedman, S. J. 1998. Breeding Bird Survey of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Kentucky and Tennessee, 1994-1996. The Kentucky Warbler 74 (2): 35-43.
Stedman, S. J., and B. H. Stedman. 2002. Notes on the Birds of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and Obed National Wild and Scenic River.

Approved as an IBA site:  January 2006--Yes 7  No 0

This page was last updated on 02/19/06.