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Waterbirds of Rankin

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Douglas Reservoir

Rankin Bottoms

Photo by Michael Sledjeski

Rankin Bottoms looking south in late summer as Douglas Reservoir is receding. The confluence of the French Broad River and Nolichucky River can be seen at the upper right.

Location:  Between White Pine and Newport, at the upper end of Douglas Reservoir, along 4 1/2 miles of the French Broad River from Leadvale upstream past Rankin Bridge, and along 2 miles of the Nolichucky River above its confluence with the French Broad; including the Rankin Wildlife Management Area and adjacent private landholdings subject to TVA flood easement, in the counties of Cocke and Hamblen, Tennessee.
Physiographic Province:  PIF 13 (Southern Ridge and Valley); BCR 28 (Appalachian Mountains)
Tennessee Site Map - Rankin
Geographical Coordinates:  
Rankin Bottoms--Lat. 360415N’  Long. 0831350W
Elevation Range:  970' - 1,001'
    1,001' Rankin Bottoms
Size:  1,965 acres
USGS 7.5’ quad:  Rankin

Description:  Rankin is composed of islands and floodplains that are submerged during the warm season impoundment of Douglas Reservoir. In late spring, summer, and early fall, the area consists of mudflats, open shallows, and both inundated and dry floodplain forest. The area is approximately 65% open, treeless floodplain; 25% black willow/buttonbush/cottonwoods; and 10% mid to late mixed floodplain forest. Virtually the entire area is under 1'-15' of water from mid-May through July. Maximum ground exposure lasts roughly from mid-October until late March. The amount and proportion of habitats vary with the reservoir level. Lake elevation ranges from about 995' to about 950'. Migratory shorebird habitat is most extensive from 988 to 978'; no mudflats are found above 992'. For reservoir elevation call 800-238-2264, Douglas Reservoir is #07.

IBA Criteria:  2, 3, 4a, 4b, 4d, 4f, 4g

Stilt Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher

Photo by Michael Sledjeski

A Stilt Sandpiper (left) and Short-billed Dowitcher refuel on their migration to their wintering grounds in the tropics.

Ornithological Importance:  This is the premier site in East Tennessee for warm season waterbirds including Wood Duck, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Egret, Osprey, shorebirds, Cliff Swallow, and Prothonotary Warbler. In winter, permanent water features provide waterfowl habitat. In all, there have been a total of 89 waterbird species documented. See Waterbirds of Rankin for a complete listing with maximums.
   Note 1. Over 100 (maximum 270) Great Egrets, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, have roosted nightly at Rankin 2000-2005. Nuptial plumage displays and stick carrying were observed in 2003 and 2005, but more conclusive evidence of breeding has not been reported (Sledjeski 2005).
   Note 2. During the warm seasons, Rankin Bottoms holds and attracts full complements of species dependent on mudflats and forested wetlands. There are 3 active Osprey nests within the wildlife management area and several additional ones nearby. Bald Eagles appear regularly, as many as 3 in one day. There is an active Bald Eagle nest 9 river miles downstream (5 miles in a straight line) from the middle of the Rankin area. Other breeding species include Prothonotary Warbler (20+ nesting territories 2004, 40+ nesting territories 2005), Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo (uncommon in East Tennessee), Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, 4 species of woodpeckers (including Red-headed), and Eastern Kingbird. See also Site Criteria 4a, 4b, 4d, and 4g in the table.
   Note 3. Waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) number into the 100's during the winter. Year-round there are 100+ Canada Geese, Mallards, and Wood Ducks combined with larger numbers during the migration periods and winter (Michael Sledjeski). Up to 100 Blue-winged Teal have been observed in the spring (Michael Sledjeski). About 80 Wood Duck nest boxes are maintained in the Rankin WMA, with flocks of over 100 individuals being observed during the breeding season and 300 individuals during migration periods. Rankin Bottoms has the largest breeding population of Double-crested Cormorants (15 nests in 2004, 5 nests in 2005) in East Tennessee. Upwards of 300 individuals are present during migration periods. It is rare that loon, grebe, and coot numbers exceed single digits in the bottoms.
   Note 4. Breeding species of herons and egrets include Green Heron (11 nests in 2004, 5 nests in 2005)), Black-crowned Night-Heron (4 nests in 2002), Great Blue Heron (3 nests in 2004, 5 nests 2005), and Cattle Egret (2 nests in 2002). Several Little Blue Herons are regularly seen in late summer. Snowy Egrets and White Ibis are occasionally reported. See also Site Criteria 2 in the table and Note 1 above.
   Note 5. Thirty-four species of shorebirds have been observed. Rankin typically has the highest number and variety of migratory shorebirds in the eastern half of Tennessee. Maximum numbers of selected species include Lesser Yellowlegs (85), Semipalmated Sandpiper (400), Least Sandpiper (450), Pectoral Sandpiper (500), and Short-billed Dowitcher (125). See Waterbirds of Rankin for a complete listing with maximums.
   Note 6. In excess of 4,000 swallows of four species were observed roosting in late summer 2003. Over 1,000 Tree Swallows were present June 26, 2005. (Michael Sledjeski) and 2,000+ October 1, 2005 (Rick Knight). Tree and Cliff swallows nest in the area.
   Note 7. Five hundred and fifty nests and over 1,000 individuals of Cliff Swallows were observed in 2004 and 750 active nests and 1,000+ individuals in 2005. Nests were first recorded at this site in 2001.

Site Criteria



Avg. No Season

Max. No. Season

Years of Data



Great Egret (NOM)  (See Note 1 above.)





6, 7


Habitat: Rare mudflats/forested wetlands (See Note 2 above.)




6, 7


Waterfowl (See Note 3 above.)

B, W, SM, FM




6, 7


Wading Birds:  Breeding (See Note 4 above.)





6, 7


Shorebirds (See Note 5 above.)





6, 7


Land Birds: Swallows (See Note 6 above.)







Congregatory Species: Cliff Swallow (See Note 7 above.)






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 (Michael Sledjeski) 7-Other (Michael Sledjeski and Leslie Gibbens,
and postings to Tennessee Birding by Rick Knight, Don Miller, K. Dean Edwards, Charles P. Nicholson, Don Holt,
and Alan Trently,  et al., all since 1999.)

Ownership:; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); the Rankin Wildlife Management Area managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (1,255 acres); TN Immobilien, a foreign corporation (about 400 acres subject to TVA flood easement); and various private floodland holdings (about 310 acres).
   Contact:  Ron Saunders, ron.saunders@state.tn.us and Pete Wyatt, pete.wyatt@state.tn.us 

Conservation Concerns:  Critical concern is the prolonging high reservoir levels by TVA, primarily as a concession to lakeshore property owners and developers. Major concerns are disturbance to birds and recreational development/overuse. Potential concerns are water pollution and predation.
    Powerboat use, especially personal watercrafts, is steadily increasing in the area. However, the most critical threat to bird conservation at Rankin Bottoms is the extension of high summer reservoir levels, resulting in reduced habitat availability for migratory shorebirds, and adverse impact on woody vegetation. Communications by concerned individuals during the recent TVA River Operations Study helped to balance the well-organized efforts of LOUD, a pressure group of lakeshore homeowners and developers. The schedule revisions enacted by TVA in 2004 have, however, adversely impacted the timing and extent of late summer mudflats. Observed shorebirds were somewhat less than average in the fall of 2004 and in the spring and fall of 2005. In addition, extension of the summer inundation period may in time lead to a decline in the tree and shrub community. Other than the designation as a "Wildlife Observation Area," the Rankin lacks any formal recognition or protection for its outstanding value as non-game bird habitat.

Management Program:  None.

Submitted by:  Michael Sledjeski, 778 Serena Way, Del Rio, TN 37727, 423-487-3161, mtnsylva@msn.com

Additional Contributors:

Sledjeski, M. 2005. Nature Reclaims a Floodplain at Rankin Bottoms, Tennessee Conservationist, July/August 2005, Vo. LXXI, No. 4. Pp. 14-17.

Approved as an IBA site:  December 2005--Yes 7  No 0

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