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Reelfoot Lake Complex
Black Bayou Refuge
Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge
Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Reelfoot Lake Wildlife Management Area
& Environs

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MAVLake/Obion countiesMapLake Isom NWR

Reelfoot Lake NWR

More PhotosPhotos Walnut Log Road
Reelfoot Lake aerial.

Photo by Richard Connors

Aerial of the northwest corner of Reelfoot Lake looking southeast.

Note: The Reelfoot Lake Complex is part of the IBA site, Mississippi Alluvial Valley in Tennessee.

Location:  Tiptonville area, in the counties of Lake and Obion, Tennessee.
Physiographic Area:  PIF 05 (Mississippi Alluvial Valley); BCR 26 (Mississippi Alluvial Valley)
Tennessee IBA Site Map - Reelfoot Lake Complex.bmp (80006 bytes)
Geographical Coordinates: 
    Reelfoot Lake--Lat. 362154  Long. 0892154W
    Black Bayou--Lat. 362359N  Long. 0892402W
    Tiptonville--Lat. 362242N  Long. 0892819W
    Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge--Lat. 361811N  Long. 0892513W
Elevation Range:
    282' Reelfoot Lake
    285' Black Bayou
    299' Tiptonville
    279' Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge
Size: 35,480 public wildlife acres--Black Bayou Refuge (1,350), Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge (1,850), Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge (10,428 - approximately 8,000 Tennessee and 2,428 Kentucky), Reelfoot Lake State Park (280 acres), and Reelfoot Lake Wildlife Management Area (24,000).
USGS 7.5' quads:  Ridgley, Samburg, Tiptonville, others

Description:  The complex is composed of a number of wildlife areas, private lands such as cultivated and fallow fields, levees and dikes, the Mississippi River, the town of Tiptonville (county seat of Lake County), and several small towns and communities. The entire lake is managed as wildlife areas. These include the Black Bayou Refuge, Reelfoot Lake Wildlife Management Area, Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Tennessee part leased from TWRA), and Reelfoot Lake State Park. Just south of Reelfoot Lake is Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge.
    Black Bayou Refuge, a waterfowl and wetland area of 1,350 lies on the northwest side of Reelfoot Lake. It is attractive to wading birds. King Rail probably breeds.
    Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge, established as a inviolate sanctuary for wintering waterfowl in 1938,is the oldest refuge in Tennessee. Habitat acreage includes 592 acres open water, 222 acres wetlands, 537 acres woodlands, and 499 acres croplands. Of the 1,850 acres, 600 acres are used for water level management to benefit wintering waterfowl, some 400 acres are managed under cooperative farming agreements for winter food for waterfowl, and around 600 acres of forested habitats are managed for timber improvements, reforestation, and water level management.
    Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1941 (leased from TWRA) manages the northern third of Reelfoot Lake. The expansion of the refuge into southwest Kentucky is federally owned. Habitat acreage includes 2,085 acres open water, 1,148 acres wetlands, 6,048 woodlands, and 1,147 croplands. Of the 10, 428 acres (approximately 8,000 in Tennessee), some 800 acres are managed under cooperative farming agreements for food for wintering waterfowl, 290 acres as moist soil units for shorebirds and wintering waterfowl, and "more than 6,000 acres of forested habitats of cypress swamps and bottomland hardwoods for timber stand improvements, reforestation and water level management to benefit wildlife."
    Reelfoot Lake State Park's 280 acres is divided into 10 segments located along the 22 miles of the Reelfoot Lake shoreline. Included are accommodations, a visitor and interpretive center, auditorium, and picnic and camping areas.
    There are numerous private lands of cultivated and fallow fields, water areas, and wooded tracts throughout the complex. Some regularly attract certain species. Areas have even acquired names such as the Phillipy Pits and the Ibis Hole.

IBA Criteria:  1, 3, 4a, 4b, 4d, 4e

Island 13

Photo by Mike Todd

Your long, hot, tlate summer walk over the sand of Island 13 in the Mississippi River is rewarded by shorebirds.

Ornithological Importance:  This area is renowned for the bottomland habitat, the unique lake in Tennessee, and the number of birds that pass through it. From Endangered, Threatened, and In Need of Management species, to rare habitat in the state, to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, tens of thousands of wading birds, hundreds of raptors, thousands of shorebirds, tens of thousands of gulls, thousands of terns, and numerous landbirds.
    Endangered: The Peregrine Falcon is regularly encountered during the migration periods. The Least Tern feeds over the lake, ponds, and flooded fields, and breeds in the Mississippi River (see Note 1 below).
    Threatened: The Golden Eagle occurs occasionally. The Lark Sparrow occurs occasionally.
    In Need of Management: The Anhinga has nested (latest(?) June 1997) and occurs occasionally. The Least Bittern breeds though exact numbers are not known. The Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, and Snowy Egret number into the hundreds from feeding, roosting, and nest sites in the surrounding areas (see Note 3 below). The Mississippi Kite breeds and number into double digits in feeding flocks in the summer. The area attracts the largest number of wintering Bald Eagles in the state and the species  breeds (see Note 2). The Northern Harrier can be fairly numerous. Examples: Black Bayou Refuge, December 28, 2002 (26) roost at one site; February 15, 2003 (30). The King Rail apparently breeds in the Black Bayou Refuge. The Common Moorhen occurs in small numbers apparently annually. The Cerulean Warbler breeds in small numbers. During the Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project in 2000, 8 males were documented on Walnut Log Road. The Swainson's Warbler breeds in small numbers especially on Walnut Log Road and the Black Bayou Refuge area.
    Other records:
American White Pelican: Island 13--August 17, 2002 (200), November 5, 2005 (1,000). Rails: Black Bayou Refuge, October 18, 2002--Yellow Rail (1), Black Rail (1), Virginia Rail (2), Sora (115). Warblers: May 7, 2003 (22 species). Lapland Longspur: December 21, 2002 (750).
    Note 1.  Least Tern, a Tennessee Endangered species (inland race), nests mainly on the sand bars in the Mississippi River as close as four miles to Reelfoot Lake and uses the lake for feeding during the breeding season and the migration period. Dozens of terns can be seen flitting over the water feeding and resting on driftwood, stumps, and markers throughout the breeding and migration seasons. See Least Tern Surveys in the Mississippi River for a summary.
    Note 2. The largest concentration of wintering Bald Eagles in Tennessee occurs at Reelfoot Lake. The ten-year average (1991-2000) from the Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Survey is 106 birds. The table below summaries this survey 1991-2000, 2003. Count includes birds in both Tennessee and Kentucky. The species nests on the lake and surrounding areas.

Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Survey Reelfoot Lake Area 1991-2000, 2003
Bald Eagle19911992199319941995199619971998199920002003

    Note 3. Reelfoot Lake is unique in that it is the only natural lake in Tennessee, formed by a series of earthquakes in 1811-1812. Forested habitats include cypress swamps and bottomland hardwoods. These provide habitat for breeding, wintering, and migration for numerous species of birds including most listed under Ornithological Importance.
    Note 4. Two waterfowl surveys, the "Tennessee Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey," and the Reelfoot Lake CBC, cover the same period, but show different results. These differences are due in part to the "Tennessee Mid-Winter Survey" being aerial and the Reelfoot Lake CBC being a ground count, as some specie's numbers are better determined from the air, e.g., Mallard and geese, while the ground count is able to better detect diving ducks and small numbers of species, e.g. Ruddy Duck and Green-winged Teal. Also, the mid-winter survey was in early January while the CBC was around mid-December, thus, changes in the weather cause waterfowl to move. Most numbers of waterfowl species peak higher during the migration periods than the period of the surveys. Example are--January 31, 2004 (100,000). February 15, 2003 (20 species waterfowl).
        The five-year waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) average in the Reelfoot Lake Complex from the "Tennessee Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey," 2001-2005, is 74,606 birds (16.5% of the statewide wintering total). The total annual number of waterfowl during that survey period is 82,329 (2001), 42,655 (2002), 53,300 (2003), 173,973 (2004), and 20,771 (2005). The 5-year average for the major duck species is Mallard (45,695 [17.6% of the statewide wintering total]), American Wigeon (959 [8.1% of the statewide wintering total]), Ring-necked Duck (786 [6.1% of the statewide wintering total], Northern Pintail (653 [4.6% of the statewide wintering total]), and scaup species (568 [15.8% of the statewide wintering total]). Geese 5-year averages during the "Tennessee Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey," 2001-2005, are: Snow Goose--averaged 13,372 birds with a high of 62,500 birds (2004); Canada Goose--averaged 8,609 birds with a high of 37,610 birds (2001); White-fronted Goose--averaged 2,765 individuals with a high of 10,827 individuals (2004). Geese: Numbers are higher during the migration periods, exceeding over 100,000 at one time.
The 5-year Reelfoot Lake CBC, 2000-2004, averaged 25,598 birds. The total annual number of waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) during that survey period is 22,364 birds (December 16, 2000), 19,320 birds (December 15, 2001), 20,579 birds (December 14, 2002), 29,817 birds (December 20, 2003), and 35,909 birds (December 18, 2004). The 5-year average for the major ducks species is Mallard (13,458), Ruddy Duck (3,397), Lesser Scaup (2,965), American Wigeon (178), and Ring-necked Duck (142). Geese 5-year averages:  Snow Goose--averaged 2,503 birds with highs of 9,944 birds (December 18, 2004) and 1,894 birds (December 20, 2003); Canada Goose--averaged 1,032 individuals with a high of 3,629 individuals (December 16, 2000); White-fronted Goose--averaged 1,403 birds with highs of 2,159 birds (December 18, 2004) and 1,927 birds (December 15, 2001). Double-crested Cormorant on the Reelfoot Lake CBC in the 5-year period averaged 124 birds with high numbers of 238 birds (December 15, 2001) and 155 birds (December 16, 2000).
    Note 5. Wading birds number into the thousands during the migration periods and post-breeding period. Some birds nest in the area, but large numbers use the area especially for feeding and roosting.
    Note 6. Seven species of shorebirds were represented on the Reelfoot Lake CBC, in the period 2000-2004, with an average of 527 birds. The Killdeer was the only species detected all five years, as expected, with an impressive average of 494 birds, with highs of 995 individuals (December 20, 2003) and 823 individuals (December 18, 2004). Other shorebird notes: September 3, 2002 (12 species) Island 13; August 8, 2004 (169 shorebirds of 9 species) Black Bayou Refuge; Piping Plover--August 17, 2002 (6) Island 13.
    Note 7.  Gull numbers on the Reelfoot Lake CBC, in the period 2000-2004, averaged 8,751 individuals with highs of 22,663 birds (December 20, 2003) and 11,299 birds  (December 18, 2004). Bonaparte's Gull averaged in that 5-year period 625 birds with a high of 1,142 birds (December 18, 2004). Ring-billed Gull was the dominate gull species with a 5-year average of 8,105 individuals, with highs of 22,248 birds (December 20,2003) and 10,106 birds (December 18, 2004). Herring Gull was present in small numbers averaging 21 individuals. Gulls: Numbers during the migration periods can regularly exceed tens of thousands at a time. Other numbers include: February 15, 2003 (5,000+).

Site Criteria



Avg. No Season

Max. No. Season

Years of Data



Least Tern (E) (See Note 1 above.)







Bald Eagle (NOM) (See Note 2 above.)

B, W, Year-round


 1991-2000, 2003 

Habitat:   Unique (See Note 3 above.)







Waterfowl (See Note 4 above.)





3, 5


Wading Birds (See Note 5 above.)







Shorebirds (See Note 6 above.)







4eGulls (See Note 7 above.)W8,751 (CBC)22,663 (CBC)2000-20043
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 (Reelfoot Lake--Mark Greene, compiler)
4-Point Counts 5-Refuge Counts 6-Personal observations 7-Other (specify)

Ownership:  US Fish and Wildlife Service--Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge and Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency--Black Bayou Refuge and Reelfoot Lake Wildlife Management Area
   Contact:  Refuge Manager, Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, 4343 Highway 157, Union City, TN 38261, 731-538-2481(office), 731-538-9760 (fax), reelfoot@fws.gov. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Region I, 200 Lowell Thomas Drive, Jackson, TN 38301, 731-423-5725 (office), 800-372-3928 (toll free in Tennessee).

Conservation Concerns:

Management Program:  None.

Submitted by:

Additional Contributors:  Shane Adams; Ken Leggett, kcleggett@bellsouth.net

Pitts, T. D. 1985. The breeding birds of Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee. Migrant 56:29-41.
Ford, R. P. 1985. Anhinga on nest at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee. Migrant 56:46.
Ford, R. P. 1988. Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee: Summer and early fall bird occurrence, 1987. Migrant 60: 37-45.
King, N., and S. L. King. 2006. Least Bittern Nesting Sites at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee. Southeastern Naturalist 5:317320.

Approved under the umbrella IBA site Mississippi Alluvial Valley:  February 2006--Yes 7  No 0

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