Seven Islands State Birding Park


Seven Islands State Birding Park is a 410-acre park about 8.5 miles east of Knoxville. It was established in the 1990s by private donors and jointly managed as Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge by a local foundation and Knox County. In the fall of 2013, it was designated as a state park. The park, on former farmland, includes the Kelly Bend peninsula along the French Broad River. Habitats include wooded hills, an intermittent stream, and several fields being restored to native warm-season grasses. A paved road extends over a mile into the property creating a prime birding route.

Fields at Seven Islands with restored warm-season grasses. The French Broad River is at the treeline at the left and the paved road from the parking lot is on the right.

Seven Islands State Birding Park is an excellent birding location year round. Permanent residents which can be found here include Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Screech-Owl, Pileated Woodpecker and Eastern Meadowlark. Bald Eagles can sometimes be seen soaring over at any time of year. While it is certainly worth a visit during spring and fall migrations, the breeding season and winter must not be overlooked.

In winter, hundreds of sparrows can be found, especially Field, Savannah, Song, Swamp, White-throated and White-crowned, with little effort. It is possibly the most reliable Knox County location to find White-crowned Sparrows. A Loggerhead Shrike may also be present. A Northern Harrier regularly cruises the hilly fields, and Short-eared Owls could occur as the grass fields become established.

During the breeding season, nesting birds are quite a highlight here. Easily heard singing well into the summer are Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting. Orchard Orioles nest here too, but leave a bit earlier than the others. Purple Martins nest in a box and gourds erected by the Knoxville Chapter of TOS and Tree Swallows are also present. So far, close to 150 species have been identified on the refuge. Martin House


Getting there: From I-40, take Exit 402 – Midway Rd. Turn south onto Midway Rd. This is a right turn if coming from Knoxville, left if coming from points east. Continue on Midway for 2 miles where you will turn left onto Maples Rd. (note: at the one mile point, Midway bears left). Watch for the green refuge signs. At the end of Maples (~ 1 mile), turn right onto Kodak Rd. After about a quarter mile, turn left onto Kelly Lane, which takes you right to the parking area (coordinates 35.95418 N, -83.68771 W). Just before the parking lot is a left turn to a boat launch area. This is also a part of the refuge, but the area is rarely birded.

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Plan on spending at least three hours of birding time here to cover the various habitats. Mornings, as usual, are best, but even during the middle of the day you can still expect to find most of the birds present. Visits here during the last few hours of daylight can be quite rewarding as well.

Upon arriving at the parking area, start listening for bird song. During the warmer months, you'll hear Carolina Wrens, Northern Mockingbird, Common Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, Field and Song Sparrows and maybe a few woodpeckers. There are almost always some American Goldfinches flying around. The trees around the parking lot can be good for songbirds during migration, though the refuge is not especially good for warblers. If you walk back out Kelly Lane, you may find some good open field birds, like Grasshopper Sparrows and Northern Bobwhite. Scan the farm fields in April and May for Bobolinks. At dark, you may be able to call up an Eastern Screech-Owl here.

The most popular, and effective, route for birding here is simply to walk along the paved road from the parking lot towards the river. This road is mostly level, with a fairly short, gradual drop in elevation near the halfway point. (possibly just a bit too steep for people in wheelchairs).

As you begin along the road, a wooded hill is to your left and brushy fields to the right. A path up the hill is relatively unproductive. Except in winter when the fields are full of sparrows, this is one of the less 'birdy' areas on the refuge – but keep looking and listening. Around the barn on your right you should start hearing Blue Grosbeak. Look into all the barns for Barn Owl, which have been seen occasionally here.

Often along this straight stretch of road birders get frustrated as the birds stay farther away. Don't be too worried, as all the same species tend to be more easily seen up closer as you walk farther into the park. Just past the barn there is a dirt road to the right. It is slowly being reclaimed by the vegetation but while it is still there, you may want to walk along it to the point where it starts to go uphill. The trees and shrubs on the right will have a good assortment of sparrows and field birds, maybe a Northern Mockingbird or Brown Thrasher as well.

You should move a bit more quickly over the next stretch of road as more of the same birds tend to be present up to the point where the road curves left and starts to go down hill (though you may hear a Summer Tanager singing on the hill to your left in summer, or a Pileated Woodpecker any time). At the bend in the road there are some cedars. From this point to the bottom of the hill take your time. Look and listen in the vegetation on the slope to your right, and scan the fields below. Red-winged Blackbirds are often present in those fields, and this is your first chance to scan the river for waterfowl. This is a good area to find migrant songbirds in season. The fields you see have been planted with native warm season grasses. These take a few years to become established but they are on their way. It will be interesting to see how the bird population changes here as those grasses grow. This whole area where the road levels off again, just before the horse barn on your left, can be one of the best places to find a diversity of birds. A trail goes off to your right here, through an area that periodically holds water. Some birds to look for include Eastern Kingbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Summer Tanager and Orchard Oriole. Scan the wires and tops of the poles along the road ahead – raptors commonly sit on the poles, especially Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel, and woodpeckers roost in the holes. Most of the birds on the wires may be starlings, but Mourning Doves and Brown-headed Cowbirds can be abundant at times. There should be a few Eastern Bluebirds, and if you haven't seen a Red-bellied Woodpecker or Northern Flicker yet, you should see one soon.

Fields, fencerows, and woodlands at Seven Islands State Birding Park.

Photos by David Trently.

The next stretch of road gives you additional chances to see many of the birds you've already heard, and they are more easily seen here, plus it can be good for butterflies as well. When you pass the trees on your right and see open field, start listening for Grasshopper Sparrows in spring and early summer. In winter, there may be American Pipits and Wilson's Snipe in those fields, which you may enter. Be sure to look up from time to time as raptors often cruise past this refuge.

Once you reach the house and barn, look for the Purple Martin nest structures between the first two buildings. Tree, and lots of Barn Swallows, may also be present in summer. The fields on the right have been good for finding quail, but hearing them is more likely than seeing them. The fence row on the left just past the barn is a great place to find wintering White-crowned Sparrows, as well as several other species. In season, expect to find a few Blue Grosbeaks here as well. There is often a pair of House Finches near here. The hill with lots of broomsedge may have Grasshopper Sparrows and if you climb the hill you'll have a good chance of seeing a harrier cruising along in winter. There is a path to the river around here, but few birds are ever seen on the water. Double-crested Cormorants and Belted Kingfishers may be seen flying along the river, and in late summer look for hundreds of Chimney Swifts feeding as they prepare to migrate.

At dusk, near the barn at the end of the road, you may be rewarded with hearing a Chuck-will's-widow from somewhere across the river, or an Eastern Screech-Owl using one of the nest boxes placed along the riverbank. The trees around the last barn are another good area for songbirds, and the barn has been known to be a home for a Barn Owl.

This is the end of the paved road. You may return to the parking lot (birding on the way!) by reversing your route or try out some of the refuge's trails, one of which runs along the river. You can take this as you head back, cutting across the grass/brushy fields back to the road at one of a few points where there are paths. Many native trees have been planted as a buffer along this stretch, and as they grow taller, more birds can be expected to use this riparian area. For now, you can expect, at the appropriate time of year, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, occasional Northern Parulas, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal...and scan the river periodically as a small number of ducks are seen on the water in winter and spring, including Pied-billed Grebe, Mallard and Blue-winged Teal.

The French Broad River at the end of Steamboat Island Trail at Seven Islands Refuge.

Click here for a Seven Islands bird checklist.

Seven Islands Refuge organization website.

Tennessee Watchable Wildlife account.

DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer Page 44, Grids A-2.

Hiking Boating

Prepared by David Trently, November 2004, updated July 2007.

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