Photos by Ryan Sanderson (Stilt Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover – photos of birds that might be seen at this location)
Pine Creek Gamebird Habitat Area is a 700-acre grassland / old field complex purchased in 1993 for pheasant hunting. In 1996, Ducks Unlimited and the Indiana DNR combined to restore the wetlands to about 150 acres of lowland. The wetlands were created by damming a drainage system that drained the whole basin. A variety of shallow wetland habitats developed as the marsh community has reestablished, including emergent marsh (especially cattails and marsh grasses), mudflats, and wet grassy meadows. The former drainage ditch was not filled, and provides some deeper water (probably no deeper than 4-5 feet). The restoration created a series of basins north and south of CR 200 N.
The surrounding uplands are undergoing old field succession and are dominated by various grasses and prairie forbs (including a stand of Compass Plant along CR 220 N near Parking Lot #3). The DNR is planting some areas in prairie grasses to encourage prairie succession, but for the most part, the plant community is allowed to develop naturally. Small ridges and bluffs are dominated by shrubs and tree line vegetation. A small woodlot NE of the refuge is private property, but has provided nesting habitat for a colony of Great Blue Herons in the past.
A typical visit starts at Parking Lot #3 along CR 200 N. Walk across the county road to the bluffs overlooking the northern part of the wetlands. A scope is useful in scanning open water for cormorants, waterfowl, grebes, etc. Shorebirds often congregate on exposed mudflats along the edges of the wetlands. If properly outfitted with boots, walk down from the bluffs and along the edge of the wetland to the east and north. At the eastern edge of the northern wetlands, a trail leads back through the old fields to CR 200 N. The far NE corner of the northern wetlands is often a spot where migrating shorebirds are found.
From Parking Lot #3, one can also walk south along mowed paths to the southern group of wetlands, all of which are smaller than the northern wetlands. The southernmost basin (to the SE from Parking Lot #3) usually holds water the longest in dry seasons. Immediately south of the parking lot is a small clump of trees and shrubs that often hold migrants, especially in the fall. Follow the mowed paths along the former drainage ditches to the dam that forms the southernmost wetland. This is usually a good spot to scan that wetland for shorebirds and ducks. The tall weeds (mostly Giant Ragweed) along the old ditch can be filled with migrant Bobolinks (August) and sparrows (late fall).
If the sun is low in the east, then you will have the sun in your eyes when standing on this dam. In this situation, it is best to walk east on CR 200 N from Parking Lot #3, passing both Parking Lot #4 and a house on the south side of the road. Beyond the house, the public property comes up to the county road again, and you can walk down to the southernmost wetland basin, approaching it from the northeast where the sun won’t be a problem.
All parts of the refuge are accessible by walking over grassy paths and through tall weeded fields. There are no handicapped facilities on the property.
Typical Time to Bird Site: The wetlands can be scoped in about 2 hours from the bluffs and dams when there is open water. To survey the wetland edges for shorebirds or search the fields for grassland birds, allow at least 4 hours.
Pine Creek supports a diverse mix of wetland and upland birds associated with the restored wetlands and old field / grassland habitats. During spring and fall migrations, large numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds are present if water levels are appropriate. Regular migrant waterfowl include practically all of the dabbling ducks–Gadwall, Northern Pintail, both teal species, American Wigeon and Northern Shoveler. Diving ducks are rarer, but Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup have all been recorded in early spring and late fall. All three mergansers are present in migration, and Hooded Merganser has bred once since 1996. Bufflehead and Ruddy Ducks are common in late fall. When water levels are right, Pine Creek attracts good numbers of virtually all of the shorebird species that regularly pass through Indiana. Semipalmated Plovers, both yellowlegs species, Dunlin, Common Snipe, both dowitchers, and Solitary, Spotted, Least, Semipalmated, and Pectoral Sandpipers are all common during their migrations. Migrating rails and cranes are also regular visitors, while herons and egrets are present throughout the summer. Bitterns and migrating rails (usually Sora and Virginia Rails) are most often seen from the marsh edges where the county road crosses the property. In the uplands, most common grassland specialties are found throughout the summer, while treelines and patches of brush support shrub-associated breeding birds and many species of migrants in spring and fall. An impressive array of hawks can be seen in from late summer through winter. Late fall and early spring are good times for sparrows–White-crowned, Fox, American Tree, and Swamp are all regular. Tree Swallows are found in the thousands during late summer and early fall. In all, at least 205 species have been recorded at Pine Creek since 1996.
American Bittern – mid-April through late August
Least Bittern – May through July; has bred
Little Blue Heron – May through August
Black-crowned Night-Heron – April through early June; occasional visitor
Great Egret – early May through late September
Peregrine Falcon – throughout September
Merlin – mid-July through early November; Merlins, like other falcons and hawks, are attracted to the shorebirds that congregate on the mudflats at Pine Creek. Many of these raptor species often stay for several weeks at a time.
Northern Harrier – early September through early May
Rough-legged Hawk – mid-November through early May; Rough-legged Hawks are present at Pine Creek during most winters, usually found hunting over the grassland areas.
Cooper’s Hawk – late September through early May
Virginia Rail – May through June and August and September
Black-bellied Plover – throughout May, and again mid-September through early October
American Golden-Plover – early April through early June, and again September through late October
White-rumped Sandpiper – mid-May through late June, and again August through September
Baird’s Sandpiper – throughout September; the bird in this link was photographed at Pine Creek by John Cassady in August 2002.
Stilt Sandpiper – throughout May, and again early August through early October
Grasshopper Sparrow – mid-May through mid-July, common
Savannah Sparrow – early February through late October, especially in wet grasses near wetlands
Lincoln’s Sparrow – regular in October and November
Dickcissel – mid-May through late July, common
Bobolink – mid-May through late August; flocks of over 200 can be seen in ragweed stands in late summer
Sedge Wren – mid-May through mid-September; Up to seven pairs of Sedge Wrens have nested at Pine Creek, usually below the bluffs of the northern wetland or around the dam at the southernmost wetland.
Willow Flycatcher – mid-May through late August; breeds in shrub lines along bluffs.
Orchard Oriole – early May through late August; These birds nest in the shrubs and trees that form lines along the slopes.
Bell’s Vireo – mid-May through early June; Although Bell’s Vireos are present in the early spring at Pine Creek, nesting evidence is still lacking.
American Pipit – late January through mid-May, and again mid-September through mid-November; Pipits are most commonly found on the mudflats.
Spring: Red-necked Grebe, American White Pelican, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Greater Scaup, King Rail, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, Black Tern, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Mourning Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler
Summer: Least Bittern, Little Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, American Avocet, Bald Eagle, Caspian Tern, Cliff Swallow, Marsh Wren, Henslow’s Sparrow.
Fall: Plegadis Ibis – (1 – 3 Oct. 1996 – several records), Black-necked Stilt – (8 – 18 Aug. 1998; attempted breeding 2006), Hudsonian Godwit, American Woodcock, Red-necked Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, Greater White-fronted Goose, Orange-crowned Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird.
Winter: Common Loon, Tundra Swan, Lapland Longspur, Northern Shrike (2006), Long-eared Owl (2006), Trumpeter Swan (2006)
General site information
Ownership: State of Indiana / Indiana Department of Natural Resources; Contact Number: Call the Willow Slough State Fish & Wildlife Area Staff at 219-285-2704.
Access Restrictions: In waterfowl season, duck hunting occurs in the refuge north of CR 200 N. During this time, the entire refuge south of CR 200 N is closed to everyone–hunters and birders alike. This provides waterfowl with undisturbed habitat during this stressful time. In 2006 this pattern was reversed – duck hunting was done in the south.
Lodging: The nearest lodging available is in Lafayette and West Lafayette, some 25 miles to the southeast.
Hunting: Hunters have priority during early teal season (usually September), regular waterfowl season (mid-October through December), and pheasant season (late fall). Occasionally deer hunters may be present. It should be noted that during pheasant season, hunters are allowed throughout the ENTIRE refuge–including the area south of CR 200 N which is otherwise closed to hunting. If pheasant hunters are present, it would be prudent for birders NOT to enter the refuge.
Parking: Do not park on any portion of CR 200 N as it crosses the marsh. Parking in this area blocks the road for vehicular traffic, especially the large farm vehicles that regularly use the road. Local residents can get very upset if birders interfere with their farm operations.
Birding is best during waterfowl and shorebird migrations, and during the summer for upland songbirds. Waterfowl begin to move through the area from late February through May, and again from September through November. Shorebirds are present April through June and July through November, as long as shallow water and mudflats are available. Local water levels are dependent on rainfall, thus making shorebird numbers quite variable from season to season. During shorebird migration, species and numbers may change with each passing weather system, especially those from the north.
Birding the tree lines and patches of shrubs is most rewarding in late spring (late April to May) and early fall (early August through October). Breeding grassland birds are most visible in May and June.
Dunning, J. B., and T. M. Braile. Checklist of the Birds of Benton County, Indiana. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service Publication FNR-165, 1998.
(Available by calling 1-888-EXT-INFO).
- Checklist of the Birds of Benton County, Indiana
- Co-written by Barny Dunning and Tom Braile, this webpage provides a comprehensive checklist of the birds of Benton County. Also included is a great description of the Pine Creek Gamebird Habitat Area
Author: Barny Dunning
Editors: Darel Heitkamp and Dick Patterson
Photos: Ryan Sanderson
Benton County, Indiana
DeLorme Page 31, Grid C-8
GPS: (Main Wetland)
40º 38′ 30″ N
87º 9′ W
From the North / East / South: take US 231 to SR 18 in White County. Go west on SR 18 into Benton County, then turn right (north) onto CR 850 E. Drive for two miles to CR 200 N. Turn right (east) onto CR 200 N, and the refuge will begin at the tree on the left side of the road (the tree is visible in the distance when you first turn onto CR 200 N).
From the West: take SR 18 east from Fowler, then turn left (north) onto CR 850 E. From this point, follow the above directions to the entrance to the refuge.
Once in the Refuge: CR 200 N drops into the wetland basin and crosses the marsh immediately after you enter the refuge. After crossing the marsh, park in Parking Lot #3 immediately on the right after the road leaves the wetland basin. All points in the refuge are accessible from this parking lot. Be sure not to park on the road.
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