The Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area (FWA) is a riparian habitat along about six miles of rechanneled Kankakee River in northwest Indiana. This area occupies what was once the Grand Kankakee Marsh, one of the largest inland freshwater marshes in modern North America. Although decimated by drainage in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, most of the rechanneling occurred well over 90 years ago when the area was first being converted to agriculture. Today the habitat has recovered substantially and suffers from human interference only during spring flood control efforts.
The maple, hickory, walnut, swamp oak, red oak, elm, cottonwood and sycamore trees have become quite large in areas protected from annual flood waters. Yet at the same time, the heavier soil of the area supports flora normally found in the more southern regions of Indiana, thus allowing northerners to observe an environs of the much farther south. This unique integration of regional plant communities partially explains how the Kankakee River basin supports such a diverse mixture of both "typically northern" and "typically southern" bird species. In the late spring and early summer, the yellow-green duckweed covered waters serve as a backdrop for the sounds of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Eastern-wood Pewees, Acadian and Great Crested Flycatchers, Warbling Vireos, Northern Parulas, and Prothonotary, Yellow and Yellow-throated Warblers. Yet in the same floodplain birds of the north are found, including oodles of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and American Redstarts, sprinkled with occasional Least Flycatchers and Chestnut-sided Warblers. Additionally, the wet woodlands of Kankakee represent one of the last suitable habitats for Wood Thrushes in the immediate region, as well as roughly approximating the southern breeding boundary of the Veery.
In early spring, the fields adjacent to the narrowly separated Kankakee and Yellow Rivers invariably flood despite the many levees, creating ideal wetlands for ducks, migrant geese, and shorebirds. Much to birders' delights, a gravel road passes through this annually flooded area and forms a loop (or actually more of a hairpin turn) between the two rivers just upstream from where they merge. Ten Mile Road (a.k.a River Road) is a one-way gravel road that starts on SR 8 (the North Entrance ) and courses in a southwest direction along the Kankakee River, forming a hairpin turn before heading back in a northeast direction along the Yellow River to exit onto SR 39. Several short crossover roads link the two legs of the loop, occurring approximately at 1 mile, 2 miles and 3.5 miles from the North Entrance. These allow additional wetlands access and create shorter driving circuits when time is a consideration. The first crossover road offers particularly good access to wetland bird habitat; its northern end reveals plenty of open water attractive to ducks and tree swallows, while its southern end exposes marshy areas reliable for Marsh Wrens and the occasional Black-billed Cuckoo. Additionally, there is a nice parking area and vantagepoint for observing wetlands on the west side of SR 39 between the exit of the Ten Mile Road and SR 8.
The Northwest Wetland , a relatively new marshy area created for waterfowl, has produced several notable records in recent years, including Wilson's Phalarope. See the "Directions" section above for details on accessing this wetland from the Ten Mile Road area. Additional flooded areas can be found near the Northwest Wetland in the Northwest Prairie Area. While the prairie habitat itself has yet to produce many birds, a small DNR parking lot located there is useful for accessing additional flooded areas that lie to the east and south along the western bank of the Kankakee River. These areas can be reached by walking along levees that run eastward or southward toward the river. The DNR parking lot itself sits at the southwest corner of a small 100-200 acre wetland that tends to retain water long into the late spring and summer. This wetland should be approached quietly since ducks and other waterbirds seem to be fairly easily flushed at this location. Bobolinks, Sedge Wrens, and Cattle Egrets have been recorded in the spring at this small wetland and at the south end of the gravel road.
For the adventuresome, a more challenging tour of the area is available on the Non-vehicle Path, which begins on the east side of the Picnic / Parking Area and follows a three mile trapezoidal course through several different birding habitats. Two railroad tie posts mark the start of the path which courses NNE along a levee for about 1.0 mile. Although the path continues on, signs will indicate the end of the FWA property, at which time one can either turn back to the Picnic / Parking Area or continue left (west) through a low wet wooded area along the north side of the FWA property. This westbound segment of the trapezoidal path is about 0.25 miles long and is often impassible in the wet seasons without tall boots. The weedy and "stinging nettle infested" path then turns SSW along the east side of a drainage ditch (and the west side of the FWA property) for about 1.5 miles until it intersects with SR 8, some 0.25 miles west of the Picnic / Parking Area. One must then walk along the side of the highway to return to the Picnic / Parking Area. Please beware of fast moving cars! The full three mile Non-vehicle Path can take 2-4 hours to fully cover during migration. The shorter segment--down the NNE levee for 1.0 mile and then back to Picnic / Parking Area--can take 1-2 hours if the birding is good.
The narrow One Lane Road , which is rarely traveled by cars, begins at the southwest corner of the SR 8 bridge and continues for about 3.5 miles along the west side of the Kankakee. Unfortunately, the road essentially dead-ends, making it necessary to retrace one's entire route. Its full length can take up to 2.5 hours to bird during migration, in addition to an estimated 45-minute non-birding return. Although there is room to park one or two cars at an angle on the south side of SR 8 where it meets the One Lane Road, it is much easier to park in the Picnic / Parking Area just on the other side of SR 8 and walk across the road. While cars can be driven on the One Lane Road, it is quite narrow with limited passing space and almost no opportunities to turn around.
Typical Time to Bird Site: Ten Mile Road: 1-3 hours; Non-vehicle Path: 1-4 hours; One Lane Road: (Full length) 2.5 hours (plus 45-minute return)