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Discover Northern Alabama’s National Wildlife Refuges

Northern Alabama is home to four unique National Wildlife Refuges: Wheeler, Sauta Cave, Fern Cave, and Key Cave. The refuges conserve Alabama’s natural resources and protect critical habitat for wildlife. Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is the largest of the group. The other three are administered as satellites of Wheeler.

Wheeler Refuge encompasses 35,000 acres of land along the Tennessee River between Huntsville and Decatur, Alabama. The Visitor Center is located off Highway 67 southeast of Decatur. Wheeler Refuge contains forest and wetlands that provide feeding and nesting sites for a variety of birds. Wheeler is considered to be the easternmost refuge in the Mississippi flyway. The refuge provides winter habitat for migratory birds, particularly Canada geese. It is also home to the state’s largest population of ducks. Winter visitors may also see populations of sandhill cranes and sometimes whooping cranes. The Visitor Center contains interpretive wildlife displays, and a glass enclosed wildlife viewing building provides an excellent place for waterfowl viewing. A .5 mile nature trail with a boardwalk takes visitors through a section of cypress swamp. There is also a picnic area at the facility. The Visitor Center is open daily from October-February from 9am-5pm. From March-September the Visitor Center is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9am-4pm.

Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge is located five miles southwest of Florence in northwest Alabama. The cave provides critical habitat for the only known population of the endangered Alabama cavefish, one of the rarest freshwater fish. Key Cave is also a maternity cave for endangered gray bats. Located on the northern shore of Pickwick Lake, Key Cave Refuge consists hardwood forest, grassland, and croplands. Although the refuge is open to the public, Key Cave is not open due to the potential disturbance of the endangered species. Activities that may be done at the refuge include hiking, hunting, and wildlife observation.

Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge (formerly known as Blowing Wind Cave) is located seven miles west of Scottsboro on Highway 72. It is located above Sauty Creek on Guntersville Lake. The refuge protects both gray and Indiana bats and their habitat. In winter the bats hibernate in the cave and in summer the cave is the breeding site for 200,000-300,000 gray bats. The cave itself is closed to the public, but from June through August bats may be viewed emerging from the cave entrance at dusk. The best viewing point is located 100 yards inside the park entrance. Other popular activities at the refuge include hiking, photography, and wildlife observation.

Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge is located on County Road 500, off Highway 72 near Paint Rock, Alabama. Access to the refuge is difficult and requires hiking in along the Paint Rock River. The cave, which is closed to the public, houses the largest winter colony of gray bats in the US, as well as a large colony of Indiana bats. The terrain is rugged, and viewings here are difficult. The refuge is open year round during daylight hours.

A visit to any of these refuges in northern Alabama provides an excellent opportunity to observe wildlife. Wheeler Refuge by far has the easiest access and the best facilities. However, a visit to any of the others at dusk provides the unique opportunity for visitors to watch hundreds of bats emerging from their caves to feed.

By: Nova Sisk

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Nova Sisk is the director of sales for Hampton Inn $ Suites Scottsboro Alabama hotel. The Hampton Inn & Suites Scottsboro hotel in Alabama is located in the mountain/lakes region of northern Alabama surrounded by majestic mountains and rich valleys, located minutes from Lake Guntersville. For more information visit: www.hamptonscottsboro.com

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