WDNWR Biodiversity

Buttonbush bloom (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross
Damselfly near pond
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross
Soft Rush (Juncus effusus)
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross

The star of the refuge is the Watercress Darter (Etheostoma nuchale), a little, colorful fish that measures no more than two inches when fully grown. Despite its size, the fish has big importance. It is found only in Jefferson County, surviving in just five springs within the Birmingham metropolitan area. This limited distribution and misfortune of being stuck in one of the Southeast’s largest urban centers has garnered it protection as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The darter thrives in clear, cool waters where there is an abundance of vegetation. It uses this vegetation to hunt for small prey (such as young snails), hide from predators (such as bass), and reproduce. Like all darters, the fish lacks a swim bladder, an organ used by many other fishes to adjust their buoyancy. As a result, darters stay low in the water, usually resting on the bottom or perching on vegetation. For this reason, you won’t see darters on your visit to the refuge. You’re much more likely to see fishes that frequent the surface, like the Western Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). The refuge consists of the spring and its pool, the artificial pond at the end of the boardwalk (created to provide additional habitat for the darter), and forest adjacent to both water bodies. The forest consists of stands of Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) that were probably planted and secondary forest of broadleaf trees typical of the South-Central Interior Small Stream and Riparian Forest ecosystem. These include Water Oak (Quercus nigra), American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), Sweetgum (Liquidamber styraciflua), and Red Maple (Acer rubrum). Throughout, there is a dense understory of Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinence), a highly invasive species that suppresses native plant populations. The best wildlife viewing at the refuge is at the end of the trail that leads from the parking area to the edge of the artificial pond. From the boardwalk, look for turtles basking on the bank and mosquitofish hunting at the surface. If you’re lucky, you might see the small Green Heron (Butorides striatus) or the enormous Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) hunting for minnows along the pond margin. Or, you might spy one of the North American Beavers (Castor canadensis) that live on the refuge. -R.Scot Duncan