The Forks of the River WMA in Knox County is in full color as sunflowers planted for wildlife management are in full bloom, but the fields are not only drawing in wildlife. Local residents are also flocking to the area to enjoy the bright, showy blooms.
TWRA managers and technicians annually plant around 70 acres of the WMAs 600 acres in crops that are beneficial to wildlife, but none of them offer the aesthetic value that sunflowers do.
However, while the large blooms are pleasing to the human eye, the seeds that the flowers leave behind are the greater purpose. WMA Manager Bill Smith says that the fields are planted primarily to attract mourning doves, which rely heavily on planted crops as their food source. Smith also says that the Forks of the River WMA is the best area in the region for mourning dove hunting. Hunters harvested over 1,300 birds on opening day last year, which offered the highest average per hunter in TWRA’s east Tennessee region.
The sunflowers also benefit a host of other nongame birds including Gold Finches, Northern Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, as well as a variety of sparrows and other songbirds.
Mr. Smith plants the fields on a two-year crop rotation in order to prevent diseases or insect problems that might develop. Other crops rotated with sunflowers include millet, buckwheat, grain sorghum, corn and popcorn.
The WMA, which came under TWRA ownership and management in the 1990s, is also being managed for early successional habitat. By use of herbicides and mechanical means, some areas are being converted into native grasslands and shrub/scrub habitats benefitting Prairie Warblers, Northern Shrike, Yellow-breasted Chad, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Bobwhite (quail), American Woodcock, a variety of sparrows, and Eastern Wild Turkey nesting and brood habitat.
While hundreds of visitors, hikers, bikers, and wildlife watchers enjoy the showy sunflowers and benefits of the wildlife management area, the sportsmen and women of the state who purchase hunting and fishing licenses pay the cost. “If it were not for the seed, sweat, and upkeep of our WMAs by the TWRA and the funding from hunting license dollars, theses areas wouldn’t be available for all to enjoy,” said Mr. Smith. “If you enjoy them, thank a hunter.”
The 2014 dove hunting season will open at noon on Sept. 1, and will have a daily bag limit of 15 birds. Along with the Tennessee Small Game Hunting and Fishing License (Type 001), an appropriate WMA Small Game Hunting permit will be required to hunt doves at the Forks of the River WMA. An Annual or Lifetime Sportsman License covers both the license and permit requirement. Hunters will also be required to possess a Tennessee Migratory Bird Permit except for the following: disabled veterans, Tennessee residents over age 65, Tennessee residents under age 13, Lifetime Sportsman License holders, and military personnel on leave or furlough.