Witnessing a wildlife spectacle just over SmokiesPublished 6:19pm Sunday, February 16, 2014
The snow was still on the ground in the Smokies as we drove west on our four-hour journey over to the Chattanooga area; definitely a chilly start to our upcoming birding trip.
The four of us met in Asheville that morning bound for the wildlife spectacle along the Hiwassee River in southwestern Tennessee.
Many of the local lakes were still frozen so the largest concentration of Sandhill Cranes in the Southeastern US (outside Florida) was not in the wildlife refuge, but along the shores off the Hiwassee River. The cranes, along with thousands of ducks, were standing around on the sand bars or feeding along the semi-frozen shoreline. Hundreds also were feeding in the nearby fields among the cattle- a quite amazing sight really. Not quite the African savanna, but almost.
Small flocks of American Pipits also fed in the fields and large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds wheeled and landed amongst the unconcerned livestock.
A new visitor center had been built down on the end of Blyth’s Ferry Road honoring the Cherokee removal along the Trail of Tears, which was a peaceful site to spend a little time before heading to the new overlook high on a bluff over the Hiwassee River. The cranes were still distant so we looked for a closer vantage point on the other side of the river (another part of Blyth’s Ferry Road.)
The rest of the late afternoon here watching evening flights of ducks, as well as enjoying and photographing flock after flock of Sandhill Cranes en route to their evening roost – probably also on one of the river islands. An adult Black-crowned Night-Heron (rare at this season) flew in to feed and a Winter Wren sat bobbing on the rocks seemingly oblivious to our presence.
At the end of a long day out birding it’s always nice to retire to a good hotel and have a good meal. Our hotel in Chattanooga was barely 3 months old; a very smart, modern hotel with a sleek modern look and dinner was at a locally owned and operated restaurant, always a good find in our increasingly homogeneous world.
Brainerd Levee, which is part of the greenway system that goes through a large part of Chattanooga, is always a great birding spot. Despite the sunshine and rapidly warming temperatures, most of the water was still frozen and the ducks were all elsewhere, but several still flew by maybe checking on the status of the water and included Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and Green-winged Teal.
By the time we returned towards the parking lot the ice had receded a little and about 25 Teal were feeding feverishly in the shallow water again oblivious to our close proximity.
A real treat was the number of Wilson’s Snipe that was being flushed from the short grass around the pool. They flew up only to quickly land again and then disappear into the vegetation demonstrating their incredible camouflage. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk showed itself very closely and small flocks of Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Meadowlarks and American Robins were feeding along the grassy banks.
We ended our weekend tour at the large Chickamauga Dam, just north of town where an extraordinary number of White-winged Scoter had flown in- part of the invasion of seaducks that has been prevalent throughout the southeast this winter. A very showy Long-tailed Duck was also present, along with several Common Goldeneye and a good selection of loons and grebes. The 4 hour drive back to Asheville was not bad and all of the snow had now gone – a great trip with thousands of cranes and ducks and a great birding spectacle not far from us here in WNC.
Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 20 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours, www.birdventures.com. He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at www.asheville.wbu.com.