Birding at Radnor Lake

April 25, 2012

This morning I drove with a friend to do some birdwatching at Radnor Lake, one of the birding hot spots in the Nashville area. Nashville is about 90 miles from where we live, so this was no small undertaking. It turned out to be a quiet day. We saw a few things at the end of our walk — a singing male Prothonotary Warbler, resplendent in brilliant yellow; a furtive Northern Waterthrush, which is not an easy bird to find; a singing male Summer Tanager, bright red and very cooperative. But we had hoped to see more. This is the height of Spring migration, and Radnor is known for turning up rarities. We didn’t find any.

It would have been easy to feel that we had wasted the day and the long drive. But it was a beautiful morning, breezy, warm, sunny. There were Wood Ducks all over the lake. We saw thrushes and managed to find Scarlet Tanagers — common but gorgeous — Swainson’s Thrushes with their ascending, ethereal, flutelike song, Nashville and Blackburnian and Yellow-throated Warblers. I had some nice time with a good friend. And I was outside, smelling wild roses and the sweet scent of Sycamores.

There was nothing wasted, no reason to be disappointed. Sometimes adjusting expectations is the key to enjoying oneself. Today was a perfect example.

Spring bird migration has come early to the Cumberland Plateau. Usually mid-April is when birds start trickling in — swallows swoop and dart across fields, gnatcatchers and White-eyed Vireos scold from overgrown thickets just beginning to leaf out, the first warblers — Black and Whites, Black-throated Greens, Yellow-throated — sing from still-bare branches of oaks and poplars.

This year, though, is different. With the uncommonly mild winter and early spring, everything leafed out early — most of the flowering trees are done flowering; nearly all of them have leaves. My wife’s garden is weeks ahead of where it normally is. And the birds, somehow sensing this on their wintering grounds in Central and South America, have already started streaming through in earnest. Tanagers and orioles, grosbeaks and buntings, thrushes and several species of vireo — all are here. And in the past few days the warblers have arrived in numbers. Hooded, Tennessee, Nashville, Yellow, Cape May Palm, Prairie, Blackburnian; Ovenbirds and Waterthrushes. I’ve seen more than twenty species of warbler already this year. No doubt more are on the way.

If you’ve never seen a warbler, you owe it to yourself to look for them, or at least Google “Blackburnian Warbler” (as a for instance) and look at the photos that pop up. These are gorgeous birds, decked out in smart suits of yellow and black, blue and gray, green and brown and red. They winter in the tropics and even the dullest among them look exotic. They are tiny — each could fit in the palm of your hand. And their songs — they offer a repertoire of trills, sweet whistles, chips, and bouncing melodies that, for me at least, is the true herald of spring’s arrival.

But this is a limited time offer. The birds pass through on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern forests of New England and Canada. So look for them soon, or wait until next year.

Happy birding.

My Day at Hiwassee Refuge

January 6, 2012

Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge just outside of Dayton, Tennessee (where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place back in 1925) is located at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers in east Tennessee.  Every year during the winter, thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop here, congregating in the rich waters of the refuge and feeding in nearby cornfields.  In recent years, a few Whooping Cranes, among the rarest birds in North America (there are only about 500 left in the wild) have joined the Sandhill Cranes, making Hiwassee Refuge a birding hot spot.  And this year, a single Hooded Crane, a species endemic to Asia that has never before been recorded in the U.S., has been seen feeding with the other cranes.

Today I drove out to Hiwassee to see if I could catch a glimpse of this once-in-a-lifetime bird.

Most of the Hiwassee Refuge is closed off to visitors, but the observation deck offers excellent views of the river and the surrounding corn fields. It was a beautiful day.  Clear, warm, breezy.  Sandhill Cranes were everywhere, their guttural trumpeting calls filling the air.  Hooded Mergansers, Gadwalls, Ring-Necked Ducks, and even a few Snow Geese floated on the smooth waters.  Half a dozen Bald Eagles — two adults and several juveniles — patrolled the skies, and at one point one of the adult birds caught a fish that would have made any angler proud.  It was huge; five eagles fed on it.

A single Whooping Crane — a young bird — made an appearance, and strutted in and out of view throughout the day.

But all the birders there today were hoping to see the Hooded Crane.  There were dozens of us on the viewing platform — there have been dozens there every day since the Hooded Crane first appeared.  Usually, even with its deserved reputation as a great birding spot, the refuge attracts a fraction of that number.  Birders are friendly people, and this crowd was no different.  We waited for hours for the bird to show up, and even as our impatience grew, the mood on the platform remained friendly and fun.  I met a couple who had come to Tennessee all the way from Chicago (people have come from all over the U.S. to see this bird; some people have visited from Europe).  I never learned their names, but they were great to hang out with all day.

I would love to say that the day ended magically, that the Hooded Crane swooped down into the river late in the afternoon and gave us all great views of a true rarity.  But the bird didn’t show up.  I suppose that in a way that makes the day a disappointment.  But that’s not how it felt.  I saw Sandhill Cranes and Bald Eagles, ducks and geese, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Sharp-shinned Hawks.  A kingfisher, resplendent in blue and white and rust, entertained us with acrobatics over the water.  Bonaparte’s Gulls, their wings flashing white and gray, wheeled and glided above the cranes.  Great Blue Herons waded solemnly in the shallows.  Sometimes the rare birds show up; sometimes they don’t.  But at Hiwassee, there is always something to see.

Twilight Visitor

July 7, 2009

Last night, just around dusk, Nancy called us all into the family room that looks out on our backyard so we could see the young Barred Owl that sat perched on the edge of the swing set.  The bird remained there for quite a while, looking around, allowing itself to be checked out by a hummingbird that buzzed around it for several moments, and a pair of nesting Carolina Wrens that emerged from the forest to scold it loudly for coming near their home.  Occasionally the owl made a small screeching noise — kind of a rising, raspy whistle, which sounded nothing like the clear hooting call of adult Barred Owls (“Who cooks for you?!  Who cooks for you, all?!”)  Finally, it flew to the edge of the wood, where it was joined by one of its siblings.  Moments later, they retreated deeper into the forest.  A nice reminder that this was home to birds and deer and all sorts of other creatures before we built our house.  We’ll be looking for the birds again tonight.

A New Neighbor

February 18, 2009

There’s a Great-horned Owl nest near our house.  You have to walk a short distance to see it — maybe half a mile.  But then you look into an expanse of forest, find the great mass of branches and such in the fork of a large, straight oak tree, and there’s the female, her head visible above the edge of the nest, her tufts — the so-called horns — framed against the sky.  Owls nest earlier than most birds.  Great-horneds nest earlier than most owls.  She’s probably already incubating eggs.  She might even be caring for young.

For those of you who don’t know, Great-horned Owls are probably the most formidable avian hunters in North America.  They’ve been known to take possum, raccoon, skunk, rabbits, domestic cats, other species of owl, Red-tailed Hawks (which aren’t exactly wimpy birds), even Great-blue Herons.  If you’re ever at a natural history museum, check out the Great-horned specimens.  Look at the size of the birds, particularly the females (among birds of prey, the females are almost always the larger of the pair).  Then look at the size of their talons.  They look like they belong on a bobcat….

And this pair is nesting around the corner.  Very cool.

The Lesson of a Good Day

January 14, 2009

Following up on my promise to myself to get out and do more birdwatching this year, I went to a place called Woods Reservoir today.  It’s a large reservoir about twenty miles from here that is maintained jointly by the U.S. Air Force (Arnold Air Force Base abuts part of the reserve) and the Tennessee Wildlife Management Agency.  It has a good sized nesting population of Bald Eagles and is a wintering ground for a wide variety of duck species.  And so it shouldn’t be tto surprising that in addition to seeing an eagle, I also saw Northern Pintail, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Northern Shoveler, and many pairs of Hooded Merganser, which may be the most beautiful duck in North America.  Here, check out a picture.  Of course, Pintails are beautiful, too.

Anyway, it was a great morning.  I came back energized and wrote seven pages this afternoon.  So often I don’t do something for myself because “I can’t take the time out from my work.”  But I almost always find that after taking the time out to look at birds or take pictures or just go for a walk, I work better, faster, more efficiently.  There’s a lesson there, if only I’m smart enough to take it to heart.

New Year’s Birds

January 1, 2009

As many of you know, I’m an avid birdwatcher.  But few of you probably understand fully just how much of a bird-geek I am.  So by way of illustration, I offer this:  I keep a list of the birds I see each year, in addition of my life list and some other lists I keep, which I won’t go into here, lest I jettison what small scraps of dignity I have left.  My year lists actually serve several purposes.  First, it’s fun to see how many different species I can see in a given year (yeah, told you I was a geek).  Also, it can serve as a helpful record of when and where I saw certain things. 

But the main reason I do it is that it compels me to pay attention to the more common birds at least once a year.  Birders often focus on finding rarities, on adding new birds to their life lists.  It becomes easy — far too easy — to take the more common stuff for granted.  By keeping my year lists, I make myself go out and search for the common locals that are easily overlooked but well worth finding.  For at least one day each year, I actively look for nuthatches and chickadees, robins and doves.
That’s what I did this afternoon.  It’s cool and breezy here today, but crystal clear.  And I got out for an hour or so, and did some birding.  It’s something I want to do more of this year.  What did I see?  Not a whole lot, but some cool things.  A Cooper’s Hawk, a Brown Thrasher, a Hermit Thrush, several species of sparrow, including Fox, Swamp, Field, and White-throated.  I also saw a pair of bluebirds, some cardinals, and a bunch of other things that I’ll probably see hundreds times between now and the end of the year.  But for today, every bird was exciting; each one was “new” all over again.

Vacations are Good

June 5, 2008

Still on vacation.  One more full day at the beach and then it’s back home to summer camp and research and writing and swim team, and all the other stuff that makes up our summer.

The beach has been amazing.  Beautiful house, gorgeous weather, a beach with a sand bar, which I LOVE.  Sand bar meaning that about 30 yards from shore there is a second shelf of sand where the water is only about ankle or knee deep.  So you can wade out 60, 70, 80 yards from the shore and still be standing comfortably while the breakers roll by.  Just lovely. 

We’ve found shells and sea glass and sharks’ teeth.  We’ve seen pelicans and terns and sandpipers and ospreys.  We’ve done puzzles and read and played in the waves.  We’ve played miniature golf and had ice cream, and we even managed to track down an aunt and uncle of Nancy’s who none of us had ever met before.  The girls and Nancy are tanned and beautiful.  I’m burned in spots but tanned as well, though not nearly as beautiful.  I am relaxed, though.  More than I’ve been at any time since we left Australia.

A glorious week.

Just Wednesday

May 7, 2008

Thanks to all for the great comments on yesterday’s post.  Woke up this morning and found that my newly-minted teenager was very much like the child who lived here yesterday and the day before.  One day at a time.  That’s the ticket.

I seem to be in the middle of another good writing week.  I’m making good progress on the book, and more important, I like what I have so far.  I’m even finding time to birdwatch every morning before I sit down to write.   Spring migration is starting to wind down.  We probably have another three or four days, but after that it’ll slow down and we’ll settle into a typical Tennessee summer — hot days, thunderstorms in the late afternoons, muggy nights spent sitting on the porch, listening to the crickets and frogs, watching the lightning bugs.  Sounds good to me.

Sunday Odds and Ends

April 6, 2008

Yesterday was dance day here in Sewanee.  Both of our daughters, like so many of the young girls here in town, take dance lessons from the university dance instructor and her students.  Yesterday afternoon, they had their recital.  Our girls have both been taking lessons of one sort or another since they were four, so we’re old hands at this now.  Still it’s fun to see them up on stage, and it’s always a hoot to see the newest crop of four year-olds up there, showing off the few ballet moves they’ve learned, their eyes flicking toward the wings where their teacher stands running through the routine with them.

Both of our girls were in two dances:  jazz and tap for the older one, ballet and tap for the younger one.  They did great.  They’ve learned a lot over the years and they both seem to have a knack for dance.  I think it’s been good for them.  They have a sense of balance, of movement, of rhythm that they might not have otherwise.  And when they’re doing other activities — swimming or soccer, for instance — and their coach gives them instruction, they have enough body awareness to put that advice to use.

Last night we went to see the college kids give their recital.  They gave a good performance; the best I can remember, actually.  It was an eclectic mix:  ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, swing, modern.  Used to be that I’d watch my girls during the day and the college students at night and take some comfort in noting the distance my kids still had to go to be like the older girls.  This year, not so much.  My older one is growing up fast and looking more and more like the college kids every day.  Scary.  And fun.

Went for a photo shoot this morning.  It was foggy when I left the house a little after eight.  Sunday morning.  The roads were empty save for a lone jogger.  I hiked back down into Shakerag Hollow, where the trout lilies and dutchman’s britches and larkspur are blooming.  The white trillium are starting to open; the purple trillium will be out by the end of the week.  A few warblers were singing, Pileated Woodpeckers were drumming and calling.  The rains we’ve had over the past couple of weeks have filled the streambeds and flooded parts of the trail.  The trees are just beginning to leaf out, but the forest floor is deep green already.  

Great morning.  I got some good photos, which I’m still going through.  I’ll have to get out again during the week.