Christmas Bird Count

113th CBC Tennessee Regional Summary

By Stephen J. Stedman


Thirty counts were conducted in the Volunteer State during the 113th CBC season, including one new count (Duck River―welcome! ―located near but not exactly at the site of historical counts by that name). The Warren County count was resumed this season, but, because Kingsport and Shady Valley were not conducted in consequence of poor weather conditions, the total number of counts conducted in the state again tied the highest previous total rather than exceeding it.  The total number of species found during count day on this year’s 30 counts was 148, a fairly standard total; in addition, five species were reported during count week.

Only 12 counts conducted this season experienced weather conditions that did not include some form of precipitation for at least part of the day.  Most of the other 18 counts reported rain for part or all of the day, while three counts (Bristol, Cades Cove, and Clarksville) reported snow.  Sub-freezing temperatures were noted on just nine counts this year, all others being conducted in their entirety above the freezing mark, a factor that may have offset the prevailingly rainy conditions on many counts. Weather was a moderate to major factor in determining the results of most counts conducted this year, as is usually the case.

The soft mast crop in Tennessee this season was excellent to judge from the high numbers of waxwings reported across most of the state, with three counts reporting more than 1000.  However, in Upper East Tennessee few waxwings were noted, Bristol and Roan Mountain not reporting this species at all, while Elizabethton registered just two and Bristol only 12.  Less certainty attaches to the condition of the hard mast crop in the state; it would be helpful if compilers would make inquiries about, and then note the condition of, this food resource, placing remarks about it in the Special Aspects section of their reports.

Four counts exceeded the 100-species barrier this season with Reelfoot Lake, conducted early in the count season, taking the top spot at 111 and Savannah, conducted rather late in the season, coming in a close second at 108; Chattanooga (102) and newcomer Duck River (101) also surpassed the century mark while Knoxville (98) came close. 

Three species―Pacific Loon (Savannah), White Ibis (Elizabethton) and Glaucous Gull (Savannah)―were reported for the first time on a Tennessee CBC.

Eight species were reported in all-time highest numbers on a single Tennessee CBC:  Wild Turkey (575—Clarksville); American White Pelican (240—Reelfoot Lake); Green Heron (2 (tie)—Elizabethton); Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1 (tie)—Knoxville); Red-bellied Woodpecker (189—Knoxville); Northern Rough-winged Swallow (1 (tie)—Hickory-Priest); Spotted Towhee (1 (tie)—Reelfoot Lake), and Le Conte’s Sparrow (25—Memphis).

Greater White-fronted Geese were present in mostly moderate numbers in the western part of the state, six at Hiwassee being the most easterly to be reported. A single Snow Goose at Chattanooga was the easternmost reported on nine counts.  Ross’s Geese were noted on four counts with nine on the new version of the Duck River count being the state high count this year. The Bristol Brant was unusual as were five Cackling Geese at Duck River. Canada Geese were missed only at Cane Creek (i.e., Centerville) and Great Smoky Mountains, neither a circle with much suitable habitat for geese.

Single count week Mute Swans at Crossville and Memphis provided all reports of that exotic. Twenty species of ducks were tallied across the state, with the season’s high count for seven of those species being noted at Cross Creeks. A single Blue-winged Teal at Elizabethton was the only one reported. Greater Scaup were noted on four counts. A count week Common Merganser at Reelfoot Lake was unique this year.  Single Red-breasted Mergansers showed up at Reelfoot Lake, Nickajack Lake, and Warren County, while three were counted at Cookeville.

Fifty-three Northern Bobwhites on eight counts were not overly many, continuing the apparent downward spiral of this formerly common game species.  Single Ruffed Grouse at Great Smoky Mountains and Roan Mountain were the only ones to appear on count day; grouse was also noted during count week at Elizabethton.  Besides the record high count of turkeys at Clarksville noted above, six counts reported 100 or more, and only Memphis, Norris, and Warren County were turkeyless this year.

A count week Red-throated at Bristol and a count day Pacific at Savannah added loon pizazz to those counts. Common Loons were reported from 13 counts, 95 at Hickory-Priest being the high count this season.  Cades Cove and Cane Creek were the only counts not to report Pied-billed Grebe, 266 at Savannah being the high count this year. Sixteen counts featured Horned Grebes with Hickory-Priest garnering the state high with 271. Bristol counters found a count week Red-necked Grebe and a count day Eared, each unique to that count this season.

American White Pelicans were noted on three west Tennessee counts in moderate to high numbers, while a single at Hickory-Priest was impressive.  Double-crested Cormorants remained in the state well into the winter as attested to by their appearance on 13 counts, including the season high count of 438 at Duck River.

Great Blue Herons were reported on all 30 counts this year with 159 at Knoxville being the season’s high count.  Great Egrets were noted on four counts, including 37 at Duck River. Two Green Herons at Elizabethton and another at Memphis bracketed the state. Black-crowned Night-Herons were found on a fairly typical three counts, including one on the Great Smoky Mountains count.  Two White Ibises on the Elizabethton count must have been breath-taking.

Both vultures continued to do well in Tennessee, Black being missed on just two counts and Turkey on one. Bald Eagles were recorded on 23 counts, but the state total (178) was not overly impressive and the season’s high count (38 at Reelfoot Lake) was even less so. Northern Harriers showed up on 21 counts, being noted in double-digit numbers on four west Tennessee counts; 18 at Bristol were noteworthy. Forty-two Sharp-shinned Hawks were reported on 21 counts with five at DeKalb County being the season’s high count.  Contrastingly, 108 Cooper’s Hawks showed up on 25 counts with 14 at Knoxville being the season’s high count. Red-shouldered and Red-tailed hawks had good years, but only one Golden Eagle (at Duck River) was noted across the state.

Rails are always scarce on winter counts in Tennessee, so the presence of Virginia Rails only at the state’s southern border in Chattanooga and Savannah was expected.  A Sora on the latter count was unique. American Coots continued to winter abundantly in Tennessee, over 2400 at Nickajack continuing a series of impressive annual winter counts at that site.

Two Whooping Cranes at Nashville—where several of this reintroduced species spent a recent winter—were the only ones noted this season.  Sandhill Cranes were present on 12 counts, but the season’s high count (5718) at Hiwassee was considerably down from totals during most counts from the past decade.

Besides Killdeer, snipe, and woodcock, shorebirds were represented by only three other species.  A single Greater Yellowlegs at Knoxville was unique, while Least Sandpipers/peeps showed up on four counts and Dunlins on two.

A Laughing Gull at Reelfoot Lake and a state CBC-first Glaucous at Savannah highlighted the season, the three expected gull species being counted in expected numbers.

Pigeons and doves put in standard showings this season, all counts reporting good numbers of Mourning Doves, all but two counts reporting Rock Pigeons, and nearly half (14) of the state’s counts turning up a few to many Eurasian Collared-Doves. A fine array of owls resulted from the night work conducted in almost all circles; it is good to report that only three counts were conducted without some nocturnal effort being expended. Bristol with almost five hours of night work led the way in that regard. Barn Owls were registered in West Tennessee (Cane Creek), Middle Tennessee (Cookeville), and East Tennessee (Elizabethton), but this secretive species is undoubtedly somewhat more densely present than that thin but widespread showing indicates.  Eastern Screech-Owls were recorded on 25 counts, Barred on 23, and Great Horned on 20, a fair return for the 60 hours of night work accumulated across the state.  Rarer owls included three Short-eared at Reelfoot Lake and one at Cades Cove, and a Long-eared at Chattanooga.

Only eight individual hummingbirds were counted in Tennessee during the 113th season: a single Ruby-throated and two Rufous at Knoxville; gwo Rufous at Hickory-Priest; and one Rufous and two Selasphorus sp. at Chattanooga.

The total number (346) of Belted Kingfishers found this season in Tennessee was highly encouraging, Knoxville posting the season’s high count (38).   Woodpeckers were also counted in sufficient numbers to indicate that they are doing well in the second decade of the 21St Century, particularly in Knoxville where seasonal high counts were made for four species including a state CBC record for Red-bellied.  Almost 600 American Kestrels were tallied on 28 counts, Cross Creeks and Roan Mountain being the only circles without this small raptor.  Single Merlins turned up on six counts, something of a downturn for this increasing falcon, while single Peregrines were noted on three counts (Duck River, Elizabethton, and Nashville).

Phoebes were well represented during the counts this season, being noted on all 30.  Loggerhead Shrikes had a good season by recent standards, but fell considerably short of their status prior to the early 1990s; a remarkable 40 were counted at Buffalo River, but numbers were in single digits in the other 13 circles where shrikes were located.

Blue Jays and American Crows show no worrisome signs of population decrease if CBC numbers in Tennessee are to be believed.  However, the small populations of Fish Crow and Common Raven in the state remain small, again if the CBC data allow accurate assessment of their size.  Horned Larks were encountered in mostly small to moderate numbers on 11 counts spread across the state with only Reelfoot Lake sporting a large number (917).

A count week Tree at Reelfoot Lake and a count day Northern Rough-winged at Hickory-Priest were the only swallows of the CBC season, the latter quite a rarity.  Carolina Chickadees were legion on all counts, but Black-capped was represented by just four at Great Smoky Mountains.  The Tufted Titmouse was also noted on all counts in typically good numbers.  Red-breasted Nuthatches staged a moderate irruption into the state, being noted on 21 counts, mostly in single-digit numbers; 20 at DeKalb County represented the season’s high count.  White-breasted Nuthatches were missed at Hickory-Priest, but were otherwise ubiquitous.  Brown-headed Nuthatches made appearances on six counts, none representing pioneers in new areas.  Brown Creepers were missed only at Norris and Warren County, and were otherwise present in typically low numbers.

House Wrens on six counts were not indicative of more than a small wintering population in the state.  Winter Wrens were present in typically small numbers but were encountered during all but two counts. Single Sedge Wrens at Chattanooga and Reelfoot Lake represented the norm for this species on the state’s counts, as did two Marsh Wrens on just one count (Franklin-Coffee Counties). Carolina Wren numbers were quite robust and indicated no recent weather-related reduction in the population of this semi-hardy species.

Kinglets were well represented on the Tennessee CBCs during this season, Golden-crowned appearing on all but one count and Ruby-crowned on all but three.  All three common thrushes fared well, perhaps in part because of the good soft mast crop this season.  A Gray Catbird at Chattanooga was the only one found on the state’s counts this season, the two more common mimids being present in good numbers.  European Starling numbers provided no evidence of a downturn in the state’s wintering population of that exotic. American Pipits showed up on 14 counts in small to moderate numbers, being present in each of the three grand divisions of the state about equally.  The fine waxwing showing was described above.

Besides reflecting a moderate to large population of wintering Yellow-rumped Warblers, the counts provided evidence for the presence of four other warbler species in considerably lesser numbers:  Orange-crowned were noted on just two counts (Hiwassee and Reelfoot Lake); Common Yellowthroats were counted in three circles (southerly Chattanooga and more northerly Clarksville and Reelfoot Lake); Palm Warblers were found on four counts; and Pine Warblers on fully half of this year’s counts. The latter species’ changing presence/absence pattern in Tennessee during winter may prove to be an indicator of climate change/lack of such in the future, if not already.

A heard-only Spotted Towhee at Reelfoot Lake        was submitted with a somewhat spotty but still serviceable description of its call. Eastern Towhees were quite characteristically represented by moderate to high numbers on all counts. American Tree Sparrows were noted on just one count (Clarksville). Chipping Sparrows, another possible candidate to reflect a changing climate by changes in its wintering population in Tennessee, got counted on 25 counts while Field Sparrows were expectedly noted on all counts. Vesper Sparrows on six counts were more evident than usual; does the climate comment fit here, too? Savannah Sparrows on 25 counts were headed by 161 at, you guessed it, Savannah. Le Conte’s Sparrows were noted only on two counts in the southwestern corner of the state; the Memphis total (25) was the high count for the season and the all-time high count for a CBC conducted in Tennessee.  Fox, Song, Swamp, White-throated, and White-crowned sparrows and Dark-eyed Junco all were counted in normal numbers across the entire state. A Harris’s Sparrow at Columbia was noteworthy.  Lapland Longspurs were counted only at Savannah and Reelfoot Lake, with 1500+ being counted at the latter site. Over 5300 cardinals were tallied on the state’s 30 counts, a good showing.

Red-winged Blackbirds were widespread with no counts turning in the really large numbers that would indicate the presence of a substantial winter roost. Whether or not it is time to become concerned about the population of Eastern Meadowlarks in the state is an issue worth bringing up.  The high count this year was 300 at Savannah; Bristol turned in 245; three counts had 100−120 meadowlarks; all other counts were in single (2 counts) or double digits. Four Western Meadowlarks at Reelfoot Lake were the only ones counted, a typical result for this species.  Rusty Blackbirds made appearances on 16 counts, Savannah with 579 sporting the high count. Brewer’s Blackbirds appeared on just five counts with seven interestingly being noted far to the east at Bristol. Like the Red-winged Blackbird, grackles and cowbirds were noted in smallish numbers (for them) that did not betoken the presence of a major roost in or near any of the state’s 30 CBC circles.

A good winter finch season took place in the state, as evidenced in part by Purple Finches in small to moderate numbers on 26 counts.  Red Crossbills on counts at Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains, and Roan Mountain were expected, but small numbers at Knoxville and Crossville were part of the major irruption of this species taking place this winter.  Pine Siskins were widespread (20 counts) in small to moderate numbers, 164 at Clarksville representing the state high count for the season.

Gratitude is once again due the hundreds of observers and the two dozen compilers who make the CBCs happen. I especially thank the many observers who produce high quality documentation for their more unusual sightings.