By Mel White
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Stretching east-west more than 460 miles, Tennessee encompasses habitats ranging from some of the highest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains to the hardwood bottomlands of the Mississippi River. The globally important expanse of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state’s crown jewel, and several national wildlife refuges, state parks, and a national forest are among the state’s other premier birding sites.
In summer, the Appalachians uplands of the east probably count as Tennessee’s best birding area, with several nesting species found near the southern edge of their range. In winter, birders visit lakes and marshes for waterfowl and grassy fields for sparrows. Nashville’s Radnor Lake and Knoxville’s Sharps Ridge are among the best sites during spring migration.
For a culture-nature combination, try a birding trip with a music theme. Listen to soul, rock, and blues in Memphis; folk and bluegrass in the Appalachians; and country music in Nashville. After all, you can’t bird 24 hours a day.
Tennessee Birding Hotspots
This popular U.S. national park ranks among the world’s most important natural areas, with a diversity that’s nearly unmatched in the temperate zone. The park’s elevation ranges from 875 to 6,643 feet, providing a chance to see an equally wide array of birds.
Low- and mid-elevation trails offer fine birding for typical southeastern species, such as Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Indigo Bunting. Slightly less typical are locally notable birds such as Ruffed Grouse, Blue-headed Vireo, Ovenbird (its song is a constant sound in spring), and the beautiful Hooded Warbler, all favorites of visiting birders. The species that usually gets the most attention from casual visitors is Wild Turkey, often seen feeding in small flocks along roadsides.
But it’s the high-elevation species that make a trip to the park special. A drive up to Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome is the ecological equivalent of a trip to Maine or Canada, as you climb from hardwood forest into spruce-fir habitat more than a mile above sea level. In this environment live “northern” birds such as Common Raven, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Veery, along with warblers including Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Canada.
Peregrine Falcon has been reintroduced to the park, and is sometimes seen from Newfound Gap Road. Watch for it on the upper reaches of the drive, near the road’s 5,046-foot summit at Newfound Gap.
This lofty upland (6,285 feet) provides an opportunity to find many of the special species of high Appalachian Mountains. Birders often begin at Roan Mountain State Park on Hwy. 143 and wind their way south as the road ascends to Carver’s Gap at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.
At the state park, look for mid-elevation species such as Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Least Flycatcher, Golden-winged Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler. Along the road are several picnic areas and parking spots offering chances to stop and bird. As the road approaches and reaches Carver’s Gap in the Cherokee National Forest, possible species include Alder Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Winter Wren, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Pine Siskin.
The famed Appalachian Trail crosses the highway at Carver’s Gap, and a hike east leads to areas of “balds,” as treeless uplands areas are called locally. This area is noted for large areas of rhododendron, and a festival celebrating the colorful shrubs is held each June.
This 24,000-acre park in the Cumberland Mountains is noted for its beauty as well as being among the westernmost points in Tennessee for high-elevation nesting birds such as Veery, Canada Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler. Frozen Head itself is a 3,324-foot summit topped with an observation tower, reached only by a seven-mile round-trip hiking trail.
The park is generally a fine place for breeding forest birds, including Ruffed Grouse, Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pileated Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Cerulean Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Many of these species can be seen in the park’s lower elevations near the visitor center and primitive campground off Flat Fork Road. But for the best chance at the park’s special birds, hike to highland areas along some of the park’s 50 miles of trails leading up toward Tub Spring.
Because of the terrain, elevation, and species composition, birding at Frozen Head State Park is most productive in late spring and summer.
Long a favorite trail for birders in Chattanooga, this path is part of the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway. From a parking lot at the corner of Shallowford Road and N. Moore Road, climb stairs to the trail atop the levee and walk east.
Habitats here include shallow wetlands, marsh, shrubby fields, woodland, and seasonal mudflats. At least 18 species of shorebirds have been found here, from common migrants such as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs to rarities including Baird’s Sandpiper. Wading birds frequent the wetlands, including herons, egrets, night-herons, ibises, and the occasional bittern. Wood Duck and Mallard are present all year, and in winter another 15 species of ducks have been found.
While wetland birds are the highlight, this site is a good overall birding spot as well. Bald Eagle and Osprey are found regularly at Brainerd Levee, along with year-round Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and Red-shouldered Hawk. Pines in the area are home to Brown-headed Nuthatch, and nesting species include Tree Swallow, Common Yellowthroat, Blue Grosbeak, and Orchard Oriole.
Located on 416 acres of former agricultural land, Seven Islands is being managed to restore natural forest and grassland. Nearly 200 species of birds have been recorded in the park, which is also used for educational programs.
Many birders simply walk along the paved road (Kelly Lake), which runs through the area to a dead end at the French Broad River. The park also includes several miles of hiking trails, which trace through woodlands, fields, and alongside the river.
Nesting birds include Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, American Kestrel, Tree Swallow, Eastern Bluebird, Prothonotary Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Grasshopper Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, and Orchard Oriole. Bald Eagle is often seen near the river.
Winter is a favorite time to bird Seven Islands, as the grass fields can host ten or more species of sparrow. Northern Harrier and American Pipit are other winter visitors to fields.
Less than three miles north of downtown Knoxville, Sharps Ridge runs southwest-northeast. For many years it’s been a favorite spot for local birders to enjoy the excitement of spring migration. Although it can be somewhat productive in fall, the period from late March through May is when this park really shines.
To reach Sharps Ridge, follow Ludlow Avenue off North Broadway. A paved road traces the top of the ridge for about 1.3 miles. Birders park at one of the pullouts and walk along the road.
Nearly 150 species have been seen at the park. The typical birds of eastern woodland are present. Including migrants, the list comprises six species of vireo, seven thrushes, and more than 30 warblers, in addition to Olive-sided Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.
It’s always hard to predict migration patterns, but on a fine spring day northbound species following Sharps Ridge can make for one of Tennessee’s most thrilling birding experiences.
Birders treasure this 1,332-acre park in southern Nashville as a natural green space in a rapidly growing city. It’s long been a favorite birding destination, especially in spring migration when visitors can find an array of flycatchers,vireos, thrushes, warblers, and tanagers.
The Lake Trail is a favorite in spring migration and summer breeding season. Among nesting species at Radnor Lake are Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Green Heron, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Northern Parula, and Scarlet Tanager.
In winter, birders visit the area to see ducks on Radnor Lake, including both dabbling species such as Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Shoveler and diving ducks like Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and Bufflehead.
Because Radnor Lake is such a sensitive natural area, it has restrictions on jogging, biking, and other trail uses, to provide a quieter environment for wildlife and observers. The park also includes an aviary where visitors can see captive, unreleasable birds of prey.
Located in northwestern Tennessee just a few miles from Kentucky, this segment of a larger national wildlife refuge occupies a peninsula where the Tennessee and Big Sandy rivers once joined. Today these stretches are flooded because of the dam that created Kentucky Lake.
The Big Sandy Unit is known as one of the best places in the state for wintering geese, ducks, loons, and grebes. An overlook on the eastern side of the peninsula and Pace Point, the northern tip of land, are generally the best sites from which to scan the lake for waterbirds. Among the unusual species seen here with some regularity are Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Red-necked Grebe, and Western Grebe. Big Sandy is also one of the best places in the area to watch for Golden Eagle in winter.
The site includes about 7,000 acres of deciduous forest with a good sampling of eastern songbirds, including Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula, Hooded Warbler, and possibly Cerulean Warbler. Including migrants, 30 species of warblers have been found at the Big Sandy Unit. Brushy and grassy fields around the refuge are productive for finding wintering sparrows.
A visitor center opened in 2014 is located on the western side of the lake, about a 22-mile drive from the Big Sandy Unit.
A famed site for wildlife observation, Reelfoot Lake owes its existence to one of the country’s oddest geological events. A series of massive earthquakes in the winter of 1811-12 changed the course of the Mississippi River, creating this 15,000-acre water body. It’s sometimes said that the river actually ran backwards for a time during this cataclysmic event.
Reelfoot Lake, in large part a flooded forest of beautiful bald-cypress trees, is most famous as home to the iconic Bald Eagle. Many pairs nest around the lake, and in winter hundreds of eagles gather here. Reelfoot is also known as a spot to find an occasional Golden Eagle, a scarce bird in this part of the country. Mississippi Kite and Osprey nest here.
The list of possible species is lengthy, from abundant winter waterfowl to wading birds in summer to breeding songbirds including Eastern Bluebird, Prothonotary Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Northern Parula, Swainson’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Blue Grosbeak.
Reelfoot Lake is a large area, and its shoreline is a combination of state park, national wildlife refuge, wildlife management area, and private property. Birding can be done via hiking trail, wetland boardwalk, driving tour, and even designated canoe routes. For a newcomer, it’s advisable to stop as soon as possible at one of the state park or national wildlife refuge visitor centers to get a map and speak to a staff member about access points.