A Bonus State – Tennessee

Being able to get my 50 species in both Missouri and Illinois in consecutive days gave me a chance to add another state to the trip before meeting with birding companions in Kentucky on October 7th.  In anticipation of this the night before I researched possibilities and decided to head south from Illinois, spend the night in Kentucky and carry on to Tennessee early the next morning.  The good news was that it looked to be possible to find the 50 species by hitting a few different Ebird Hotspots.  The bad news was that I would have to be doing it on my own.  My plan for the 50/50/50 project was for birding in each state to be with local birders.  This improve the odds of reaching the 50 species goal and certainly increase the efficiency.  Equally importantly it would provide local color and perspective that was an important part of the adventure.

There simply was not time to line up local birders so I made the executive decision to go anyhow but to be sure to intersect with others – hopefully including some birders – that I expected to find at the locations I chose.  This worked very well and I had great intersections with a number of “locals” in Tennessee, although since I was primarily in the Nashville area, I quickly learned that many of the “locals” had not been local very long and had moved to Nashville for job or lifestyle opportunities.  This was a good perspective to add to my experiences along the way.

I would be returning to Kentucky in two days but when I crossed the state line from Illinois into Kentucky on Highway 24, I was in a new “Life State”.  That now left only North Dakota and Kansas as states I had never visited – using the term “visited” very loosely as at least a couple were airports only.  I stayed the night in Paducah, KY because it was about as far as I could go while still being able to drive safely with my sleep deprivation and also I just liked the name.  I would still need to travel another 120 miles the next morning but since I am an early riser even when I have traveled two time zones east, that would not be a problem

Ebird reports suggested that Shelby Bottoms Park a little northeast of Nashville would be a great place to start.  Nashville was just across the Cumberland River from Kentucky.  I had gotten a very early start and was birding by 8:00 a.m.  The heat and humidity continued, but that first hour was not too bad.  Shelby Bottoms has a variety of habitats including a small lake or pond that I hoped would produce some waterfowl – species that had been few and far between in the two previous states.  Unfortunately the only ducks were Mallards but there were some Double Crested Cormorants, a Great Blue Heron and a Belted Kingfisher.  I was already worrying about getting to 50 species.  There was one great experience there though.  Seemingly out of nowhere a flock of at least 45 Chimney Swifts appeared and swooped over the pond – acting like more like swallows.  They circled and dove and were very close to the water – a behavior I had never seen before.  This lasted for maybe 15 minutes and then they were gone.  I had seen numerous Swifts in Missouri and Illinois but they had always been fairly high or even extremely high overhead – their presence often first revealed by their chattering.

I birded in the park for almost three hours.  I am sure I missed some species as I did not recognize some calls and chips but ended up with 38 species including four warblers the most numerous of which were Magnolia Warblers found in small groups in several areas.  I found another Philadelphia Vireo but again was able to get only a very poor photo.  If not the best, at least my favorite find were some Brown Thrashers.  In the past I have only seen them in open areas.  These were in the trees, buried at first and then into the open feasting on berries.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

As in Missouri and Illinois there were Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens.  The latter seemed to be everywhere in this park.  And like the Bewick’s Wrens that are abundant in Western Washington, the Carolina Wrens have numerous calls, chips, songs and … well, noises.  There were few moments in the Park when I was not hearing these Wrens, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays or Mockingbirds.  I was not able to get a photo but I had a quick look at a beautiful Wood Thrush.  It reminded me of the experience with Frank Caruso in North Carolina where we saw many Wood Thrushes that would fly in front of us and then disappear into the trees and brush.  Finally I got a good photo there.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

I was able to get a decent photo of a Tufted Titmouse, another common (and noisy) species that had eluded my camera until finally getting one earlier this year in Massachusetts.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

I was surprised not to find any other birders in the Park but I really wanted some local color so I struck up a conversation with two young kayakers.  When I asked how long they had lived in the area, they both laughed.  One had only been here 3 months and the other barely over a year.  They said that nobody they knew was actually “from Nashville”.  The city’s economy was good and jobs were available, but the big attraction for young people (they were late 20’s I would guess) was the music and club scene – a vibrant urban life with accessible and beautiful countryside all around.  The cost of living was also much lower than in the east coast cities they had departed.  It turned out that one of the young women was from my original home state of Maryland and had grown up not more than 15 miles from where I lived.  Although Nashville was somewhat of an exception, she did note that Tennessee was far more “red” than Maryland which was much more “blue”.  Again Nashville was somewhat different, but she also said the pace of life was significantly more at ease.

So no local birding lore but a good intersection and just the type of perspective I was looking for – getting out of my birding and Pacific Northwest silos so to speak.

Still hoping for some more waterfowl to bring up my species count, I headed off to Radnor Lake State Park about 10 miles south of Nashville by a route that took me just east of the downtown core.  Not nearly as many high rise office buildings as Seattle and I did not notice any cranes which are still so prominent in the Seattle skyline, but it looked like a bustling city and it was hard to miss Nissan Stadium home of the Tennessee Titans of the NFL.  I imagine that someone driving into Seattle from the South would have the same impression of my city with Century Link Field for the Seahawks but we also have “the Safe” – Safeco Field for the Mariners and Nashville is not Major League at least in that sense.

Once again I was disappointed with the only waterfowl being a distant view of a single Wood Duck. In fact I only added four new species for the day and I was getting concerned.  One new species was a Yellow Billed Cuckoo – another species I had photographed earlier in the year in North Carolina.  What this location lacked in new birds, it more than made up for with interesting people.  One was a birder who said that the day seemed less birdy than expected and thought it might be the heat.  We first heard and then got quick looks at both White Breasted and Red Breasted Nuthatches together.  The latter are far less common although I had seen them in the morning and also in Illinois.

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch1

Another interesting intersection was with a woman who was walking her Schnauzers – at a very brisk pace.  She noted my camera and asked if I had taken any good photos.  I often get asked that by non-birders when they see my camera – a good conversation starter.  I told her that I had not “yet”.  I also told her that she did not sound like she was “from here”.  In her New York accent, she said definitely not.  She was another transplant – from one of the New York City suburbs – relocated to be with grandchildren.  She missed the East Coast but remarked how friendly people were in her new home.  That was my sense as well.  Everyone I met throughout my trip was engaging and friendly – a different vibe than some other places.

My last connection there was with a young couple from Arkansas who were vacationing in Nashville and had wanted to get out for a walk.  They were not birders but were bird aware and had a lot of questions when I told them what I was up to.  I showed them a number of photos I had taken as well as some from phone apps.  It would not surprise me if they develop a further interest.  They told me they had seen a “giant woodpecker” in the park maybe 30 minutes earlier.  I guessed it was a Pileated Woodpecker and just as I was about to show them a photo, they said they had a video.  And of course that is what it was.  They were thrilled to have seen it and now moreso to know what they had seen.  I have had dozens of connections like this in the field and always take time to share experiences, ask and answer questions and find these times to be among the most rewarding that are part of my birding life.  This is particularly the case when there is a chance to show some young kids something about birds.  Maybe a spark will light a fire.

Back to the birds – there were not enough of them and the momentum from the morning felt like it had disappeared.  I needed a new kind of habitat and some different birds.  I did a quick check of Ebird reports and identified a couple of good spots.  The first had the very appealing name “Old Hickory Lake–Snow Bunting Peninsula”.  I wasn’t expecting a Snow Bunting but some new water related species seemed likely.  I don’t think I have ever been so pleased to see American Coots, Pied Billed Grebes, Ringed Billed Gulls and Canada Geese.  I also noticed that some of the vultures did not have red heads, so I added Black Vulture for the day.  A small flock of American Redstarts flew into some trees and I also found what turned out to be a Summer Tanager.  Now my day list stood at 49 species.  I needed one more but I  wanted a few more species “to be sure”.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

My research had suggested another good spot that was very appealing with different habitat.  Bells Bend Park is a rural preserve of 808 acres located in Davidson County west of Nashville along the Cumberland River.  Its description as “pastoral” seemed very fitting – an easy going place with open fields with high grass, some big trees and the river.  I spent more than an hour there and probably enjoyed it as much as anywhere I had been.

A Cut Grass Trail at Bell’s Bend Park

Bell's Bend

I found only 20 species but 8 were new for the day – including a Summer Tanager that I clearly identified and counted.  The most surprising were the 5 Northern Bobwhites that flushed from right in front of me and almost gave me a heart attack.  Finally I found some real sparrows and some swallows: 2 Field Sparrows, an Eastern Towhee and 2 Tree Swallows.  Other new species for the day were Orange Crowned and Black Throated Green Warblers, and a Sharp Shinned Hawk.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee 1

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

With these new species I was at 57 for the day – goal met.  Repeating myself, I am sure there would have been many more if I had local expertise (and eyes and ears) with me.  There had been a lot of walking at the locations today and I figured I had hiked at least 5 miles.  And now it was just after 6:00 p.m.  The temperature had dropped a bit but it had been in the high 80’s or more all day and I was tired.  The plan had been to hit the music scene that night – some of that Nashville country music.  Unfortunately for all of the places that appealed to me the music did not start until 8:00 or even 9:00 p.m..  There was no way I was going to be able to be sufficiently lively at that time to enjoy it.  I retired to my hotel room very pleased to have snuck in a new state.  Tennessee was the 15th state where I had my 50 species in a day.  Kentucky and Indiana were ahead and I was looking forward to meeting some excellent birders that would be helping me.



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