Waiting in the Wings

CityScope® Magazine Southern Gentleman®

 

Although the worn and colorful bird books your grandfather used to own may now find themselves replaced with their digital counterparts, this pastime has remained largely unchanged. Part of bird watching’s appeal is that it can be done virtually anywhere and at any time. If you find yourself curious about cardinals or looking for loons, there’s no better place than the Scenic City to get started.

 

By Christina Cannon  |  Photography by Rich Smith

Lance Parker

 

So You Want to Be a Bird Watcher?

As with any new hobby, getting started can seem a little daunting. To make it easier, Eliot Berz, business and community access director with the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, suggests simply paying a little more attention to your surroundings while you are outdoors doing other activities you love.

“Birds are an incredibly diverse class of animals that have found a way to live on almost every corner of the Earth, and the good thing about them is that you can find them almost anywhere,” explains Berz. “My bird watching is generally combined with other outdoor activities or is done while conducting research. My favorite time to watch birds is while I’m fly fishing in the Hiwassee and Tellico Rivers.”

Kevin Calhoon, curator of forests with the Tennessee Aquarium, notes that, while birding is an activity that is easily accessible, you still need a sense of curiosity and a willingness to learn. “You need to be a good observer, learner, and you need passion. You have to want to learn,” he says. “There are a lot of great tools, but it still takes a lot of time to learn the information.”

For example, plumages, which are the layers of feathers that play a role in how a bird looks, can change from season to season, and Calhoon says it can easily take over a decade to get good at recognizing songs and calls. Even if you struggle to get the hang of recognizing calls, don’t let that deter you. Bird watchers come in all shapes and sizes.

An easy place to start is by researching the birds that are native to your area. Take some time to learn which birds should be seen at what time of year. Learning how different species feed, nest, and mate can also go a long way in helping you identify birds. If you are apprehensive about going out in the field for some active birding, first try your hand at backyard birding. Set up bird feeders and baths to get some practice observing and identifying different species.

After some time spent studying the birds you see every day, you’re ready to head to some of your favorite outdoor spots for some active birding. Keep in mind, there are a few things that will make for a more fruitful trip. Many birders agree that the most important piece of equipment is a pair of binoculars, and an identification guide of some sort is useful as well.

“People don’t really use field books anymore. The apps on the market now are really good and can not only help with identification and logging but also with songs,” advises Calhoon. “I remember toting around a Walkman that had various songs on it. I even used records and CDs to learn songs, but now all of that information is at your fingertips.”

Recognizing birds by their calls is a great way to up your birding game. Birds vocalize for many reasons such as claiming their territory or telling other birds when there is food or danger nearby. Learning to recognize birds by their noises will help you know which birds are nearby without even seeing them.

In addition to an identification guide and a good pair of binoculars, Danny Gaddy, president of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, also likes to carry around a scope with a tripod, especially for long-distance viewing across bodies of water. He also notes that more and more birders are beginning to carry cameras with a telephoto lens into the field. These pieces of camera equipment can magnify your field of view similar to a scope or binoculars, while also allowing you to take photographs for later documentation.

Why I Like to Go Birding

Eliot Berz

“As I became more involved in bird research, I couldn’t help but notice all the captivating birds flying overhead whether I was working or not. It’s fascinating to learn how each species has carved out its own unique niche in our environment. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I like being among friends and coworkers that share an appreciation for wildlife.”

 

Lance Parker

“Growing up I was always outside with my father, and my interest in birds just grew. You don’t really need anything to go birding. I like bird watching for the serenity and peace that it offers. It puts me in
a relaxed mood, and I especially like seeing any birds that are colorful. There’s something gratifying about discovering a
bird in its natural habitat.”

 

Danny Gaddy

“I am a lifelong learner who feels most comfortable outdoors. I enjoy birding because of the challenge associated with finding and identifying birds, and I think migration is such an amazing natural phenomenon. The bonus is that birding encourages me to visit some of the most beautiful, natural places.”

 

Kevin Calhoon

“I really like birding because I like to travel. It’s almost like a treasure hunt, and I like the logistics of it. It’s essentially hunting without a gun. Birders are collectors, and I know of people who have goals to visit every county of every state. Personally, I’d like to photograph every species in the United States, and so far I’ve documented about 680 species. It can be incredibly rewarding when you find a bird you are looking for, but the hunt is also fun.”

Eliot Berz

 

 

My Most Memorable Birding Experience

 

Eliot Berz

“I was fortunate enough to travel
to Guatemala in 2018 as part of a
program centered around migratory bird conservation. Our local Guatemalan partners took us to the Mayan ruins of Tikal and the surrounding jungle to show us Guatemalan birds and wildlife. The most awe-striking part of the trip was
getting to see some of the same migratory birds we study over the summer in Chattanooga on their wintering grounds in Central America.”

 

Kevin Calhoon

“By far, one of my most memorable moments was being in Antarctica and walking out into a penguin colony. The backdrop and the sheer number of penguins were amazing to see. Another was when I went birding in India and was able to see a Great Hornbill. When a female Hornbill is ready to lay her eggs, she packs herself in a hollow log or tree trunk and relies on the male to bring her food. I thought it was sweet, and I got to watch as a male Hornbill was feeding his mate berries through this tiny hole.”

 

Lance Parker

“In general, I think it’s an amazing experience to go birding outside of the United States. I’ve been in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Borneo, and Singapore, and it’s always shocking when you see birds that have similar traits to those in the United States. At the same time, you see birds that you’d never get to see back home. One of my favorites is the Bee-eaters that are native to Africa. They are really pretty multicolored birds, and it’s cool to watch them travel in flocks.”

 

Danny Gaddy

“One of the most unique birds I have had the pleasure of seeing is Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica. I was fortunate enough to watch a pair of these rare and beautiful birds repeatedly visit their young in a nest cavity, and it was a wonderful experience. Another moment that sticks out in my mind was this time I was at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, and I let a Japanese woman borrow my telescope to look at thousands of Sandhill Cranes off in the distance. Before she left, she handed me a small origami crane and explained to me how much the birds meant to her because they are symbolic of good fortune and longevity in her culture.”

Kevin Calhoon

 

 

Practice Makes Perfect

So you’ve bought some binoculars, and you’ve learned what birds should be in the area. What now?

Calhoon notes that a good rule of thumb when looking for birds is to visit places where several habitats come together. Fields, marshes, mud, and water each attract different species, and you should also aim to find places that are as undisturbed as possible.

Lance Parker, retired grounds keeper for Baylor School, notes that places such as Baylor’s campus are great for bird watching.

“The trails on campus are good areas to see tanagers and woodpeckers, and there are many birds that like the bigger trees with canopies,” he says. “It helps if you look for habitats that have whatever the birds you are trying to find are foraging on. The edge of a forest is also another good place to look for birds. A lot of species like to take advantage of the trees on the outskirts that can provide safe cover from predators.”

Other local hot spots for birding include Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Amnicola Marsh, Booker T. Washington State Park, Nickajack Lake, Greenway Farm, and Standifer Gap Marsh.

“The Brainerd levee along the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway is another great place,” states Calhoon. “There’s dragonfly larva and mud there, which is really important to a lot of birds. The area was built for stormwater retention, and there’s water there all year round. I take people there a lot to see big birds like cranes.”

Calhoon also notes that Cravens House and Point Park are great places to get a glimpse of migratory birds, and nearby Birchwood, Tennessee, offers opportunities to see Bald Eagles and Sandhill Cranes.

Danny Gaddy

 

 

Strength in Numbers

For those who want to become more involved in birding, there are countless organizations that provide a sense of community and camaraderie.

“I have developed many lifelong friends through birding,” reflects Gaddy. “One of the best benefits of birding is the fellowship with others who share my interest, and I treasure the friendships that I have developed over the years.”

Everything from online forums to Facebook groups are at a birder’s disposal, and several local resources are available as well. The Tennessee Ornithological Society focuses on habitat protection and conservation efforts, and the organization frequently hosts activities and events to raise awareness about local and national issues.

Several bird counts take place throughout the Chattanooga area, and Calhoon hosts a birding walk at McCoy Farms every spring and summer.

“By participating in birding activities, you can really make an impact,” says Calhoon. “Citizen science has taken off, and there’s a lot of information gathering being done. By sharing that information, birders can contribute to the data collection being done by scientists, and it’s also starting to impact other disciplines. When it comes down to it, birders are just good for birds.”

My Favorite Bird

 

Louisiana Waterthrush

Eliot Berz

“I spent three years tracking the Louisiana Waterthrush’s migration from Chattanooga to the tropics as part of a wildlife research project. Plus, I get to encounter them often since their preferred habitat of mountain streams with steep gradients coincides with my favorite places to kayak.”

 

Osprey

Danny Gaddy

“One of my many favorite birds is the Osprey because of its graceful beauty in flight, dedication to raising its young, and tolerance of human observation. Ospreys arrived in Tennessee in the 1900s as reservoirs were created, but they were nearly wiped out by the use of DDT. Thanks to human intervention, Ospreys have made a strong recovery in our area.”

 

Scarlet Tanager

Kevin Calhoon

“Locally and around the world, one of my favorite birds is the Scarlet Tanager. They are a bright scarlet red color with black wings and come up from Mexico to breed in the late spring and early summer months.”

 

Purple Martin

Lance Parker

“My favorite bird is the Purple Martin. I have established two colonies on the Baylor campus, and the scout usually arrives in March or April. The Purple Martin looks black at first, but if they turn just the right way, you can see this beautiful rich purple. These birds are unbelievable fliers and gliders.”

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