By Laura Thompson, Circulation and Marketing Director, Bird Watcher’s Digest
Growing up in a bird-watching family, we children evolved into two groups: passionate birders and…me. While my brothers kept life lists, adjusted their binoculars, learned to use scopes, and kept their eyes keenly open in hopes of spotting a new species, I sat in the backseat of the car and read. Every once in a while I would venture out to skip a stone, pick a flower, or even check out a particularly colorful bird. In the “take it or leave” adoption of the hobby, I mostly just left it to the rest of the family.
As I got older and returned to the fold of Bird Watcher’s Digest (my family’s business), I did develop a casual interest in bird watching and my own particular take on the pastime, a method I call “birding while.” For instance, one winter morning in 2009 while enjoying my morning coffee, I glanced out my kitchen window and realized my lawn and pine trees were aflutter with birds I’d never seen before. A quick call and description to my brother Bill, and I found out I was witnessing an irruption of white-winged crossbills—which led to an irruption of local birders, but that’s another story. While kayaking down the Muskingum River, I wondered at the bald eagles soaring overhead, the croaking call of the great blue heron as we flushed it from the banks, the hurky-jerky flight of the kingfisher as it dove for its dinner. That, to me, is bird watching at its best: an added seasoning to any activity I am savoring.
When it comes to savoring life and “birding while,” you can’t beat Memphis and its environs. In the final days of April 2015, I was lucky enough to join a group to do just that. While it doesn’t offer the mountains of East Tennessee, nor the rolling hills or the excitement of Nashville which Middle Tennessee boasts, West Tennessee (or “Best Tennessee” as it is claimed by the natives) has a special charm all its own. West Tennessee encompasses a smaller, flatter, and less populous area of the state. What it lacks in size and ruggedness, it more than makes up for in history, music, food, and natural and manmade wonders.
We started our southern “birding while” adventure in downtown Memphis at the Twilight Sky Terrace, a rooftop bar overlooking the Mississippi River. With a specialty cocktail (Orion’s Belt) in hand, I watched a northern mockingbird dart in and out of the plantings, and scanned the river banks for gulls with the complimentary view finders thoughtfully provided at either end of the deck. After a quick nosh, the flashing white wing patches and loud calls of the mockingbirds accompanied us on our walk until the bright lights and music of Beale Street washed them away.
The next day dawned sunny and bright but chilly, perfect weather for birding while biking.
The Shelby Farms Greenline Trail runs for 6.5 miles routing commuters, bikers, walkers, and runners from Midtown Memphis to Shelby Farms Park, one of the country’s largest urban green spaces.
We began our cycling trip at the trails’ culmination, Shelby Farms Park, where we rented bikes and helmets. The park itself encompasses 4,500 acres, and beyond the multi-use trail offers everything from boating, to ziplining, as well as a playground, off-leash dog park, a BMX track, and horse stables. The trail itself is flat, clearly marked, paved, and travels through diverse habitats. We watched the cardinals, crows, blue jays, and goldfinches flitting in front of our bikes as we passed behind suburban backyards, listened to the red-tailed hawks screaming in trees lining the creek banks, orioles chattering in the pastures, and migrating warblers singing in the woodlands. In just three hours we were able to enjoy a microcosm of habitats that West Tennessee offers in the midst of its biggest city.
On Thursday morning, we were scheduled to tour the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge with Bob Ford, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist and editor of the Tennessee Ornithological Society’s quarterly journal, The Migrant. I have to admit: I dreaded it. This was not “birding while.” This was plain, old birding with an expert and frankly, I don’t have the chops! But years of being out in the field with serious birders have taught me to out myself for what I am – a very casual bird watcher. Rather than trying to bluff my way through it, I throw myself on the mercy of the experienced birders, and it never fails to amaze me how happily they take on the role of mentor and educator. As soon as we met up with Bob, and introductions were made, we established that I was with Bird Watcher’s Digest. And that yes, I was one of those Thompsons. (My parents founded the magazine in 1978, and my brothers, Andy and Bill, are its publisher and editor, respectively.)
I took the opening to spill the beans….and held my breath. After a moment of confusion, a realization dawned on Bob’s face. “Well, this is going to be FUN.” Because of the time of day and flooding in the refuge, Bob had been worried that he’d not be able to produce the kind of sightings that would “wow” an experienced birder. As it was, we’d both get to enjoy the day.
Hatchie NWR, one of five such wildlife refuges in West Tennessee, is located along 23 miles of the Hatchie River and consists of 11,556 acres of hardwood forests, swamps, streams, grasslands, scrub habitat and open water. We arrived at the refuge’s main building to the greeting of teer, teeer teer, from purple martins swooping over our heads in and out of large martin house just beyond the parking lot. We watched southern painted turtles lining logs in the lake like commuters on their way to work.
A short walking tour along the lake and neighboring wetlands took us past great blue heron and snowy egrets. He pointed out wood duck boxes lining the lakes as part of the refuge’s greater mission. The Hatchie Refuge is a vital resting and feeding point for migratory birds, especially wintering waterfowl. The site supports more than 200 species of birds, 50 species of mammals as well as reptiles, fish and amphibians through innovative means like the cooperative farming program. The program allows local farmers to cultivate and plant refuge land with crops such as millet, corn and milo with the understanding that a share of the crops will be left in the field and then flooded to provide food for wintering waterfowl.
Our walk continued to a nearby woodland where late spring foliage blocked a good view, but Bob pulled out his birding-by-ear skills and identified the calls of a blue-gray gnatcatcher, yellow-rumped warbler and even a prothonotary warbler. We ended our tour of the refuge driving through some of the controlled flooded zones. On our way we passed bucolic fields flashing blue with flocks of indigo buntings but as Bob had worried the time of day and flooding left us little else to see. There was one shining moment, though, when I helped to identify a solitary sandpiper, living up to his name, sifting busily through the puddles on the road ahead.
After our tour of the refuge we moved on to something a little more up my alley – birding while eating. Bob joined us for lunch at one of his favorites places, Helen’s BBQ. Helen’s has been featured in Southern Living and Saveur. Despite the spotlight, the restaurant maintains a down-home feel and hospitality. With only two tables inside, we chose to sit outside at picnic tables that offer a look at and whiff of the screened-in pitroom at the back of the restaurant. The pitroom is as large as the restaurant itself, and obviously the secret to what was an amazing meal. We devoured our pulled-pork sandwiches, slaw, baked beans and cornmeal custard pie just as a spring storm blew in and the resident house sparrows and mockingbirds took to wing.
On Friday we began the day with a tour of the Tennessee Safari Park. Probably not something one would expect to do or see, especially on a birding trip in West Tennessee, but this was yet another look at the innovative and creative ways that Tennesseans are addressing the issues of conservancy and the challenges of an agricultural economy in the modern era. The safari park was created from a century-old farm that grew a variety of crops and raised livestock, but a decorative flock of pheasants and peafowl led the current landowners to a burgeoning interest in conservation of exotic animals. Tennessee Safari Park’s mission is to bring greater understanding of conservation through the showcasing of rare and endangered animals from around the world.
As we drove along 3.5-mile path through the park, emu and rhea followed us looking for a morning snack. In the fields beyond, native, wild meadowlarks called from the fence posts. We watched African deer leap through the fields, flushing red-winged blackbirds, while angus and longhorn cattle docilely chewed their cud, and cattle egrets waded in a nearby water hole.
On Saturday we started our day at a second of the five refuges of West Tennessee, the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. Much like the smaller Hatchie, the Tennessee NWR was established to provide, resting, nesting and feeding habitat for migratory birds. The refuge encompasses more the 51,000 acres of forest, farmland, and grassland in and around Kentucky Lake. Because of its location at the confluence of the Tennessee River and the Big Sandy River, and its north/south orientation, the refuge forms a natural corridor for spring and winter migration. In fact, because of its location and the diversity of habitats, TNWR has recorded 306 species, a significant number when one considers the entire state of Tennessee has recorded 409.
Although our late morning arrival didn’t allow for great birding during our hike through the trails, we did enjoy the wonderfully interactive educational displays in the visitor center, and the back observation deck, which offers an expansive view of Kentucky Lake. Just past the deck, in the fields, bobolinks swayed on tall grass stems, while in the lake beyond we saw what we were told were the last of the season’s blue-winged teal.
That night we toured the Denmark Presbyterian Church and Cemetery. Ironically, this made me think of home. While birding in a cemetery may seem morbid or strange to those not familiar with such things, bird watchers know that, especially in a historical setting, cemeteries offer birds shrubbery and big, old, native trees, shady glens, and winding paths, wide green spaces and hushed voices. It’s a rite of spring that each year the BWD staff takes a morning off to head to the Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta, Ohio, in hopes of spotting migrants. Birding in a cemetery while listening to historical reenactors, followed by a picnic and fish fry? This was something I could do!
The cemetery was charming and a little creepy as old burial grounds often are. As we walked from one gravesite to another in a meditative state, I heard a chip, chip, chip in the trees above. I stayed behind to try to catch sight of its source as the others continued to the next presentation. Following the movement of the leaves with my binoculars, I finally spotted a small, unimpressive bird. No wonder it was so hard to see. Its coloring was olive drab, with white on the belly fading to grey on the sides. Almost as soon as I saw it, it was gone. The group had moved to the other side of the cemetery. Identification would have to wait. As we left the cemetery I heard the sad call, that even I recognized, a mourning dove cooing from the trees and the whistle of its wings as it departed.
Between the delicious fish fry and the fascinating tour of the church and Masonic Lodge, I didn’t get to identify the bird I’d seen until I got back to my hotel room. I pulled out my New Birder’s Guide and rifled through the pages. How happy I was when I finally landed on a photo of the bird I’d seen. My “birding while…” philosophy offered up one last surprise: a Tennessee warbler to send me on my way back home.
The Hatchie BirdFest will be June 3-5, 2016.
Unique outdoor adventures and more than 200 species of birds await you on the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge. The event will include special speakers and demonstrations, hikes, and vendors—perfect for seasoned birders or beginners.
About the Author
Out There With the Birds is the official blog of Bird Watcher's Digest, featuring engaging content, commentary, and creativity from some exciting new voices. New posts appear several times a week, so please check back often!