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GEESE! part 1: Tennessee NWR

After turning in final grades for the semester, I couldn’t bear to spend another day staring at my computer screen, so on Saturday Dec 5, I headed out on a road trip that I’ve been dreaming of doing almost since I moved to Auburn, Alabama 25 years ago. My destination was the heart of the Mississippi flyway to view the spectacle of waterfowl staging in and migrating through the center of North America. I live in a duck-and-goose wasteland. It is almost 200 miles from my house in Auburn, Alabama to any significant congregation of ducks and geese. There used to be a few tens of thousands of ducks and geese at Eufaula NWR, only 50 miles from my driveway, but about ten years ago the refuge managers at Eufaula quit planting cereal grains for migratory waterfowl and now almost no ducks or geese winter there. As the old proverb proclaims, absence makes the heart grow fonder, so I was itching to see some big flock of ducks and geese.

Hermit Thrush was one of several "easy" winter birds that I needed for my Tennessee state list.

My first stop was a familiar stomping ground—Wheeler NWR near Decatur, AL. This refuge, which is about three hour’s drive from my house, is managed for migratory waterfowl and consistently has the biggest flocks of geese, ducks, and cranes in Alabama. It was a convenient place to break up my morning drive toward Tennessee, and I wanted to see the Red-necked Grebe that has been reported from the refuge. I easily found the grebe—a nice bird for my Alabama year list--and modest flocks of ducks and geese. The stars of the show at Wheeler are the thousands of Sandhill Cranes (and usually a few Whooping Cranes although these were missing on this day) that congregate around the visitor center. These were the only cranes that I saw on my trip (and the only cranes I had recorded in Alabama all year). I didn’t linger long at Wheeler because the biggest flocks of ducks and geese were still north of me.

One thing about a mid-December birding trip is that the days are really short. At the latitude of Alabama/Tennessee I was visiting, daylight birding started around 7am during this trip and was done by 430pm. I crossed into Tennessee north of Decatur and made a few stops to work on my Tennessee list. On my very first stop, just over the Tennessee border, I found a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds at a livestock corral. That’s pretty good winter bird for Tennessee and a new Tennessee state bird for me. I didn’t have much time to fool around, however, because my afternoon birding destination was the Big Sandy Unit of Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. I knew I had to be there by about 3pm to have any time to look around and that left little time for side trips.

Mallards were the dominant duck at both the Big Sandy and Duck River Units of Tennessee NWR.

I pulled into the Big Sandy Unit right at 3pm with absolutely perfect weather—60F, cloudless skies, zero wind. Perfect. I needed a pile of common winter birds for my Tennessee state list and they were all waiting for me: Hermit Thrush, Winter Wren, Dark-eyed Junco, Swamp Sparrow. And I got my first waterfowl fix. Unlike the Duck River Unit of Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, the big Sandy Unit is mostly dry uplands with little marshland for ducks. However, the one duck marsh has a fantastic elevated viewing platform with is perfectly positioned—close enough that you get decent views of the ducks but far enough back that they don’t flush. The evening light was to my back and I enjoyed watching 1000 Mallards milling about with most of the other dabbling ducks—Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Black Duck, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Gadwall. The platform afforded views of a shallow arm of Kentucky Lake and among the dozens of Canada Geese were several Cackling Geese—tiny and with stub bills compared with the Canada Geese. Cackling Geese are a specialty of Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge and I was happy to get nice views of these birds.

Barred Owls flew in right over my head as the sun set at the Big Sandy Unit of Tennessee NWR.

I ended the afternoon driving down a gravel refuge road toward Pace Point at the tip of the Big Sandy peninsula. About a mile short of the point, there was a tree across the road--dang. But, the tree had conveniently fallen at a spot where the road was close to the lake shore. All I had to do was walk a couple of hundred feet through open hardwood forest and I was standing at the edge of the lake. And the lake was full of birds. I immediately started seeing Common Goldeneyes and Red-breasted Merganser. In with the dozens of Red-breasted Mergansers was a female Common Merganser—a tough bird this far south. A few American White Pelicans dipped fish in the shallows while several Common Loons dove nearby. One of the loons was smaller with very dark plumage from its head down its neck to the back. Where the white ventral feathers met this dark dorsal plumage the transition was sharp and there was thin necklace of black across its throat—Pacific Loon. These mostly western loon have become regular on the reservoirs of the Tennessee River, but there are never more than a few scattered across three states and it is always a treat to find one. As the sun set I got an Eastern Screech-owl to answer a tape and then I had a pair of Barred Owls fly right in and hoot in the trees over my head. It was a great way to end a fun day of birding.

I should mention that I was undertaking this 5-day, 4-night trip in the midst of the COVID pandemic and driving into regions of the country with some of the highest COVID infection rates. My big risk in this trip was an assumption that I was not likely to contract COVID in a hotel room. Otherwise, I brought all of my food, did not eat out at all, did not use public restrooms ever (don’t ask), and wore a glove when I got self-service gas. I personally think that I’m very unlikely to contract COVID in a hotel room, but I won’t argue that I would be safer sleeping at home.

Five species of geese fed in this flock at the Duck River Unit of Tennessee NWR. Only three species are in this photo.

I spent the night in a hotel in Camden TN and was at the Duck River Unit of Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge the next morning well before sunrise. With the short days, it was no problem for me to be waiting around for the first light of morning. As daylight broke across the extensive wetlands of the refuge ducks and geese were everywhere. Well, ducks were flying around everywhere and I could hear hundreds if not thousands of White-fronted Geese in the distance. It was a very birdy morning. Even though I tallied many thousands of ducks with every expected species included, geese were the stars of the show. The first White-fronted Geese flew into some open fields adjacent to the wildlife trail and then they were joined by more and more geese. The numbers were not that big compared to what I would see in Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi in coming days but by the time all the flocks had come in FIVE species of geese stood in front me: White-fronted (which were 90% of the birds), Snow, Ross’s, Canada, and Cackling. It was fun to have so many waterfowl to look at and the wetlands also held a very nice variety of songbirds as well. By the time I left the volunteer state around noon, I had added more than 40 species to my Tennessee state list.

I was happy to find a Glaucous Gull below Kentucky Dam in extreme western Kentucky.

Kentucky is where I grew up and started birding, and I planned to spend only a few hours in the middle of the day in the Bluegrass State. This brief visit to Kentucky held a lot of nostalgia for me because when I was around 8 years old (just before I started looking at birds) my family drove our old white Pontiac 4 hours across the state to have a family vacation at Kentucky Dam Village State Park. I had not been back to the lodge where we stayed in 42 years, and I spent an hour or so in the afternoon walking around the lodge and the “beach” where my brother, sister and I had had so much fun when we were kids. So far as I could tell, it was exactly the same.

I ended this first leg of my trip looking at gulls above and below Kentucky Dam which spans the Tennessee River forming Kentucky Lake. It didn’t take me long to find an unusual gull--an immature Glaucous Gull was flying around with the Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. It was a striking all buff-colored bird.

I ended the day driving across the Ohio River to Illinois, putting me in position to start the northern leg of my goose trip the next day.


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