On the first day of November, my attempt to find 200 species of birds in 2013 in Northeast Tennessee came to a successful conclusion with a trip to Shady Valley in Johnson County.
The quest concluded with two months to spare. So, any additional birds added to the list through the end of the year will be, as they say, “icing on the cake.”
I made the trip to Shady Valley with Brookie and Jean Potter and we visited the two wetland bogs managed by The Nature Conservancy.
Back in 2000 — when I set my personal best record for most birds found in a single year in the region — I found a lot of good birds in Shady Valley on my way to finding 220 species that year. My list included American Bittern, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, LeConte’s Sparrow. I don’t have any of those species on my list this year, but I have some equally interesting birds to take their place.
The two birds that helped me reach my goal of 200 species are not uncommon, but they are birds with a liking for specific habitats.
We first visited Quarry Bog, a 65-acre wetland preserve managed and protected by the Nature Conservancy. Back in 2000, the fairly new preserve was a much different place and attracted some never-before-recorded species to Shady Valley. More than a decade later, the habitat is still unique and remains a magnet for species that prefer habitats such as fields and wetlands.
We hadn’t walked far into the preserve when we stopped near one of the stands of cattails. Brookie saw a small, brown bird that later produced its characteristic call. I got a glimpse of the bird and managed to hear it quite clearly., which allowed me to add Marsh Wren as Bird No. 199 to my list.
The rest of our visit to Quarry Bog didn’t provide many birds, although we did flush one Wilson’s Snipe into its zig-zag flight. The only sparrow we confirmed was a Song Sparrow.
We had some better luck at Orchard Bog. We had just gotten out of the vehicle when Brookie spotted a Northern Harrier in flight. In some of the older birding field guides, this large raptor is known as a Marsh Hawk. After some scanning with my binoculars, I was able to relocate the bird gliding just over the top of the grasslands. The sighting made it official! The Northern Harrier at Orchard Bog provided Bird No. 200 for my list.
Now, I can use the next two months to pad that total a bit without feeling the deadline of Dec. 31 looming. It feels really good to have the pressure off.
While at Orchard Bog, we also watched a flock of a couple of hundred Red-winged Blackbirds gathering in a wood lot to roost in some trees for the night. We also observed at least five Swamp Sparrows at Orchard Bog.
The fall color was still bright and colorful in Shady Valley during our visit, which also made the trip worthwhile.
Male and female Northern Harriers have distinct plumages. The adult male is pale gray on the head, back and wings. The gray tail is banded with six to eight gray-brown bars. There is cinnamon-brown spotting on the legs and flanks, and the wing linings and undertail are white. Seen from a distance, male harriers often look quite silvery. Adult males have yellow eyes.
Females are browner overall with dark streaks on the breast. Females are born with brown eyes which turn yellow at about three years of age. Juveniles resemble adult females, but have gray eyes.
During the winter and in migration, flocks of these raptors may roost on the ground in agricultural fields, abandoned fields and salt marshes. Harriers nest in both freshwater and brackish marshes, tundra, fallow grasslands, meadows and cultivated fields. This preference for fields and wetlands also gave this raptor its former common name of Marsh Hawk.
These raptors look distinctive and elegant in flight as they skim over grasslands in search of prey, which includes small birds, rodents and reptiles.
The Northern Harrier has a distinct facial disk, similar to those seen in many owls, that helps them detect sounds with uncanny preciseness. A conspicuous white rump patch is also a feature that makes it easy to identify these fairly distinctive raptors.
The Marsh Wren is also a bird fond of wetlands, especially cattail marshes. This wren’s diet consists of insects, spiders and small snails.
The Marsh Wren was formerly known as the Long-billed Marsh Wren to distinguish it from the Sedge Wren, which at that time was known as the Short-billed Marsh Wren. The difference in bill length is not a reliable indicator to separate the two birds in the field. Fortunately, the Marsh Wren is a very vocal bird and can easily be identified by its songs and calls.
The Marsh Wren and Sedge Wren belong to the genus Cistothorus, which also includes two species — the Mérida Wren or Paramo Wren and the Apolinar’s Wren — that are native to high-altitude grassland habitats in South America.
The Marsh Wren is more abundant in the coastal marshes of South Carolina than in the limited habitats available in Northeast Tennessee. I have observed these small wrens quite often during visits to Fripp Island, S.C.
A couple of Swamp Sparrows are still present in the cattail marsh and field at my home. I’m interested to see how far into the winter season these sparrows remain.
I have added a few additional birds to my year list, thanks to some migrating geese. I’ll provide more about those birds in an upcoming column. It’s safe to say that I will finish the year not only with my targeted 200 species, but a few to spare, as well.
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