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For the Birds: Southeast hosts exceptional rare birds this winter
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For the Birds: Southeast hosts exceptional rare birds this winter

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Among the unusual avian visitors to the Volunteer State this winter has been a snowy owl that has delighted observers in Chattanooga. Snowy owls, such as the individual pictured, are more commonly found on the tundra regions of the Arctic.

Birds have wings. Birds can fly. Birds confound our expectations.

Perhaps the mobility of birds is part of the human fascination with them. An unexpected bird can pop up at any time at almost any place. In fact, with 2021 less than a month old, the Volunteer State has already hosted some absolutely incredible birds.

For example, birder Evan Kidd found a Pacific Slope Flycatcher in Maryville on Jan. 7.

A couple of weeks later, a snowy owl, which is a bird most people have only become acquainted with in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels, made an appearance on Zephyr Lane near Lake Chickamauga in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga’s been a real hot spot so far this year. In addition to the snowy owl, Chattanooga’s hosted such unlikely visitors as white-throated swift and Bullock’s oriole.

All of these birds quickly achieved celebrity status and attracted birders from near and far hoping for a glimpse of these rarities to Tennessee.

Birder Michael Todd posted on Facebook on Jan. 13 about his own observation of the white-throated swift. This particular sighting came with a bit of an unnerving twist for all the people who had flocked to see the swift.

“Luckily, the swift narrowly avoided being a snack for a marauding merlin that tried its best to have some swift for lunch today,” Todd revealed in his Facebook post.

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Closer to home, a long-tailed duck has been hanging out with buffleheads and other ducks at the weir dam at Osceola Recreation Area in Bristol.

The winter invasion of evening grosbeaks, a finch that usually inhabits the forests of Canada and the northern United States, continued into 2021 as well.

What brings birds to locations far beyond their typical range? Obviously, their wings and the associated power of flight makes it possible for birds to travel surprising distances.

But on a more down-to-earth level, some of these birds such as the snowy owl and evening grosbeaks have ventured far south of their normal ranges because their usual food sources are scarce. Climate change may be exacerbating those scarcities. On occasion, a major weather phenomenon like hurricanes or other strong storms will force birds into unfamiliar territory. And who’s to say that an occasional bird doesn’t succumb to the temptation of wanderlust and decide to explore greener pastures? Or maybe some of these birds are simply stubborn, lost and reluctant to ask for directions.

The reasons an unexpected bird might grace any given location are myriad. What’s easily explained is the excitement that they can generate. Back in the winter of 2009 I traveled with some friends to Spring Hill, Tennessee, in the hope of getting a look at a snowy owl. After several hours staking out some large fields with dozens of other birders on property owned by General Motors at the time, we got our owl. Incidentally, that particular owl got the nickname “Chevy” due to its association with the GM production facilities in Spring Hill. The moment that owl unfurled its wing and made a short but majestic flight over the field remains a birding thrill of a lifetime.

Making the moment even more memorable was the fact that I got to see my first (and so far only) snowy owl in my home state of Tennessee instead of traveling to the edge of the Arctic tundra during the summer to look for this awesome owl on its home turf. It’s not that I would say no to a tundra tour, but it hasn’t been in the cards yet.

I have a short list of some other exceptional birds that have made their way to Tennessee rather than forcing me to venture across the country and around the globe to see. I observed monk parakeets and a green-breasted mango hummingbird in North Carolina, as well as a harlequin duck and Virginia’s warbler along Netherland Inn Drive in Kingsport from the greenbelt that meanders along the Holston River. Earlier this year while birding alone, I felt a moment of “that’s different” when a raptor took flight over the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and materialized as a Mississippi kite once I got my binoculars on it.

I think it’s part of the reason some birders are addicted to the chase. There’s nothing wrong with the cardinals and sparrows in the backyard, but a “rare bird” can truly generate a powerful jolt of excitement.

Technology, including social media and GPS, has helped pinpoint these rarities when they stray into unfamiliar terrain. For instance, the snowy owl near Chattanooga is hardly the only one of its kind straying south of the Arctic this winter. These owls have made a major push south with individuals spotted in Lee, Illinois; Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Wood, Ohio; and Clinton, Iowa. A snowy owl has even been spending the winter on Ocracoke Island along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There’s even dramatic photographs online of the owl against the backdrop of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

What’s the best way to spot a rare bird? Keep your eyes open and learn to recognize the birds that aren’t part of the familiar local flocks. One word of warning: Looking for those rarities can become addictive.

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