Winter Birding VENTURE to:
Hiawassee, Brainerd Levee, Chickamauga Dam, and TN Aquarium
January 31 – February 2, 2014
The 4 of us met in Asheville for the 4 hour drive over to the Chattanooga area. The snow was still on the ground as we drove across the edge of the Smokies making for a chilly start to our trip. What more interesting a start can one have than stopping for lunch at Bimbo’s on the way through? Many of the local lakes were frozen so the largest concentration of Sandhill Cranes were on the Hiwassee River; mostly standing around on the sand bars or feeding along the semi-frozen shoreline. Many were also feeding in the nearby fields among the cattle- a quite amazing sight really. Not quite the African savanna, but almost!
Small flocks of American Pipits also fed in the fields and large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds wheeled and landed amongst the cattle. A new visitor center had been built down on the end of Blyth’s Ferry Road honoring the Cherokee removal along the Trail of Tears. It was a beautiful site to spend a little time before heading to the new overlook high on a bluff over the Hiwassee River. The cranes were still distant so we looked for a closer vantage point on the other side of the river (another part of Blyth’s Ferry Road!) We spent the rest of the late afternoon here watching evening flights of ducks, as well as enjoying and photographing flock after flock of Sandhill Cranes en route to their evening roost- probably also on one of the river islands.
An adult Black-crowned Night-Heron (rare at this season) flew into feed and a Winter Wren sat on the rocks seemingly oblivious to our presence.
Our hotel was in Chattanooga and was barely 3 months old. A very smart, modern hotel with a sleek modern look……quite nice really, except getting through the vast sprawl of a shopping mall complex and a seemingly bizarrely confusing road system. Dinner was at the locally owned and operated restaurant, the Big River Grille, which has a brew-pub down town.
We started the following morning along the icy Brainerd Levee, which is part of the greenway system that goes through a large part of Chattanooga. Despite the sunshine and rapidly warming temperatures, most of the water was still frozen and the ducks were all elsewhere.
Thankfully several still flew by maybe checking on the status of the water and these included Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and Green-winged Teal. By the time we returned towards the parking lot the ice had receded a little and about 25 Teal were feeding in the shallow water. A real treat was the number of Wilson’s Snipe that were being flushed from the short grass around the pool. They flew up only to quickly land again and then disappear into the vegetation. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk was particularly attractive and small flocks of Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Meadowlarks and American Robins were feeding along the grassy banks. We met Kevin, my long time birding friend, at Chickamauga Dam where we enjoyed an extraordinary number of White-winged Scoter, as well as a very showy Long-tailed Duck. The rest of the afternoon was spent checking out several of Kevin’s birding spots and picking up species, such as Common Goldeneye, and Brown-headed Nuthatch. Dinner was again at the Big River Grille – so convenient to the hotel!
We decided to spend our last morning at the wonderful Tennessee Aquarium where we lucky enough to get a “behind the scenes” tour to meet the penguins……very cool indeed. After lunch in Chattanooga we then drove the 4 hours back to Asheville – a great trip with thousands of cranes and some great ducks.