Birds We are Seeing

Common Loon (gavia immer)— The Common Loon is a large bodied low swimmer with a dagger like bill and dives from the surface or slowly sinks to feed on small fish, crustaceans or other aquatic life. The Common Loon winters in the Refuge and will be in their winter plumage which is a dark back and head, a white strongly indented neck pattern and a straight, strong bill. Loons do not nest in the Refuge but have unique nesting habits. Because of their weight (up to 8lbs.), solid bone structure and the placement of their feet loons are awkward on land so they nest as close to the water as possible. Loons usually lay two eggs and after the chicks have hatched they will ride on their parents back for protection. The adults will feed the chicks for up to eight weeks or until they are diving for their own food. Again because of their weight and feet placement loons cannot take off from land. Even on water they have to get a running start to build up speed before they are able to obtain flight. Their landing has been described as a ‘controlled crash landing’. The weight and placement of their feet does serve a purpose, it enables the loon to make dives up to 200 feet using their feet for propulsion.

Double-crested Cormorant (phalacrocorax auritus)
Cormorants are large birds with black and dark brown feathers a long hooked bill orange throat pouch and webbed black feet. They can be seen standing erect on rocks, trees and stumps with their necks in an S shaped curve and their wings spread to dry. They swim low in the water like a loon and many times all you see is their head when swimming. Cormorants feed on fish and marine invertebrates. After catching a fish the cormorant will surface, flip the fish in the air and swallow it head first. The Double-crested Cormorant can be seen in the Refuge all year long. As of yet we have found no nesting colonies but are always on the lookout.

Great Blue Heron (ardea herodias)— The Great Blue Heron
is the largest and most common heron in North America and can be found in the Refuge anytime of the year. They stand three to four feet tall and can have a wing span up to six feet. The Great Blue is a blue-gray color and has a plume of feathers on the back and neck and the adults will have a white cap on the top of their head. Their diets consist of fish, frogs, lizards, grasshoppers, aquatic insects, shrimp, crabs and even small birds and mammals. We have several nesting colonies in the Refuge. Most are hard to see when the foliage returns in spring but we have one colony nesting on a TVA transmission line tower with ten to fifteen nests. When flying the heron holds its neck in an S-shape unlike the cranes that fly with their necks extended.

Great Egret (ardea alba)— The Great Egret is a large, stately, slender white heron that is over three feet tall and has a wing span of almost five feet. In the early part of the 20th century they were almost hunted to extinction for their feathers to adorn ladies hats. When feeding the Great Egret assumes a forward leaning pose with its neck extended before spearing fish, crayfish, snakes, snails and frogs with its long sharp yellow bill. They are regular summer visitors with no known nesting colonies in the Refuge.

Vultures— Vultures are thought to be ugly, loathsome and nasty but the truth is they are one of our most useful birds cleaning the forests and roadsides of dead and rotting animals. Their head is perfect for the dirty job they have because it is devoid of feathers and is ideal for getting inside a rotting carcass. Their beaks are long, hooked and great for ripping and tearing. Vultures also have a unique defense system. When cornered or threatened the vulture will vomit on its attacker, can you imagine. There are two types of vultures in the Refuge the Black Vulture (coragyps atratus) and the Turkey Vulture (cathartes aura). There are several ways to distinguish the two vultures. The easiest when viewing from up close is the head. The Turkey Vulture will have a bare red head while the Black Vulture has a bare black head. In flight the underside of the Turkey Vulture’s wings will appear dark while the trailing edge is a lighter shade and when soaring their wings are held in a V-shape. The underside of the Black Vulture’s wings will have lighter shade on the wing tips and when soaring the wings are held straight. The Black Vulture also will take more wing beats while soaring usually three beats and soars. The Turkey Vulture is the larger of the two “buzzards”. It stands two to three feet tall and has a wing span of just under six feet while the Black Vulture will stand about two feet tall and has a wing span of four to five feet. The Black Vulture’s tail is much shorter giving it a “stumpy” appearance.

Bald Eagle (haliaeetus leucocephalus)— The Bald Eagle has made a remarkable recovery from 1963 when there were only 417 nests nationwide. In 2006 that total was over 8000 and still on the rise. We know of two. This pair is the earliest known nesters in the state. They will lay their eggs and start incubation in early December. Bald Eagles usually mate for life and will return to the same nest year after year adding more sticks to the nest each year. It has been estimated a Bald Eagle’s nest can weight up to two tons. The adult will stand 27 to 36 inches tall, have a wingspan of 7 to 8 feet and as with all raptors the female is the larger of the two. The adult Bald Eagle is easy to recognize with its white head and tail and dark body. But the immature Bald is difficult to identify because it will not obtain these till it reaches four to five years of age.

Golden Eagle (aouila chrysaetos)— We have spotted two wintering
Golden Eagles in the past two years. The immature Bald Eagle is often confused for an adult Golden Eagle. The adult Golden will have a white band at the base of its tail, a golden crown and nape and the legs are feathered to the toes. In contrast the immature Bald will be dark overall with a light crown, legs will be yellow with no feathers and have white showing on the body and under parts of the wings. Both species of adults are close to the same size except the Golden has a slightly smaller wingspan (6-7 feet). The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) released 11 Golden Eagles in 1998 from the Armstrong Bend Eagle Hacking Tower inside the Refuge but none have returned to the area to nest.

Osprey (pandion haliaetus)— There is only one species of
Osprey in the entire world and the Refuge has one of the largest nesting populations in the area. Also known as the Fish Hawk; the Osprey will hover over searching for fish then dive feet first into the water after its prey. It will sometimes become completely submerged and then take-off from the surface shaking the water off in flight. Occasionally they will skim the above the surface and gracefully snatch a fish from the water. With the additional weight of some fish the Osprey struggles to regain altitude. They stand about 2 feet tall and have a wingspan of up to 6 feet. While hovering in flight, it appears their wings are bending in the middle. The Osprey has a white head with a wide black eye stripe and a black and white body. Osprey nest near the water in the tops of dead trees or on man made platforms and defend their nest vigorously.

Red-tailed Hawk (buteo jamaicensis)— The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in the area, it is usually the hawk you see sitting on the power lines along the highway. It will soar in wide circles searching for food or riding the thermals on sunny days over the open fields along the river. The Red-tailed is easy to identify while flying because of its distinctly red tail and white chest. The immature will have speckled feathers on its chest. The Red-tailed stands about 2 feet tall and dines on rodents, rabbits, small birds and reptiles.

Wild Turkey (meleagris gallopayo)— We have seen flocks of over 30 of these birds along the river's bank. They are very plentiful and can be found only in North America. For this very reason Ben Franklin proposed the Wild Turkey become the national bird. The male turkey will stand 48 inches tall while the female is smaller at 36 inches. They are brown in color barred with black, the males will have a beard and most females will not. Watching a tom (male) turkey swell up and strut for females is a sight you will never forget. They will fan their tail, lower their wings and make gobbling sounds. The head and wattle (cone on head) will become a brighter red and the wattle will become enlarged and hang below the head. Their favorite food is acorns but they also dine on berries, nuts, seeds and insects.

Whooping Crane (grus americana)— In the 1950s there were only 20 Whooping Cranes known to survive in the United States. Now the population has grown to over 300 birds thanks to conservation and the Endangered Species Act. The Whooper is North America’s tallest bird standing close to 5 feet tall and has a wingspan of over 7 feet. Their trumpet like call can be heard for miles. It is pure white with black wing tips and a red forehead and cheeks; this bird stands out like a sore thumb in a flock of Sandhill Cranes. Each year Operation Migration leaves Wisconsin in ultra lights with a flock of Whooping Cranes headed for Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida they use the Refuge as a stop over point on their long journey. The past two years we have had one or two Whoopers spend part of the winter at the Refuge feeding with the Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Crane (grus canadensis)— The Sandhill Crane is the most common and widespread crane in North America and are known for their elaborate courtship dance. They stand over 4 feet tall with a wingspan of over 6 feet and weigh about 14 pounds. Their bodies are gray and may have a rust stained color but the neck is always gray and the head will have a red crown. Unlike the heron and egret that fly with their necks in a S-shaped cranes fly with their necks fully extended. Starting in November the Sandhills will begin arriving at the Refuge and by mid January we will have over 12000 wintering cranes. This is due to the efforts of TWRA who plants grains for them to feed on. By the end of February the last of the cranes will have departed for their summer nesting grounds in Canada.

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Other Adventures in the area:
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