Observing the curious lives and habits of local birdwatchers
by Rikki Hall
Knoxville is home to a birdwatching superstar, though Nancy Tanner says, â“my only claim to fame is that Iâ’m not dead yet.â” She is perhaps the only person who can declare sheâ’s seen an ivory-billed woodpecker and be believed, having helped photograph the crow-sized bird in 1938. The last confirmed sighting in the U.S. was in 1944, and despite sporadic, unverified reports, some experts believe the woodpecker is extinct.
On a Friday evening in September, nearly 100 bird lovers showed up at Ijams Nature Center to hear Nancy Tanner speak. After charming the crowd with her wit and detailed recollections of her long-ago journey, autograph-seekers crowded around. â“Itâ’s more exciting to have the signature of someone whoâ’s seen the ivory-billed woodpecker than to have the signatures of all the Rolling Stones,â” said Suzanne Parete-Koon, an astrophysics researcher. Asked whether she has the Rolling Stonesâ’ autographs, Parete-Koon said, â“No, but I do have the signatures of all of the Mothers of Invention, except for Frank [Zappa], but he died when I was just a girl.â”
Birdwatchers are a bit odd. Like fishermen, they will rise before dawn to pursue their quarry. Like stamp collectors, they catalog and compile sightings, building yard lists, year lists, and life lists. Like children, they dream of soaring over the land or flitting effortlessly through the trees.
While the sight of an endangered bird might be the ultimate prize, birders find delight in the familiar too. Nancy Tannerâ’s favorite bird is the kingfisher, and she recalls that when she first moved to the South in the 1930s, â“I thought the mockingbird was the most extraordinary bird.â” (The mockingbird is well-known for its vocal repertoire and ability to mimic other birdâ’s songs.)
Many birdwatchers get their start identifying visitors to backyard feeders. A stunning bird like a rose-breasted grosbeak or a scarlet tanager grabs their attention, and they are hooked. Others start from a broader love of the outdoors that crystallizes around birds.
The required tools of the trade are a pair of binoculars and a field guide. The Sibley Guide to the Birds by David Sibley is the standard bearer despite being the first American guide to omit the ivory-billed woodpecker. Sibleyâ’s illustrations are exquisite, and each page is packed with maps, notes and sketches useful for identifying birds. Many birders opt for the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America when actually in the field, because it is smaller and light enough to carry in a coat pocket but nearly equal to Sibleyâ’s book in quality.
Good binoculars are a must. A comfortable pair becomes an effortless tool, but a pair that is hard to focus or aim can frustrate fledgling birdwatchers. Quality binoculars can be found at pawnshops, but you need to be picky and would be wise to try the full range of styles and magnifications in a retail store first. Birders can become gear junkies, lusting for tripod-mounted spotting scopes, long camera lenses and expedition clothing.
Birders may also spend small fortunes traveling. They choose vacation destinations based on which species they can find. A few winters back, exceptionally cold conditions drove Arctic owls into Minnesota in search of prey, triggering a rush of bundled-up birders hoping to add the owls to life lists (â“tick themâ” in birder lingo). MTSU Prof. Kevin Breault plans to tick 10,000 species by the time he is 60, a quest that will send him all over the world, given that North America hosts fewer than 1,000 species.
Other birders prefer to let the birds do the traveling. The annual â“big sitâ” will be held this weekend, a nationwide event in which a person or team spends up to 24 hours in a 17-foot circle and counts all species seen. According to the rules governing â“birdingâ’s most sedentary event,â” you can leave the circle to ascertain an identification, but you must see the bird while inside the circle. Janet McKnight of Greenback has chosen a perch near Tellico Dam and hopes to see as many as 60 species.
There are several such events throughout the year, intended to promote citizen science and regular monitoring of bird populations. Christmas Bird Counts, begun Dec. 25, 1900, now boast 50,000 participants across North America and the longest continuous data set in ornithology. The Great Backyard Bird Count enlists birders of all skill levels to report how many birds visit their yard over four days in February. There are counting events during spring and fall migration, hawk watches from atop ridges along migratory paths and more.
Data collection, not competition, is the primary motivation for these events, but local clubs often reward teams that register the highest total or that spy a â“golden birdâ” announced after the counting is done. There is one formal competition held during spring migration, the World Series of Birding, wherein teams of five tally as many species as they can in 24 hours. Travel routes are carefully chosen to maximize the number of habitats visited, and teams hold dry runs in preparation.
In 2005, four Blount County birders held a friendly competition to see who could spot the most species within a year, a â“big year.â” Warren Bielenberg of Maryville says, â“I think we all ended up with between 190 and 198 species but our cumulative list was about 210 species.â” Rick Knight has done big years in the five-county area surrounding his home in Johnson City. Last year he tied the record for that area by tallying 237 species. He has seen 226 so far this year, but he thinks meeting or besting the record is not likely.
â“You have to mark off each potential species, schedule when you think is the best time and place to find it, then take the time to do it,â” Knight says. He spent 200 days last year birding for an hour or more.
The honor system definitely plays a role in birdwatching. In the formal competition, 95 percent of the sightings must be seen by the full team, and the others by at least two members. â“Seenâ” generally means a good enough look for the observer to make an independent identification. The big year/big sit events often include one-person sightings, so itâ’s all honor system, but counts usually involve pairs or teams. A birderâ’s reputation is something that is built up and cultivated during their outings, and academic or professional accomplishments help. When people report unusual sightings, there is actually a panel that decides whether to accept the record, and it all hinges on reputation, sometimes with hurt feelings as a result.
While lists and counts motivate many birders, not all of them take the hobby so seriously. Liz Singley of Kingston does not bother with lists because â“Iâ’m neither organized nor obsessive enough.â” She is a birdwatcher because she admires â“their beauty, their freedom and ease of movement through Earthâ’s atmosphere and their presence in my life each and every day.â” Singley hang-glides, and she says hang-glider pilots are â“the only contingent of society that worships vulturesâ"they were our advisors, showing us the best times and places to soar.â”
The birdwatching community has a couple of focal points. One is a moderated listserve where birders across the state post trip reports and unusual sightings. The Tennessee Ornithological Society also brings birders together, and the local chapter has been together since 1924. (See the sidebar for upcoming club events.) President Mark Campen welcomes new members and novice birders to attend monthly meetings, held the first Wednesday of each month, or join them on frequent outings. He says the club offers â“the opportunity to birdwatch with the best.â” He mentions Chuck Nicholson, author of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Tennessee, and Ijams naturalist Lyn Bales.
Bales spent a week in the rare books and manuscripts wing of Cornell University library this summer studying the field notes of Dr. James Tanner, Nancyâ’s late husband. Dr. Tanner was a zoology professor at the University of Tennessee and was the only person ever to put a leg band on an ivory-billed woodpecker. He was part of a team of researchers from Cornell studying ivory bills and other vanishing birds between 1935 and 1941. His team was the first to use a parabolic microphone, ideal for capturing bird song without too much background noise, and they filmed, photographed and recorded ivory bills, prairie chickens, golden eagles and 93 other species during the cross-country journey. That adventure and Tannerâ’s further efforts to study and document the ivory-billed woodpecker will be the subject of Balesâ’ second book, which he expects to complete next summer.
Nancy Tanner joined her husband on a 1938 expedition, slogging five miles into swampy Louisiana woods until they discovered a roost hole. They attempted without success to fashion dry seats from palmetto fronds, then waited for the birds to appear.
â“The barred owl stopped hooting and pretty soon the brown thrasher started singing,â” she says, running through a roll call of birds and noting that ivory bills were the last to wake up. â“Eventually a male ivory bill flew in and summoned the female from the hole, and they talked softly.â”
Nancy saw at least five of the rare woodpeckers on that trip with her husband. She says the birdâ’s â“unfortunate desire for gourmet foodâ” lead to its decline. She says it preferred to eat the fat and tender grubs found under the tight bark of recently dead trees, which it would chisel off with its long bill, a task smaller woodpeckers could not manage. This made the ivory bill dependent on forests both vast enough and mature enough to keep them fed; post-Civil-War logging decimated about 92 percent of such bottomland forests.
Prestigious Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology announced a sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004, and ivory bills were also reported in 2005 by an Auburn University team working in the Florida panhandle. Though about a dozen trained observers have claimed brief glimpses of the birds, Nancy Tanner has something they do not: photographs. She also has a keen memory of their habits and the gloss on their feathers, a character not present in museum skins.
â“Until we get some really good pictures from Arkansas or Florida, I have to stay alive,â” Tanner says.
â¢ On the Mountain with a Llama: Hey, itâ’s the latest trend: llama hiking. Kevin Crowe attempts to commune with natureâ"and his llama. â¢ Lost Trails for Brave Hikers: Local hiking author Ken Wise takes us on some off-trail excursions. â¢ A Kayaking Quest: Kim Trevathan goes on a summer-long expedition to find the original rivers feeding our man-made lakes.
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