"Watchable wildlife" is the phrase the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency uses to describe the critters that walk, fly, or swim through our fields, forests, streams, rivers, lakes, and skies. There are more of them than most of us have ever dreamt of in our philosophies. If you want to know more about the plentiful blue heron or the rebounding Eastern bluebird, or if you'd like to know the current range of our region's reintroduced elk or native coyotes, check out the dedicated Wildlife Watchers page at tnwatchablewildlife.org.
There, divided into animal groups, you'll find a complete list of native and introduced or nuisance species, as well as tips on identification and a downloadable map to wildlife-watching areas. In no particular order, here are three personal favorites:
BIRD: THE WILD TURKEY
You may have heard, growing up, that statesman Benjamin Franklin argued strongly for the turkey instead of the eagle to become America's national bird. Then you looked at the blob of processed fowl sold in plastic wrap at the supermarket or glanced at the crayoned feathers on your hand print turkey drawing and privately wondered if Mr. Franklin wore his wire spectacles too tight.
But the first time you see a turkey in the wild, you understand the reverence that this bird inspires. Once plentiful throughout our fields and forests, and a favorite of generations of settlers and Native Americans, the bird had dwindled to such alarmingly low numbers that hunters almost never saw or heard one, much less bagged a bird. Now, thanks to an aggressive turkey reintroduction program by the TWRA, lots of toms are doing lots of strutting locally. This writer spotted an enormous male turkey crossing Keller Bend Road in West Knoxville last spring and a hen ambling along Townsend's River Road in Blount County a couple of weeks ago. (Males and females are very different in size and appearance, and the hens don't have the male's distinctive swagger.)
Hunters are also bagging record numbers of birds again (visit tn.gov/twra for rules and regulations on hunting). The TWRA still has some kinks in conservation to work out, given that turkeys are now abundant in some wildlife management areas and still scarce in others, but the species' return is something to celebrate.
AMPHIBIAN: THE HELLBENDER
The hellbender salamander has its own public service announcement, courtesy of the TWRA, that basically sums up the species as "I'm ugly but important, so please leave me alone." Really, don't we hope our loved ones care enough to say the same about us?
The hellbender ranges from almost a foot long to a few inches shy of two feet, and while it is territorial and even cannibalistic, it is harmless to humans. We, however, are not harmless to it. The hellbender naturally hides away under large, flat rocks in Eastern Tennessee's fast-flowing, clean streams and rivers. That "clean" part is what has put this species at risk, with pollution and waste run-off threatening it to a great degree in the last several decades. Aquatic biologists have made this species one of their great priorities, and they ask that you do the same. If you accidentally catch one on a hook or a line, you must release it unharmed, and, if you really want to help out our homely salamander friend, please report hellbender sightings to the TWRA and e-mail photos, provided they can be taken without disturbing the animal.
MAMMAL: BLACK BEAR
It doesn't matter how many you've seen in your lifetime: Every black bear is a Kodak (or Instagram) moment. Although this species is not technically endangered, populations had dwindled in the 1970s. Worse, the past few decades have seen the rise of "problem bears," those that become accustomed to invading human's camping spots, picnic tables or homes, bears that act more like denizens of Animal House than the shy, good-natured creatures of natures they are.
Black bears typically inhabit remote locations and heavily wooded forests. In the 1990s, Tennessee wildlife agents introduced black bears from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the wildlife management areas around the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and that reintroduction has been a rousing success, with a population of more than 250 bears now calling it home. Agents also have aggressive tracking and relocation programs that they hope will quell the rise of nuisance bears, and the not-for-profit Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend has a 17-year-track record of rehabilitating and repatriating black bears to the wild.
Bear poachers are punished swiftly and harshly, and so are those who encourage loutish behavior. When I saw a mama with two cubs late last summer off the Cades Cove Loop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there were two park rangers on site immediately to keep gawkers from getting too close. Such active vigilance seems smart and necessary, so that future generations of humans can enjoy future generations of bears. But watching from a safe distance while bear cubs frolic in areas where they are meant to live? That's encouraged—and it's something you'll never tire of seeing.