Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Finally, Officially Birding

Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge--Duck River Unit, Humphreys County, TN

    Well, I did it. I survived the start of 2016, only chasing a pair of rarities once on January 18 before I finally, officially went birding on February 13 at the Duck River Unit of the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuges. I wish I could say that beginning the year with limited birding was easy. It wasn't, but waiting made it more enjoyable when I finally watched my year list shoot skyward!
    My usual sidekicks, Dad and Nolan, accompanied me to Duck River last Saturday. Ironically, it was just a few days past our "4th Anniversary" of the first time we had ever visited the unit in 2012. Since that time, Duck River has become my favorite birding location in our state. There really is no bad time of year to visit this refuge.
One of the pools here, usually filled with water during the winter.

    We began our adventure about two hours after the sun had risen. The sky was partly cloudy, and in addition to temperatures in the twenties, there was a biting wind. It took no time at all for our year lists to slowly increase. Waterfowl, common here during the winter, were among the first species we found. Although Mallards and American Wigeons were the most abundant, we also saw many beautiful Northern Shovelers, like the male pictured below, and Northern Pintails, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads, and more. Several hundred geese were feeding in the field to our left. Scanning through them, we found all five of the regular species here: Snow, Ross's, Canada, Cackling, and Greater White-fronted. We crept along the gravel road, stopping to check every puddle, pond, and pool.

Northern Shoveler

Cackling and Canada Geese, American Wigeons, a Northern Pintail, and an American Coot

Waterfowl at Duck River
Greater White-fronted Geese coming in for a landing

A fraction of the Greater White-fronted Geese

    Where waterfowl is plentiful, obviously raptors are too. We tallied 18 Bald Eagles, 1 Golden Eagle, and 7 Red-tailed Hawks, including one of the "Krider's" subspecies. The latter is an uncommon form chiefly found in West Tennessee.
"Krider's" Red-tail

    We saw a lot more gulls than I have ever seen here in one day. Several hundred were Ring-bills, and there were only 6 Bonaparte's and 1 Herring. I admit that we often ignore the passerines here at wintertime, but my non-birder dad pointed out this beautiful male cardinal, and I could not help but stop and take a photo. 

Northern Cardinal
    After we finished birding the main part of the refuge, we went to the pump station, which is an area we visit less frequently. It was bitterly cold walking along the levee on the open water - cold enough that the boys bailed out and remained in the warm truck! I was freezing, but I could see a large raft of ducks spread out over river, and the only way I could get a good enough look to identify them without the heat shimmer disturbing my views was to get as close as possible. I walked about 100 yards before I could finally see decently through my scope. There were many Canvasbacks and Lesser Scaups present, and just one male Greater Scaup that I could see. While I was watching the latter duck to confirm its ID, a bulky, black waterbird with white patches on either wing abruptly flew through my scope. I was shocked but confident this bird was a male White-winged Scoter, a rare visitor only when the weather is the most extreme farther North. (Endurance pays off!) But despite my astonishment, I couldn't quite celebrate to the fullest - I was eager to get back in our heated car!
    We ended the day with about 32 FOYs, which included nearly all of Tennessee's common waterfowl. The rest we can easily get in the 3 remaining winter months of the year! I hope to get out again soon, even if I have to wait another month. :)