Birds of the Powell, Clinch, and Holston River Watersheds

by Ed Talbott

Photos courtesy of Roger Mayhorn except where noted
rmayhorn@hughes.net http://pbase.com/mayhorn

American Redstart
American Redstart

Three major river systems arise in the hill and valley region of Southwest Virginia and follow the ridgelines, flowing southwest into Northeast Tennessee. The rivers are the Clinch, the Powell and the Holston, and these rivers, along with the French Broad River, eventually form the mighty Tennessee River. This region is characterized by high spruce-covered mountain peaks, wide fertile valleys, and long straight ridgelines. This combination, along with several man-made reservoirs in the region, creates a diversity of different habitats that act as a magnet to a wide variety of bird species. In fact, this area is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America.

More than 300 species of birds have been identified along the streams, lakes, and ridges of the region. Many are year-round residents. Some travel here from South America each year to breed in the valleys and on the mountain slopes, some are only passing through and show up in our region during their spring and fall migrations, and still others spend their winters here to escape the bitter winters of Canada, where they will return in the spring to breed. At certain times of the year, over one hundred different species of bird can be identified in a single day.

One of the attractions of bird watching is that it can be combined with other hobbies such as hiking, camping, canoeing, and horseback riding. All it takes is a pair of binoculars and a field guide to help identify different birds. Many people who are unable to hike can also enjoy bird watching from their homes by putting out bird feeders and seeing what species visit their feeders at different times of the year. Also it is a challenge to many birders to identify the species of bird simply by the songs they hear in the forest. In fact, more people now watch birds in the United States than go hunting or fishing.

Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler

It is no surprise that the mountains of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee can provide some of the best bird watching in the country. Many different families of birds are found here, including hawks, owls, vireos, sparrows, finches, shorebirds, and ducks; however, the highlight of local birding is our diverse and beautiful collection of wood-warblers. Over thirty different species of these “jewels of the forest” can be found here in our mountains. Their songs fill the morning air, and their plumages vary with shades of golden yellow, deep blue, olive green, and bright orange. It is not uncommon to find fifteen species of warbler in a single morning of bird watching in the region.

The vivid markings of warblers include the stark contrast of the Black-and-white Warbler, the flame-colored throat of the Blackburnian Warbler, the bright orange and black of the American Redstart, and the distinguished coloration of the Golden-winged Warbler. At higher elevations, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, and Canada warblers fill the morning air with their song. With such diverse colors and songs, the wood-warblers are favorites of many bird watchers, and the mountains of this region include some of the best spots in the world to see them.

Brown-headed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird

Many species of warbler are now in decline in our region. The main threats are habitat loss due to the activities of man, such as the clearing of forest land, and the invasion of the Brown-headed Cowbird. It was once called the “buffalo bird,” because it would follow the huge bison herds of the prairies and eat the insects that swarmed around these herds. Since the cowbirds could not follow the herds and also raise a family, the females improvised by laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. The aggressive cowbird chicks hatch earlier than the other eggs, and this results in the deaths of the other chicks in the nest.

As many bird species native to virgin forests have seen declines in population over the past one hundred years, the clearing of land for timber and farms has actually created habitat suitable for other species of birds to live here. Grassland species such as Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Killdeer, and some species of wood-warbler have no doubt benefited from land clearing activities in the region. The Chestnut-sided Warbler used to be one of the rarest birds in all of North America. In fact, John James Audubon, the noted naturalist and ornithologist of the early 1800s, was reported to have seen only one of these birds in his entire life of traveling North America. The preferred habitat of this warbler is second-growth timber and scrubland. Farming has created thousands of acres of this habitat in the mountains, and this particular species is now a fairly common warbler along the Clinch, Holston, and Powell watersheds.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

If the wood warblers are the jewels of the forest, then the raptors are the jet fighters of the bird world. They are silent hunters that strike without warning. Eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, harriers, and kestrels fall into this category. The owls are the silent hunters of the night and include the Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl, and the Eastern Screech Owl, among others. Year-round raptors of the area include the Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk, the Cooper’s Hawk, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, and more recently, our national symbol, the Bald Eagle.

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk

The Broad-winged Hawk is a stocky forest-dwelling hawk common in the mountains of our region, but is sometimes hard to find during the breeding season. That all changes during the hawk’s annual 4,000-mile migration to its wintering grounds in South America. Starting in mid-September, millions of Broad-winged Hawks start streaming along the mountaintops of the Appalachians, headed south. At Mendota on Clinch Mountain, hundreds and sometimes thousands of hawks can be counted in a single day. The hawks look for thermals, or columns of air, that swirl upward from the mountain ridges. These thermals act as invisible elevators that the hawks can ride upwards for hundreds of feet without flapping their wings. Over one hundred hawks can be seen at times swirling upwards over a mountain point in a formation known as a “kettle.” As the birds near the top of the thermal, they peel off and sail southward, continuing their long journey to South America.

Barred Owl
Barred Owl

Each winter the Golden Eagles return to the high country of the Clinch, Holston, and Powell river valleys. They can been seen sailing in the wind without flapping as their seven-foot wingspan provides all the lift they need to stay in the air. The eagles spend their winters here and then migrate north in the early spring to breed in Canada near and above the Arctic Circle. Another northern visitor in the winter is the Rough-legged Hawk, a beautiful, lightly-colored hawk with a white head and a circular dark patch on each wing. These hawks will also follow the eagles north to breed in the high arctic tundra.

Sparrows are a favorite of many birders in the region. Several different species can be found in the region at different times of the year. These include the Song, Field, Chipping, Fox, White-crowned, White-throated, Lincoln’s, Vesper, Swamp, Savannah, Grasshopper, Henslow’s, Sharp-tailed, and American Tree sparrows. The Eastern Towhee and the Dark-eyed Junco (Snowbird) are also included in the sparrow family.

Golden-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler

Finches are also favorites of many bird watchers. The American Goldfinch is the bright yellow and black bird that many people here call “mountain canary.” House and Purple finches both have crimson coloration on their heads. To attract finches and other birds, just put out some black-oil sunflower or thistle seeds. You will soon have finches, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and cardinals visiting your backyard. Hang a hummingbird feeder with sugar water, and you will soon have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sampling the homemade nectar during the summer. These tiny birds weigh only a tenth of an ounce (about the weight of a single penny), yet fly thousands of miles to breed in this area.

Some of the members of the thrush family that reside in the region include the American Robin, the Eastern Bluebird, the Wood Thrush, and the Veery. The Wood Thrush and the Veery are two of the greatest songsters in the world. For what they lack in bright colorful plumage, they more than make up for with their haunting and lilting calls that roll through the morning fog on the mountain. In fact, both species have a complex voice box that allows them to produce two notes at the same time, essentially allowing them to sing in harmony with themselves. Everyone should take the time to listen to the remarkable songs of these two thrush species.

Cerulean Warbler
Cerulean Warbler

The large lakes and reservoirs in the area also are a magnet to migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and other aquatic birds. Over twenty species of duck, along with various grebes, swans, geese, and other waterfowl, can be found in the area. Rails, plovers, and sandpipers can be found at various times of the year along the mudflats and farm ponds in the region.

Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon

Most people never realize that our forests and fields contain over three hundred species of birds. Each of these species is unique, and each has a fascinating story to tell. Local bird clubs and state parks regularly schedule hikes to learn more about the wonders of nature. Birding clubs such at the Bristol Bird Club, the Buchanan County Bird Club, the Lee and Lois Herndon Club, and the Russell County Bird Club have a wide variety of outings to enjoy the natural beauty and flora and fauna of our region. Everyone should strive to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the diverse wildlife of the Clinch, Holston, and Powell River valleys. The protection of these natural resources will help ensure that we never lose our “jewels of the forest.”

Publisher’s Note:
Due to re-stocking efforts, the peregrine falcon once again flies the craggy bluffs of the Breaks Interstate Park. The population is growing, and someday they will return to the Clinch River Valley. Bald eagles and ospreys are frequently spotted along the Clinch and Holston rivers. Wildlife has made substantial comebacks in our region due to re-stocking programs, less poaching, and better habitat protection. Southwest Virginia is the center of this diverse bounty.

Want to join a bird club? The following websites will get you started!
Bristol Bird Club www.bristolbirdclub.org
Mountain Empire Birds www.mountainempirebirds.net
Russell County Bird Club rcbirds.org
Virginia Society of Ornithology www.virginiabirds.net
Tennessee Ornithological Society www.tnbirds.org