The Naturalist's Corner
More in the wind than megawatts
The chorus of katydids clamoring in the night air announces the impending fall. And with the arrival of fall comes the departure of millions of Neotropical migrants. Clearly 90 percent of the birds that nested in North America this past summer are either enroute or preparing for that annual trek back south. Several spots across the region provide great opportunities to witness this spectacle.
Raptor migration holds great fascination for many birders. Likely because it occurs during daylight hours and often involves thousands of birds. While there is no place in the region that compares to the 452,000 raptors counted at Corpus Christi, Texas, or even the 25,000 recorded at Cape May, N.J., Caesar’s Head State Park on the Blue Ridge Escarpment in South Carolina compares favorably with better known watches like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. Over 14,000 raptors were counted at Caesar’s Head last year, with 12,044 being broad-winged hawks. While the birds are there year after year it requires either perseverance or plain ole luck or both to see great numbers.
Probably 90 percent of the broad-winged hawks are going to pass over Caesar’s Head from mid-September through early October. But 5,000 of them might sail through on one day leaving slim pickings for the other 20 days or so. For instance, last year 9,943 of the 12,044 broad-wings were recorded on two days; 3,683 on the 20th and 6,260 on the 21st.
Passerines migrate under the cover of darkness because it is safer. As day approaches, these songbirds “fall out” and seek rest and fuel for the next leg of their journey. These fallouts might occur almost anywhere depending on wind direction and weather conditions. But some areas are reliable year after year for viewing these passersby.
One that always sticks out in my mind is Ridge Junction Overlook at mile marker 355 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, next to the entrance of Mt. Mitchell State Park. What’s unique about this spot is that birders can sit and watch as waves of migrants come through the pass.
The trails around Jackson Park in Hendersonville are also quite productive during fall migration. Rarities like Connecticut and mourning warblers are often found during migration at Jackson Park along with bay-breasted warblers, Wilson’s warblers, Philadelphia vireos, and Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes.
Even shorebirds can be found in the region. Super Sod a, sod farm along Hooper Lane in Henderson County, can produce some shorebird fallouts in the autumn with the right combination of wind and rain. Property owners at Super Sod have been very accepting of birders as long as you stick to the roadsides and do not walk or drive in the fields.
A not so weather dependent spot for shorebirds is just up I-40 in Cocke County Tennessee. Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Management Area can be accessed from U.S. 25 just north of Newport, Tenn. When TVA starts lowering the water level on Douglas Lake, it leaves large mudflats along the confluence of the Nolichucky and French Broad Rivers at Rankin Bottoms. This area has become a notable stop over for fall shorebirds including many species of sandpipers as well as greater and lesser yellowlegs, dowitchers, ruddy turnstones and others.