Counting birds and taking names at Seven Islands

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Tina Brouwer, left, and Ranger Clare Dattilo look for birds Jan. 3 at Seven Islands State Birding Park.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Dozens join annual avian survey at Seven Islands State Birding Park

Kodak, Tennessee — State park interpretive ranger Clare Dattilo led the group slowly but surely across the muddy winter landscape of Seven Islands State Birding Park, taking note of birdsong and investigating undulating flashes of quick color against the backdrop of green cedars and nude tree branches and grasses flattened by the weight of a recent snow.

Even in the dead of winter, woods and fields are filled with life.

The birding park hosted both trained ornithologists and casual birdwatchers to scope out species to include in the annual Audubon Society Christmas bird count. Dattilo was tallying her numbers with a couple of journalists and a long-time friend from college.

Bluff Mountain loomed to the east. The crest of the Smokies, in commanding view on clear days, was shrouded in freezing fog. Ring-billed seagulls flew high overhead while a couple of Carolina wrens chirped in the underbrush.

Bursts of bluebirds and cardinals yielded glimpses of color. Flycatchers and downy woodpeckers concentrated on their rhythmic work amidst the barren winter branches of the huge oaks, hickories and maples that spread across the ridges of the park and into its small hollows. White-tailed deer browsed silently, undeterred and seemingly and correctly unbothered by the birdwatchers.

“The Christmas Bird Count is important because it's a long-running bird census that helps scientists understand the changes in bird populations over time,” Dattilo explained. “This data alerts scientists to possible issues with the health of populations which leads to conservation efforts.” 

The national count has occurred every year since 1900, when conservationists offered a more peaceful alternative to traditional Christmas Day hunting. It has since been billed the longest-running citizen-scientist project in the country.

The first known Christmas bird count in Tennessee was in 1902, when a woman with the distinctive name of Magnolia Woodward tallied the birds near her Knoxville home on Castle Street.

This year marked the first time Seven Islands hosted the winter bird count in the 400-acre park, which was established in 2002 along the French Broad River. The park includes woods, wetlands and other aquatic habitat, but is best known for vast fields that are largely managed for native grasses — and resident birds. Grassland birds are among the most endangered bird species, Dattilo said.

The park manages its fields with prescribed burns and bush-hogging, similar to the way the National Park Service manages the open fields of Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The goal is to allow native grasses such as little blue stem, switchgrass and Indian grass to thrive, offering both shelter and nests for ground-dwelling birds. Seven Islands is home to grassland and brush species such as bobwhite quail, wrens, sparrows, and thrushes, and all except the quail were well documented in the Christmas bird count.

The park was but one of many survey sites that morning in East Knox County. About 40 naturalists and volunteers had fanned out across a 15-mile diameter — centered along the French Broad a few miles west of Seven Islands — with a plan to aggregate and compare the data. Their quarry did not disappoint.

At Seven Islands alone, rangers and volunteers recorded about 800 individual birds representing at least 46 species. But the bird count was also an opportunity for fellowship, quiet conversation, exercise and even a bit of introspection to mark a new year.

A winter wren, usually a secretive and timid bird, flew across a trail and lighted on a fallen tree.

“It’s so cute!” exclaimed Tina Brouwer, who had traveled from Lexington, Kentucky to join her longtime friend Dattilo for the inaugural Seven Islands Christmas bird count. She dutifully recorded the winter wren in her digital logbook.

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Seven Islands State Birding Park Interpretive Ranger Clare Dattilo discusses the importance of maintaining native grasses for bird species on Jan. 3.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

By the end of the day, the 40 citizen scientists — and some bona fide ones — within the 15-mile diameter had covered more than 125 miles by foot and in cars. They recorded 4,342 individual birds representing 78 species. The most numerous species were European starlings, American robins and the afore-mentioned high-altitude gulls which flocked over Seven Islands in the early morning. Two brown-headed nuthatches and a fish crow were among the more unexpected sightings.

Dattilo described this year’s birding bonanza at Seven Islands as a “trial run.” She plans to officially align the count next year with the long-running Audubon Society tradition that proves, year after year, that the world is indeed alive in winter.

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Birdwatchers gather outside the Bluebird Barn at Seven Islands State Birding Park on Jan. 3.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

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