Birding good at Austin Springs in March

10:29 am | April 3, 2013

I was very glad to welcome spring’s arrival this past week, and not just because the change in seasons signals the imminent arrival of some of my favorite species. I’m not really going to miss the snow and cold.

I got a jumpstart on spring’s arrival with a trip to Austin Springs at Boone Lake to look for spring migrants with Brookie and Jean Potter and Tom McNeil on Saturday, March 16.

The fields and pastures that comprise Austin Springs are located near the Watauga River at the upper end of the Boone Lake impoundment.

The water level of the lake is lowered in the fall and usually remains low during the winter and early spring. Lower water levels expose mud flats, sandbars and rocky spits, all of which offer an inviting location for migrants, including shorebirds, wading birds and songbirds, to forage for food, bathe, preen and rest.

Over the years, I have observed some unusual birds at Austin Springs not often seen in Northeast Tennessee, including American Bittern, Sora, Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Black-necked Stilt, Cattle Egret, Prothonotary Warbler, Brewer’s Blackbird and Vesper Sparrow.

The location is a great place to find wading birds, such as Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons, as well as shorebirds. In addition, raptors — Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks and Osprey — often hunt over the fields and mud flats.

I added several new birds to my growing year list, starting with Golden-crowned Kinglet for Bird No. 86.
Bird No. 87 was a Red-breasted Merganser swimming on the river.

Least Sandpiper became Bird No. 88 on the list. We found the Least Sandpipers foraging on the mud flats with Pectoral Sandpipers and Killdeers.

Bird No. 89 was an American Pipit, flying over the pasture and calling.

Bird No. 90 was a Savannah Sparrow.

In all, we found 36 species during a couple of hours of birding. In addition to the new birds for my year list, we observed such birds as Rusty Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Wilson’s Snipe, Pectoral Sandpiper, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Wood Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Turkey Vulture and Pied-billed Grebe.

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I added another bird to my list on Tuesday, March 19. Thanks to a timely tip from Brookie and Jean Potter, I visited Rasar’s Farm on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, where I found an Osprey perched in a tall tree — at the exact location where they had observed the bird earlier. The Osprey became Bird No. 91 on my list.

The Osprey is a widespread bird and occurs on all the world’s continents with the exception of Antarctica.
The scientific name of this raptor is Pandion haliaetus and was inspired by a mythical king, Pandion, of the Greek city of Athens. The second half of the name is combined from the Greek words halos, which refers to the sea, and aetos, or eagle. Roughly speaking, haliaetus can be translated as “eagle of the sea.”

The common name of Osprey comes from the Latin word, ossifragus, which translates as “bone breaker.” Other common names for Ospreys include Sea Hawk, Fish Eagle and Fish Hawk.
Ospreys build large nests from sticks and branches. In the absence of trees or other structures as suitable nesting sites, Ospreys will accept some assistance from sympathetic humans.  Posts supporting elevated platforms are common along the Atlantic coast of the United States. These nesting platforms are readily accepted by Ospreys.
Although a large raptor, Ospreys are rather specialized. The diet of the Osprey is almost exclusively fish. Because of their nature, Ospreys live near water. Their choice of habitats, however, still varies. These birds can be found at lakes, rivers and marshes, as well as mangrove swamps, beaches and seashores.

Although an Osprey can achieve a wingspan of six feet, they don’t weigh very much. Adult Ospreys tip the scales between three and five pounds.

Ospreys usually migrate out of Northeast Tennessee for the winter. They return in March and early April. According to Rick Knight’s book, The Birds of Northeast Tennessee, numerous records exist for Osprey in the region during summer. However, to date, no nesting records are known for Northeast Tennessee.

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While on the subject of nesting records, the first confirmed nesting of a pair of Bald Eagles is a work in progress at Wilbur Lake. The news that these eagles are nesting is a historic first for Carter County. A first-ever nesting by Bald Eagles is also being reported from neighboring Unicoi County. There’s also a nest in Washington County that is visible from the waterfront of Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.
I will present more information about these nesting eagles in upcoming columns.

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I heard from readers this past week about their own sightings.
Flag Pond resident Anna Paloff Shelton reported seeing her first Barn Swallow of the year Sunday, March 17.
I have already seen Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, but I haven’t seen a Barn Swallow yet. Barn Swallows should arrive in good numbers within the next week or so. Other members of the family, such as Purple Martin and Cliff Swallow, should also become more prevalent as the spring season advances.

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Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by calling me at 297-9077 or by sending an email to bstevens@starhq.com or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I am also on Facebook.

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