A Year in Birds at TN State Parks

January 14, 2023  |  Permalink

canada goose family at cmsp

A Canada Goose poses with its new family of goslings at Cumberland Mountain State Park

It’s no secret that our State Parks and Natural Areas are fantastic places to watch birds. No matter where you are visiting, be it the bustling city streets of the Bicentennial Capitol Mall, walking the quarter-mile boardwalk through Dismal Swamp at Big Hill Pond State Park, or hiking the quiet mountain forests of Rocky Fork State Park, birds can be found anywhere.

hooded warbler

Hooded Warblers are commonly heard and seen in most every state park, either during migration or to breed in dense understory in the spring & summer months. This one was seen at Fall Creek Falls State Park in May.

In Tennessee, at least 423 species have been recorded since 1900, and most of them have been viewed in one of our 57 state parks at one time or another.

great blue heron

Great Blue Herons have been recorded at nearly every state park. This one was fishing at Rock Island State Park.

According to Ebird, Reelfoot Lake State Park currently holds the top space for bird species recorded, sitting at 288.

What is Ebird, you might ask? Ebird.org is an international citizen science platform created and maintained by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology. Anybody with an account (which is free) can record bird sightings from anywhere in the world, either through their computer or mobile device. This database has revolutionized the world of avian research. With the sightings data submitted, scientists are gaining a better understanding of migration patterns, population trends and are even able to update range maps.

eastern meadowlark

The Eastern Meadowlark is a once-common grassland species that is in steep decline across its range

Every state park has at least one existing HotSpot (public birding location for submitting sightings) where birding visitors can record sightings during their visit. This data is not only beneficial to avian researchers accessing the database, but it also benefits us greatly to have more trained eyes in the field to spot the birds taking refuge in our parks. It can also help us observe which species are not occurring, and explore potential reasons for their absence, especially if it is a species that historically occurred at that location or is of conservation concern.

birding class at johnsonville shp

Tennessee State Parks staff and visitors observing birds during a Birding for Beginners class at Johnsonville State Historic Park, June 11th 2022

We love our park-going ebirders, and they made some exciting new observations during the year 2022! 


On December 29th, 2021, ebirder Kelly Rueckheim recorded the first known observation of an American Woodcock at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park. In her notes she said:

"Was doing its skydance in the back half of the meadow."

It it certainly exciting that this elusive, declining bird is not only seeking refuge in the fields at Old Stone Fort, but also feels compelled to perform its signature courtship display. While it wasn't officially a 2022 sighting, I felt it warranted inclusion.

Rock Island State Park had its first-recorded Sedge Wren by ebirders Susan and Mac McWhirter on September 27th. This shy and exceptionally well-camouflaged little bird only passed through on its bi-annual migration. It can be very difficult to detect, so great spotting by these two!

A Philadelphia Vireo was added to the checklist at Warriors Path State Park by ebirders Sherrie Quillen & Bambi Fincher on October 7th. This is another migratory songbird that is difficult to spot, and Sherrie even managed to get photographs of the individual. (Click the link in the text to see her lovely photos.)

Seven Islands State Birding Park is unique in our system for being the only park devoted 100% to birds. With so many birders visiting and keeping watch, it's little wonder that two new species were added to their checklist in 2022: a Northern Pintail reported by ebirder Huck Hutchens, and a juvenile Purple Gallinule by Reece Bradford.

Park Rangers that bird watch are especially valuable when it comes to recording observations, since they spend the most time at their parks, often at times and locations where other birders are not present. Ranger Jeffrey Hill at Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park recorded a Bronzed Cowbird on April 22nd. This is only the second known record for the entire state, and the first record of this species at Meeman-Shelby. 

Radnor Lake State Park is another birding Hotspot that is very active within the ebird community, and two new species were recorded for the park in November: A Vesper Sparrow reported by Park Ranger Matthew Bowling on November 4th, and American White Pelicans by ebirder Tyler Nahlik on November 13th. 

american white pelicans

American White Pelicans

(You can read more about American White Pelicans on another blog post: https://tnstateparks.com/blog/a-wonderful-bird-is-the-pelican)

The first Loggerhead Shrike sighting was reported for Cedars of Lebanon State Park on September 16th by ebirder Justin Nation. Any sighting of this steeply declining grassland bird is a treasure, especially in the parks that are being actively managed for their native habitat.

loggerhead shrike

Loggerhead Shrike 

Chickasaw State Park saw several additions to their park checklist, including Fish Crow, Snow Goose, Ross's Goose, Bald Eagle & Purple Finch. 

Cove Lake State Park is another very active birding location on ebird, and saw two species added in the Spring of 2022: Marsh Wren & Neotropic Cormorant, bringing their checklist up to an impressive 232 species.

Historic parks boast great birding as well, especially those located along the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers! Johnsonville State Historic Park provides some great opportunities for birding, and 2022 saw the addition of 7 species to its checklist. Among them, a rare Iceland Gull sighting by top ebirder Alan Troyer on November 11th

Some state parks are a bit tricky when it comes to keeping track of ebird sightings, due to their fragmented land stretched over many miles. The Cumberland Trail is a prime example! Several new species were spotted along the many segments and trailheads in 2022, including a migrating pair of Northern Waterthrushes spotted at Head of Sequatchie by yours truly and Mark Taylor on September 22nd. 

northern waterthrush

Mark was able to snap some very nice photos of one of the Northern Waterthrushes at Head of Sequatchie

A particularly rare wading bird known as a Limpkin, was first sighted at Harrison Bay State Park by Seasonal Interpretive Ranger Mabry Biggs on November 11th. Since then the bird has continued to winter in the area, mostly at nearby Chester Frost Park, and hundreds of birders have flocked to see it, including the author!


The wintering Limpkin first spotted at Harrison Bay State Park. 

On December 28th another rare bird was spotted in the same area. A wintering Tundra Swan joined the limpkin as a local avian celebrity, and was viewed from the shores of both Chester Frost Park and Harrison Bay State Park over the course of several weeks.

tundra swan

The immature Tundra swan that resided on the Chickamauga Reservoir between Harrison Bay State Park & Chester Frost Park. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

Indeed, the lakes and rivers found in so many of our parks attract a diversity of migrating and wintering species. The first record of a Lesser Black-backed Gull was reported by top ebirder Ruben Stoll on November 21st at Booker T. Washington State Park. This brings the park's checklist up to 169 species.

The first American Black Duck was reported at Standing Stone State Park by ebirder Brianna Saylor on December 28th. 

Cumberland Mountain State Park saw its first ever report of an Osprey on May 15th by Kristen Truszkowski.


Ospreys are primarily summer residents along the larger waterways of Tennessee

The birders have been out in force at David Crockett Birthplace State Historic Park! 9 new species were added to the list by visiting ebirders in 2022 including Bank Swallow, Sedge Wren, Rusty Blackbird  and Ross's Goose

Birding during harsh, cold winter days often yields new or rare species driven to take shelter from the inclement conditions. Roi and Debbie Shannon braved the bitter cold on December 26th and reported two new species for Fall Creek Falls State Park: A Canvasback and a Greater Scaup, two diving ducks that are typically seen on much larger reservoirs or managed wetlands during the winter months.

The first Veery was sighted at David Crockett State Park on April 28th by ebirder RK Wild. This beautiful thrush can be spotted during migration throughout much of the state, but spends the summers in the Appalachian Mountains where you can enjoy its ethereal, rolling song. 


The Veery is less frequently encountered than other members of its family

Dunbar Cave State Park sports a diversity of habitats which makes it a mecca for visiting birders. Two new species were added for 2022: Purple Finch and Marsh Wren

Even the smaller parks can boast an impressive list of bird sightings. Five new species were reported for Indian Mountain State Park in 2022 including Wild Turkey, Red-breasted Merganser and Nashville Warbler. 

Sometimes reporting a rare bird is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Many birds stop to rest only for a few hours before continuing their migration path. Park Ranger Mark Taylor happened to be scanning the shores at Edgar Evins State Park on November 22nd and spotted a blue morph Snow Goose - the first ever reported for the park. 

snow goose

Snow geese typically travel in very large flocks. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

That wasn't the only new species reported at Edgar Evins in 2022. A migrating Surf Scoter was spotted during a guided Fall Color and Waterfowl Boat Tour on October 11th.

surf scoter

Surf scoter in non-breeding plumage (photo by Mark Taylor)

Golden Eagles are thrilling yet rare observations across the state. One was spotted by ebirder Jacob Wessels at Norris Dam State Park on November 12th, and was able to snap a wonderful diagnostic photo of the bird as it soared overhead.

Paris Landing State Park boasts an impressive species list, currently sitting at 236. Even so, the first Sora record was submitted to ebird on March 16th by ebirder Niklas Klauss.

Probably the most impressive jump in bird species goes to Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, which went from 178 species to 200! Many thanks to the local ebirders who have paid the park multiple visits over the course of 2022 and added these 22 species to their checklist.

savannah sparrow

Savannah Sparrow was among the many newly recorded species for Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in 2022

These are only a few examples of new bird records for parks across the state. Most parks saw at least a couple of species added to their checklists this past year, thanks to dedicated ebirders visiting parks across the state.

As an avid birder myself, I love nothing more than being able to record first-time observations anytime I am making a site visit.

A recent trip to Cummins Falls State Park gave myself and my husband the opportunity to report the first Northern Harrier spotted on the park's latest land addition.

northern harrier

We enjoyed watching this Northern Harrier flap and soar over the fields at Cummins, but it didn't come close enough for a nice photo. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

We also had the privilege of recording the first known observation of an elusive Gray-Cheeked Thrush at Lost Creek State Natural Area on May 22nd. This northward migrant hopped into the open for mere seconds before disappearing into the forest, allowing just enough time to snap a photo.

gray-cheeked thrush

However, being able to take the time to watch and photograph birds, no matter the species, is a treasured moment. Ebird’s motto is “every bird counts,” meaning even common species data is crucial to our overall understanding of the birds that live in and traverse our home state.

summer tanager

A male Summer Tanager that landed on the railing while descending Sauls Mound at Pinson Mounds State Archeological Park during a May visit.

ducks in a row

Getting my ducks in a row at Edgar Evins State Park. Mama Mallard had quite the family!

orchard oriole

A male Orchard Oriole belting out his cheerful, whistling song at Chickasaw State Park on a warm spring day.

The diversity of habitats that we preserve and protect in our State Parks and Natural Areas provide essential habitat to so many bird species. Whether they live there year-round, travel thousands of miles from the tropics to raise their babies, or are just passing through, the fields, forests and waterways impart the food, shelter and water they need to thrive.

blue-headed vireo nest

A Blue-headed Vireo tending its nest at Fall Creek Falls State Park. Parks provide essential nesting habitat for neotropical migrants.

These precious areas are now more crucial than ever. Recent studies have revealed alarming declines in a majority of our bird species.  Their ecosystems are shrinking, the insects they feed on are disappearing, and they are facing a myriad of newer manmade threats during their migrations. 

What can you do to help? Many of you are doing it already! Simply by visiting your parks and submitting your bird observations to ebird can provide invaluable information about our feathered fauna.

barred owl

Barred Owls are year-round residents in most of our Tennessee State Parks

Many parks across the state offer a variety of bird-themed programs and volunteer projects throughout the year, such as birding walks & counts, classes, tours and bird house building workshops: Upcoming Events — Tennessee State Parks (tnstateparks.com)

It doesn't stop there! There are simple actions you can take in your own backyard to help give birds a conservation boost....

  • Plant a diversity native wildflowers, shrubs & trees. This not only provides cover and nesting habitat, but it also attracts the insects they desperately need as a food source.
  • Reduce or eliminate pesticide use. Insects eating your plants is actually a good thing! This protein source is crucial to migrating and breeding songbirds.
  • Keep cats indoors. Free-roaming outdoor cats are currently the leading cause of bird mortality, at an estimated 2.6 billion deaths per year. Cats contained indoors or on "catios" are also much safer from a multitude of outdoor threats including roadways, predators and disease. Learn more here: FAQ: Outdoor Cats and Their Effects on Birds 
  • Go dark. Light pollution is a big limiting factor for migrating birds, most of which travel at night. Consider reducing or elminating unneccessary light sources or using fixtures that are more night sky friendly (your wallet will thank you too!). You can learn more about protecting our night skies here: International Dark-Sky Association (darksky.org)
  • Prevent window strikes. An estimated 624 million birds are killed annually by colliding with windows. Here are some ideas for making your windows safer for birds: Why Birds Hit Windows—and How You Can Help Prevent It

As we look ahead to 2023, let's take some time to acknowledge how much birds enrich our lives. What outdoor excursion would be complete without the sound of birds singing or the sight of them flying over the water, through the trees or soaring overhead? By slowing down and taking the time to observe them in their natural habitats, it offers us another chance to connect with the natural world that we are so intrinsically bonded to.

fall cape may warbler

A Cape May Warbler during fall migration

Happy birding in 2023!


About the author

holly headshot

Holly Taylor got her start with Tennessee State Parks as a Seasonal Interpretive Ranger in 2006, working six years at Edgar Evins State Park before working as a wildlife presenter for the Natural History Education Company of the Mid-South. She took time off to stay at home with her son before returning to TN State Parks as the assistant to State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath in 2018. She graduated from TTU in 2009 with a B.S. in Conservation Biology and also serves as the chapter coordinator for the Cumberland Mountain Chapter of the Tennessee Naturalist Program. She has a life-long passion for the natural world and loves nothing more than sharing that passion with others.