We are rolling down Gallatin Road in a blue Nissan Xterra, with 20-degree air streaming through the open windows. It is New Year’s Day and five of us, binoculars at the ready, are bundled in layered clothing that at the moment isn’t helping much.
The driver, Chris Sloan, is one of the region’s best birdersa man who has seen over 320 species of birds in Tennessee aloneand we are scanning the telephone wires and fast food parking lots for, of all things, a house sparrow.
The day began before sunrise with a bald eagle flying over Old Hickory Dam. Now, in late afternoon, we are hoping to spy a scruffy and usually omnipresent little bird that’s probably picking through discarded French fries somewhere.
“This is one of the oddities of a day like this,” Sloan says. “No birder in their right mind would spend any time looking for house sparrows unless they were on a count.”
Which is exactly what we are doing. We are part of the annual Christmas Bird Count, conducted hemisphere-wide for the Audubon Society to get a rough idea of what’s out there wearing feathers. The first, on Dec. 25, 1900, consisted of 27 people in 25 places from Toronto to California. This winter’s, conducted between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, had more than 50,000 participants in nearly 2,000 locations, including 20 in Tennessee.
Sloan is a 28-year-old attorney who’s been birding for almost 20 years and has been part of this count since he was 13. With us are Lynn Lesher (a human resources consultant), Bill Leader (Sloan’s colleague at the law firm of Boult Cummings Conners & Berry), and Leader’s son John, who is at this point the real birder in the family.
“It’s not often you find a 9-year-old who’s dissected owl pellets,” says Lesher, referring to the little packet of indigestibles an owl will throw up after a night spent consuming small rodents and birds. It’s obvious he’s a natural.
Our group has been charged with canvassing the area around Old Hickory Lake, while others are counting birds in western Davidson County, Williamson County and parts in between. Now, with the sun sinking over Rivergate Mall, the fact that we are still without a house sparrow is starting to wear on all of us. We turn onto Myatt Drive, toward our starting point below the dam, our eyes and ears everywhere at once. A few minutes later, as we pull into the driveway of the Riverside Golf Center in Old Hickory, we hear a house sparrow cheeping amid the incessant burbling of house finches.
We have just spent 30 minutes looking for a bird that on a normal day would be everywhereSloan has even found them inside the food court at Rivergate Mall while grabbing lunch on a countbut such is the sometimes quirky nature of an event conducted while much of Nashville sleeps off hangovers and watches bowl games.
In the long run, what these counts show is that people are having a dramatic impact on avian life. Most obvious is the ubiquity of introduced speciesbirds that have been brought in from Africa, Europe or even our own West Coast, and have established themselves, often explosively, at the expense of native birds. Starlings, pigeons and the house sparrow we had so much trouble spotting are now common, but none are native to North America. Purple finches, once a staple of yards and feeders, have all but been replaced by house finches introduced from the western U.S.
Meanwhile, the presence of humans can be a positive for native species that thrive around people. Mockingbirds, cardinals and chickadees all do well around human habitations, as do bluebirds where there are tended nest boxes. Robins are another, and we saw big flocks of them seemingly everywhere during the count.
The biggest impact on the birds is plain old urban sprawl. The Metro area’s population has grown 25 percent in the last decade alone, and much of that growth has consumed habitat.
“It’s very disconcerting,” Sloan says. “Every year I do Christmas counts, and I can point to subdivisions where I used to be able to find white-crowned sparrows or bobwhite. Except for the hardiest and most adaptable species, birds are getting pushed farther and farther out into less and less space.”
State ornithologist Troy Ettel, who led the Radnor Lake portion of the Nashville count, cites it as “a good example of what has happened to a lot of counts. When it was set up years ago, there were a lot of rural areas with good habitat. Now we’re in people’s backyards and on golf courses and around shopping centers. With the exception of Radnor Lake itself, there is very little good habitat left.”
MetroCenter is a prime example, Sloan says. “That was the first place in Tennessee where there was ever a breeding record of spotted sandpipers. There was a lot of good shorebird and marsh bird habitat. Today there are still a few places where you can find some grassland birds there, but essentially it’s gone.” Still, there are some positive trends.
“Nashville’s very lucky to have two placesShelby Bottoms and Radnor Lakebasically right in the middle of the city,” Sloan says. “There are, I suspect, many cities in this country that have grown to the size of Nashville that wish they’d thought ahead enough to do something like that. The potential for Shelby Bottoms to be a great wetland habitat is there, but it’s going to take a little more work and I’m afraid a little more money than they’re willing to spend. In some ways, though, it’s already a fantastic place.”
He’s also heartened by changes at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), which he says has recently become more involved with non-game programs. Ultimately, he and other birders can’t help but feel politicized.
“You have to have environmentally knowledgeable representation,” Sloan says, “and we don’t really have thaton the local, state or national level. It’s really hard to pass environmentally responsible legislation, for instance, and to operate governmental agencies in an environmentally responsible way when you’ve got people running them that are largelyand not necessarily intentionallyignorant of what the significant issues are. The result is that the environment from a government standpoint doesn’t get the protection that it deserves.”
We spot the eagle again later in the day, soaring over the lake.
“In a few years, there’ll probably be more of them here,” he says. Programs undertaken by the TWRA, among others, have helped a nationwide reintroduction of eagles that has been particularly heartening in Tennessee. It is, on a cold January morning, a warming thought.
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