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Birdwatchers peer through binoculars to glimpse birds near Chickamauga Dam

Rare Bird Graces Chickamauga Reservoir

Ancient Murrelet Seen for the First Time in Tennessee

A stormy night in the North Pacific.

Gales shudder across the ocean’s surface, turning waves to frothy whitecaps.

A tiny speck – a single black, grey and white bird – is caught and carried high in the sky. It wheels sideways, wings momentarily useless, until the wind releases it.

But it’s too late. The small, strong ancient murrelet is set far off its intended flight path.

That might not be exactly how this bird began the approximately 3,000-mile journey from the Pacific to the Chickamauga Reservoir near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

But no one, save the animal itself, will ever know.

Regardless of how it came, the ancient murrelet was first seen bobbing on the Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir one day in November.  

Birders flocked to the sight.

“For it to be in the Southeast is noteworthy,” Jason Mitchell, former TVA zoologist and current IT senior program manager, said.

“It’s certainly a record for Tennessee.”

Birders spotted the ancient murrelet at Chickamauga Reservoir near Chattanooga, Tennessee

Birders spotted the ancient murrelet at Chickamauga Reservoir near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Close Encounters

The ancient murrelet is a sea bird that normally lives far out in the North Pacific.

So far out, in fact, that most birders never glimpse it.

“If you went out west … (and) were serious about finding it, you’d have to line up a pelagic trip … 30 to 40 miles offshore,” Mitchell said.

But here on Chickamauga, birders could enjoy up-close views of this animal, which looks like a mix between a penguin and a duck – although it’s not closely related to either.

“It’s a member of the auk family,” Mitchell said. It’s a puffin cousin.

Except for nesting each spring on isolated, rocky Pacific islands, the bird is in the water or on the wing.

It’s famous for its long-distance open-ocean migrations across the Pacific, from Alaska and Canada to Russia, Japan and China – and back – each year.

But it’s never been known to migrate all the way to the Southeast. It’s even rare to see this bird in Western or Northern states.

Excited biologists report each sighting when it happens. Lake Michigan in 2009. Idaho in 2021.

And now, Chickamauga Reservoir in 2023.

And what could it be eating, far from its usual open-ocean buffet of saltwater fish and crustaceans?

“I think maybe minnows,” Mitchell, who had the chance to observe the murrelet, said. “It would get 3 to 5 feet off the shoreline, trapping them there.”

For days, the ancient murrelet floated and paddled to shore, ducking to glide below the surface again and again for mouthfuls of fish.

And then, one day, it was gone.

It’s anyone’s guess if or when the murrelet may be seen again, but the reservoir and its resources will be waiting.

A birdwatcher adjusts a tripod during a sunrise visit to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood, Tennessee

A birdwatcher adjusts a tripod during a sunrise visit to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood, Tennessee.

Reservoirs Provide Resources

Throughout TVA’s 293,000 acres of public land and 650,000 acres of reservoirs are shorelines, wetlands and open waters that provide ideal habitat for hundreds of species of birds.

“Chickamauga, Kentucky and Guntersville reservoirs are especially good places to find an abundance of birds,” Hill Henry, TVA’s senior program manager for environment and energy policy, said. “That includes species that over-winter or stop ... on TVA reservoirs during their spring and fall migration and year-round residents.”

Birders can expect to see any of 250 recorded bird species.

“There are a number of herons, ducks, gulls, some loons, kingfishers,” Mitchell said. “Land birds, too. (Eagles), hawks and woodpeckers and sparrows.”

For many waterbirds in particular, it’s all about the mudflats exposed during fall water-level drawdown.

“The way (TVA) operates the river system benefits a lot of birds,” Mitchell said. “It can create thousands of acres of mudflats that shorebirds will use as they’re traveling back south from their breeding grounds in the tundra.”

In that mud, birders can find magical signs of life.

“Invertebrates form dense communities along the shoreline of the exposed mudflats,” Henry said. “We see dabbling ducks sliding along on their bellies in the mud (eating bugs) … and nibbling plants ... in nearby shallow water.”

Prime habitat on reservoir shorelines and deep rippling rivers means the ancient murrelet wasn’t the only bird that went astray and ended up in the Valley.

When scanning Chickamauga’s waters for the ancient murrelet, birders spotted a black-legged kittiwake, which lives in the Northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

And the short-billed gull, another Pacific native, visited Knoxville.

“There are a number of things that can push (birds) out of their range,” Mitchell said. “Navigation errors, food scarcity or food abundance. Habitat changes.”

Or strange weather patterns that push birds way off course, as Mitchell guessed was the case with the murrelet.

A pair of binoculars and a bird book are must-have tools for the budding ornithologist

A pair of binoculars and a bird book are must-have tools for the budding ornithologist.

Birding for Life

For beginner birders and life-listers, spring and fall are the best times to visit TVA waters.

“It’s a fun, relatively inexpensive hobby,” Mitchell said. He’s been birding seriously with his brother for about 30 years.

And it’s easier than ever to begin.

“There’s more technology available so (people) can put out the records quickly and show people where (the birds are),” Henry said. “That makes other (birders) come to the area.”

Websites and apps such as Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird allow birders to record where and when species appear. New users can search for hotspots or specific animals.

And these tools help people identify what they find.

For Mitchell, birding by ear, in addition to by sight, is the way to go.

He learned from famous ornithologist Fred Alsop, but even if people don’t have a mentor, apps can help them match songs and species out in the field.

People might not spot the ancient murrelet. But birding is an affordable and accessible way to get to know the Valley’s wildlife and reservoir resources year-round.

“Even if there’s not a rare bird to chase, there is a lot out there to see,” Mitchell said.

A birdwatcher peers through binoculars while visiting a TVA reservoir

A birdwatcher peers through binoculars while visiting a TVA reservoir.

PHOTO AT TOP OF THE PAGE: Birdwatchers peer through binoculars to glimpse birds near Chickamauga Dam.

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Discover birdwatching opportunities in the seven-state region at TVA’s Birdwatching page.

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