A wide range of protected habitats makes Chattanooga an exciting destination for bird watching. Seasoned birders have likely heard of the area’s Sandhill Crane festival, but the city and surrounding region also offer unique bird viewing opportunities year-round. Whether you’re in search of easy-to-spot wildlife or more elusive feathered friends, there is an incredible amount of diversity to be found in Chattanooga’s migrating and resident birds.
The Tennessee Riverwalk meanders for 10 miles along the Tennessee River, offering beautiful views of the river and intimate wildlife encounters in the heart of the city. One of the most commonly spotted birds on the Riverwalk is the great blue heron, which resides in Tennessee year-round. Frequently mistaken as a crane, the great blue heron has an impressive six-foot wingspan and can often be seen wading in the water or perched in nearby trees.
If you look up, you’re likely to spot yellow warbler or eastern kingbirds nesting in the tree tops. With the option to travel by bike or foot, the Riverwalk is an easily accessible location to view some of the city’s watchable wildlife.
Audubon Acres is the perfect place to spend a day or two if you’re interested in discovering a vast array of bird species. The peaceful South Chickamauga Creek cuts through the sanctuary, providing an ideal habitat for a large variety of birds. Belted kingfishers, wood ducks, and great blue heron can be spotted along the wooded banks of the creek throughout the year. Other year-round residents include a large population of wild turkeys, eastern bluebirds, pileated woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, great horned owls, brown-headed nuthatches, red-tailed hawks, and cedar waxwings.
As if there weren’t enough regular residents to discover, Audubon Acres also hosts some exciting seasonal guests. Open meadows, pines, and hardwood forests located streamside make the sanctuary an oasis for migrating species such as thrushes, vireos, warblers, tanagers, and flycatchers. Red-shouldered hawks nest in the sanctuary each spring along with rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern kingbirds, fish crows, Canada warblers, common loons, and Wilson’s warblers. A colony of chimney swifts that nest in the visitor center chimney each summer are just one exciting resident.
Cerulean warblers, northern parulas, indigo buntings, broad-winged hawks, house wrens, white-eyed vireos, black-and-white warblers, Acadian flycatchers, wood thrushes, and ruby-throated hummingbirds also enjoy the sanctuary’s amenities in the summer months. Winter visitors can discover pine siskins, white-throated sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, brown creepers, hermit thrushes, dark-eyed juncos, and cooper’s hawks. The abundance of brilliant birds that inhabit Audubon Acres paired with the sanctuary’s tranquil scenery makes this destination a must-see for seasoned and beginner birders alike.
If you’re looking for a scenic hike where you can also spot some of Chattanooga’s exciting birdlife, there are several options close to town. Prentice Cooper State Forest located just 10 miles west of Chattanooga features 35 miles of hiking trails with breathtaking views of the Tennessee River Gorge. A large number of migrating birds pass through the park during the spring and fall, while red-eyed vireos, ovenbirds, wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers and other forest birds are commonly found here in summer.
Another great location to delight in woodland birding and pristine hiking trails is the Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center. With more than 300 acres to explore, the nature center offers birders an opportunity to witness Tennessee’s birds in the wild as well as an up-close and personal experience with the center’s avian animal ambassadors. Birds in the wildlife wonderland have sustained permanent injuries that prevent them from returning to the wild.
Great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, barred owls, barn owls, and vultures are just a few of the nature center’s animal ambassadors. The Blue Heron Boardwalk provides an easy-to-navigate trek through peaceful wetlands where visitors can observe blue heron and other water fowl in their natural habitats. You may consider renting a canoe for better visibility of this delicately balanced ecosystem. The nature center is a picture-perfect place to learn about Tennessee’s unique birds and experience them in the wild.
In the heart of downtown Chattanooga, a birder’s paradise can be found in the middle of the Tennessee River. Maclellan Island is an 18.8-acre wildlife sanctuary with 1.5 miles of trails. While there are public restrooms on the island, there is no electricity or running water. Combine that with the fact that the island can only be reached by water and the stage is set for adventure. Nesting platforms on either end of the island provide unparalleled viewing of osprey nesting habits, and a great blue heron rookery protects nesting grounds at the island’s upper end.
Visitors can behold geese and kingfishers feeding at the water’s edge, while the forest is home to songbirds, turkeys, owls, and woodpeckers. The site is also a crucial feeding ground for migrating warblers. This small but vibrant island offers visitors the chance to view a wide variety of wildlife in the middle of the city. Guests are encouraged to take advantage of a wooded picnic area, scenic trails, and a unique camping experience.
If you want to maximize your Chattanooga birding experience you may want to consider planning your trip to coincide with the annual Sandhill Crane Festival in January. Hosted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the festival celebrates thousands of cranes that migrate through the area each year. There are many opportunities to catch a glimpse of these majestic birds as they pass through Tennessee. The Birchwood Community Center offers a free bus ride to the Hiwassee Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial where birders can watch the cranes, bald eagles, golden eagles, white pelicans, whooping cranes and a large variety of waterfowl. The Tennessee Aquarium also offers a two-hour guided crane and eagle boat tour during the festival. The tour educates passengers on various birds in the area along with the region’s Cherokee heritage.
If you have an interest in birding, Chattanooga’s diverse landscapes offer you a glimpse into the world above the trees, the quiet life of aquatic birds, and free-spirited celebrations of many of the birds who visit Chattanooga seasonally.
Originally written for Chattanooga CVB.