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The state of Tennessee offers lots of natural attractions such as mountains, streams, and waterfalls. It’s also home to a rich variety of birds. The list of avian species featured in Tennessee can be quite long. If you’re into birding and wish to focus only on the most essential birds to watch for in the area, this article can be extremely helpful. Whether you’re a novice enthusiast or have some experience with birdwatching, check out the following birds worth seeing in Tennessee.
Before starting your birding trip in Tennessee, consider getting some specialized gear such as:
- Field guide
Although the digital era has made paperback field guides less relevant, it’s safe to say that the physical book is still worth getting if you want an authentic birding experience. There’s nothing that can compare to the feeling of browsing a tangible book that offers quick information about the types of birds found in your visited region. Check out the Birds of Tennessee field guide on Amazon.
A robust pair of binoculars can make your birding adventure much more enjoyable. It doesn’t matter if you’re just a casual outdoor explorer or a more avid birding enthusiast. Make sure you select binoculars with high-quality optics and durable outdoor-ready construction. Here’s a comfortable binocular model that’s suitable for many birding applications.
- Spotting scope
Binoculars are useful to get a generally good view of birds from far away. However, there’s a better tool for obtaining proper close-ups. If you’re after rare birds, it’s worth considering a gadget like a spotting scope that offers superior magnification abilities while maintaining good portability. A spotting scope will help you get to the next level of birding. Take a look at this well-designed spotting scope.
1. Swainson’s Warbler
An elusive bird that prefers forested ravines and swamps, the Swainson’s warbler relies on many areas in Tennessee for its breeding grounds. Spotting this heavyset warbler can be quite difficult due to its secretive nature. It’s a pretty common bird but your best chance to find it is to listen for its bold, ringing song.
Swainson’s warblers enjoy sitting in the understory and can be heard singing more often in April during the peak of its breeding season. When it comes to visual identification, the brownish appearance doesn’t make the bird particularly distinctive. It doesn’t stand out among other warblers unless you check for a light-yellow wash and chestnut crown.
2. Blue Grosbeak
With a deep blue body and rusty wing bars, the blue grosbeak is quite a sight to see. This vibrantly-colored bird goes through multiple plumage changes during maturity. Keep in mind that only the male of the species shows off the blue look whereas the female has a plainer cinnamon color.
Blue grosbeaks have a fairly widespread range in the US. You can find them throughout Tennessee’s shrubby habitats where they raise their broods of nestlings. It’s a spectacular bird to watch but also hear as well considering the rich song of the male. Blue grosbeaks are common in their habitat and you can check high perches to locate a singing male.
3. Broad-Winged Hawk
If you’re taking a summer trip into the woods of Tennessee, there’s a pretty good chance to find a broad-winged hawk. This is not a very large raptor bird and it lacks distinctive visual qualities aside from black-and-white tail bands. It’s more easily recognized by the piercing call that resembles a whistle.
As opposed to other birds of prey, the broad-winged hawk is quite tame. If you discover one feeding within its territory, it might tolerate your presence even if you approach the bird a little closer. The eastern part of the state is more recommended if you’re looking for this hawk species.
4. Snow Goose
When compared to other goose species found in Tennessee, snow geese are more on the smaller side. These birds tend to gather in huge flocks during their migratory period. You can find them in various areas of the state, more likely in open fields or close to bodies of water. It’s safe to say that it’s hard to miss snow geese.
These are particularly loud birds whether flying in the air or sitting on the ground. The white morph featuring white and black represents the most common plumage variant of the snow goose. That being said, the birds visiting the state of Tennessee are usually dressed in the blue morph that’s characterized by dark plumage.
5. American Woodcock
The American woodcock is a short shorebird with bulging dark eyes and extremely good camouflage suitable for its habitat. The bird can be found in swamps and wet woods. Although it doesn’t have remarkable visual characteristics, the American woodcock is highly appreciated for its impressive courtship displays.
Birders should consider joining a dedicated walk for this bird that’s available throughout the state of Tennessee. It’s recommended to search for it from the end of winter to the beginning of spring when the temperatures are above freezing. The male American woodcock can be spotted flying briefly after sunset while putting on a singing show.
6. Black-Throated Blue Warbler
When it comes to warblers, few birds can match the striking look of the black-throated blue warbler. As its name implies, the bird shows off a black throat that contrasts deeply with its white belly. The male has dark blue feathers on the top to complete its elegant look.
You can find black-throated blue warblers in Tennessee during migration but the eastern shrubby areas of the state can also be used for nesting. This is an excellent warbler to look for because it doesn’t feature confusing plumage changes. It keeps its midnight-blue appearance year-round while preferring the lower canopy of the forest instead of high perches.
7. Common Loon
Tennessee is a great state for seeing the common loon’s elegant tuxedo-like appearance during its migratory period. Larger than a duck, the common loon is easy to identify just by hearing its haunting, loud calls. You’re more likely to locate the bird by its vocalizations in the spring because common loons are typically quieter during the winter.
Although you can only admire the common loon’s regal black plumage in the breeding season, the water bird is still worth looking out for its agile diving excursions. To see common loons, you should visit lakes and ponds in the state. You will need reliable binoculars because common loons don’t sit around near the shore for long.
8. Sandhill Crane
The majestic sandhill crane is an important attraction for birdwatchers in Tennessee. It’s one of the largest birds that you can see in the state during the crane’s fall migration. The birds are passing through Tennessee on their way to warmer southern areas to use as wintering grounds. Once the spring season comes, sandhill cranes return north and can be spotted once again.
If you’re searching for migratory sandhill cranes, your best bet is to look in marshes or fields close to shallow waters. The rattling calls of the birds can get particularly loud when they gather in large flocks. You will most likely hear them during flight as they fill the air with distinctive cries before rapidly descending to join their flock on the ground.
9. Eastern Kingbird
If you’re exploring Tennessee during the summer, there are some interesting birds you can see such as the eastern kingbird. It prefers grassland areas, especially overgrown fields or shrubby regions. This is a flycatcher that’s always searching for insects. During late summer, the birds can also be attracted by berry bushes.
Eastern kingbirds look like they’re wearing a business suit. Some of the most distinctive visual details include the all-white belly contrasting with the darker upper parts of its plumage. Another feature that helps to recognize the bird is the elegant white tip of its tail. Eastern kingbirds are very territorial birds and can often be spotted harassing larger birds invading their area.
10. Turkey Vulture
Birdwatchers focused on soaring birds shouldn’t miss Turkey vultures if they visit the state of Tennessee. This is a large and impressive bird that can be confused with more majestic raptors when seen soaring high in the sky. If you look for some distinctive flying patterns such as making wobbly circles, that could be a clear sign of a Turkey vulture.
These are skilled scavenger birds that rely on a sharp sense of smell to detect carcasses. Turkey vultures feature bald red heads and black bodies with splashes of gray on the flight feathers. You can find this large bird year-round in Tennessee. It’s spotted most easily along the sides of highways or in open countryside regions.
11. Northern Flicker
Woodpeckers are quite common in Tennessee. Birding enthusiasts visiting open woods in the state might be rewarded with the sight of a northern flicker. This is a gentle woodpecker species that you can accidentally stumble upon when it’s foraging on the ground. That’s why it’s recommended to scan the ground to spot it.
Northern flicker woodpeckers can also be seen in flight. The white rump patch gives it away but if you don’t manage to get a good look at it, hearing the bird’s characteristic piercing yelp could be more useful for identification. Birds in the eastern areas of the US have yellow shafts on the tail feathers whereas those in the western parts show red shafts.
12. Great Crested Flycatcher
A common flycatcher that can be found in Tennessee, the great crested species isn’t very difficult to find in open woodlands. They’re large birds with a lemon-colored belly and rusty upper parts. Even if you visit the right habitat of this bird, it tends to stay hidden high in the canopy of the forest so recognizing its characteristic whistle is essential to precisely locate it.
Great crested flycatchers nest in cavities and can be spotted swooping after flying insects to feed. They rest on high yet exposed perches so there are some good chances to get a good view at this flycatcher if you track it with a solid pair of binoculars. The birds will sometimes visit city parks or golf courses.
Winter birders in Tennessee can find various duck species visiting the state’s inland ponds or lakes. Buffleheads stand out through their large head with purple-green iridescent patches. You will need to get a closer look to spot its distinctive glossy plumage because from a distance the male bird seems to have only a black-and-white appearance.
Bufflehead ducks have fairly tiny bodies and can be difficult to find when foraging. This is because they tend to spend a lot of time underwater to feed on various aquatic invertebrates. If you’re determined to see this bird in its natural habitat, it’s safe to say that you need to be very patient.
Named after its “veer” notes heard in its ethereal song, this little bird can be usually found in Tennessee during its migratory period. However, some forested parts in the east of the state are also used for its breeding grounds. That’s where you can locate veeries singing haunting melodies and occasional harsh calls.
This small thrush prefers foraging on the ground when it’s not sitting perched high in the canopy to sing. If you hear the distinctive vocalization of a veery, visual identification is quite easy when you’re looking for its bright cinnamon plumage that stands out against the pale underparts. Breeding veeries can more often be encountered in damp wetland areas.
Chuck-will’s-widow is an interesting discovery for birdwatchers looking for rare birds. This large nightjar species requires some serious luck to be spotted during the day. Your best chance of finding it involves listening for it at night when its distinctive call can be heard. During the day, the bird sits motionless on in one spot, usually on the ground.
Another aspect that makes the chuck-will’s-widow bird hard to find is the dappled brown plumage. As you can expect considering its natural woodland habitat, the nightjar is perfectly camouflaged where it rests so it’s also a matter of having a keen eye to discover its presence. These aerial foragers can be seen in Tennessee in the summer.
16. Rufous Hummingbird
Although Tennessee isn’t the best state in the US for watching hummingbirds, there are a few species that can be spotted. The rufous hummingbird is the best example. It’s present in small numbers in the southern woodland regions of the state during the winter. They are extremely attracted to hummingbird feeders.
The adult male of the species is the most visually impressive. It boasts a brilliant mix of orange and green colors. The rufous hummingbird is known for its year-round territorial aggressiveness. It fights against other hummingbird species. The bird seems to be constantly migrating and its numbers have been declining in recent years making it a more uncommon sight.
17. American Golden-Plover
Tennessee’s location intersects with the long migration route of the American golden-plover. These shorebirds prefer tundra regions in the Arctic to breed but they will visit the central regions of the US, including the west parts of Tennessee during migration.
You won’t be able to admire the gold-speckled wings of the breeding plumage but the American golden-plover is a beautiful bird even in its black-and-white nonbreeding look. Aside from its visual appearance, this elegant bird is worth searching for to observe its interesting flight display and distinctive song. The plovers tend to spend a lot of time on farm fields and will be hard to see without a high-quality spotting scope.
You don’t necessarily have to travel to coastal areas for spotting shorebirds. Some species such as killdeer rely on grasslands and short-mown fields for their habitat. This is a graceful plover that’s fun to watch hunting insects. Despite having a distinctive appearance with two black bands on its white breast, the slender shorebird is easy to miss because of the camouflage created by its tawny plumage.
Killdeer birds get their name from the characteristic vocalizations they make when circling overhead. The calls can be heard easily from a considerable distance so birders can get a visual match more easily. The flying patterns can resemble the American Kestrel but the walking style will quickly give it away as a killdeer.
19. Great Blue Heron
A year-round presence in Tennessee, the great blue heron is a striking sight if you visit any marshy areas of the state. It’s a beautiful bird to see in action stalking its prey with deliberate steps or admiring the way it sits motionless. Despite its apparent slowness, great blue herons are incredibly fast predators never missing the opportunity to grab their aquatic prey in a flash.
Adult herons show off a grayish-blue plumage color that contrasts with the orange bill. It can stand out easily through its elegant head plumes and dark crown. The long neck of the bird remains tucked-in during flight. Great blue herons can be discovered in open fields and meadows as well.
20. Upland Sandpiper
Although quite scarce during the migration period, you might be able to spot upland sandpipers in Tennessee if you’re birdwatching in open fields and various grasslands. The shorebird is more impressive to see in its breeding season but the short-billed species is quite a sight to see considering the graceful appearance.
Upland sandpipers have an unusual behavior for a shorebird. They avoid wetlands and prefer to forage for insects in prairies and croplands. The birds migrate quite early to reach their wintering regions in South America. To catch this shorebird in action during this time, it’s recommended to look for it starting from the middle of the summer.
21. Least Tern
Least terns have a growing population in Tennessee despite concerns about declining numbers in recent times. The birds are summer residents in certain locations of the state that offer favorable nesting conditions. You can find least terns along the Mississippi River close to the western border.
Considering that this is the smallest American tern species, the bird shows off a slender and delicate appearance. Don’t be fooled by its size though, because this is a surprisingly loud bird that hangs around in numerous breeding colonies. Least terns are worth searching for by birders who wish to experience the eye-catching aerial dives of these skilled fish hunters.
22. Bonaparte’s Gull
There are lots of gulls that choose Tennessee’s bodies of water for their wintering needs. A good example is the Bonaparte’s gull. This sleek species flies with impressive agility showcasing its bright white underparts. As opposed to the breeding plumage, the nonbreeding variant lacks the black hood but shows off only a dark smudge behind the eye.
Bonaparte’s gulls have a tendency to travel in large flocks. They’re easiest to see in December or January near the lakes of the state. The birds hunt flying insects and can also grab fish from the water. Despite being relatively common, this gull species can be a little hard to see because of its small size and mixing with other similar birds.
23. Mississippi Kite
More common in the southeast parts of the US, the Mississippi kite has a fairly expanded range that reaches Tennessee during the summer. This is an elegant raptor whose distinctive silhouette can be more easily seen soaring overhead when the bird hunts its small prey. Mississippi kites can be easily recognized by their pearly gray plumage color.
Due to the fact that these birds enjoy a lot of time flying high in the sky, they are not particularly easy to spot unless you thoroughly search for them. Mississippi kites can sometimes be spotted close to urban settings because they prefer tall perching spots, including buildings.
24. Golden Eagle
If you’re a birder focused on birds of prey, you can find golden eagles pretty easily during winters in Tennessee. It’s an easier bird to see in western US states where it lives year-round but the wintering range of the raptor extends throughout most of the country.
Golden eagles are recognized by their brown plumage speckled with light-colored feathers gleaming in the sunlight. They typically hunt small mammals using strong talons and a sharp beak. Large adults are bold enough to fight off larger animals such as coyotes or bears to prevent losing their prey.
25. Summer Tanager
A feast for a birder’s eyes, the summer tanager with its vibrant red appearance shouldn’t be missed if you’re exploring the open woodlands of Tennessee. Only the male bird has a distinctive red color while the female shows off a tamer yellow look.
Both sexes are easy to identify if you listen for the summer tanager’s characteristic vocalizations. However, females tend to be less exposed while the male is easier to get a good view at. Summer tanagers are adept insect hunters and prefer to hang around in the mid-canopy of the forest.