The Gulf Coast of Tennessee

When most people think of the coast, they think of beaches, sunshine, resorts and seafood restaurants.   But when birders think of the coast, of course, we think of birds — ducks, grebes, pelicans, gulls, terns, sandpipers, herons, all the creatures of mudflat, bay and shore.   Many of these are the big and showy birds, what some nickname the “charismatic megafauna.”  In case you are not up on your Greek word roots, this just translates as “big showy animals.”

If you are looking for palm trees and surfers, you will not find those in Tennessee.   But if you are looking for the charismatic avian megafauna, you can do pretty well by making a trip to what birders have dubbed the Gulf Coast of Tennessee.

Alongside the forests and hills that characterize the Tennessee landscape, we are also defined by our many large TVA reservoirs.  Over the decades since they were first built, the birdlife of this region has adapted to their presence.   Many of the birds that once migrated all the way to the real Gulf Coast have taken to cutting their trips short and spending their winters in the Tennessee Valley on these lakes.   Other species that still winter to our south use these inland shorelines as important stopovers during their spring and fall passages.

One of the most impressive of these “inland coasts” is on the reaches of Kentucky Lake between Big Sandy and Paris Landing, in Henry and Benton Counties.   This area is about two hours away from most of the Validity reading area, and is well worth the trip if you like to see the larger birds of bigger waters.

The list of rarities that have been found in this area is enormous.   Quite a few birds have been spotted here for the first or even the only time in Tennessee.  Many others that are hard to find elsewhere show up here regularly.

There are three major birding areas involved here.   The easiest to get to is Paris Landing State Park, immediately south of Highway 79 just west of the bridge over Kentucky Lake.   This is a prime spot for gulls, ducks, loons and, often, Bald Eagles.   There are several good viewpoints over the lake to the east of the Lodge.   The ducks here are typically the “diving ducks” or “bay ducks.”  These are the species that like deeper water and dive for their food.

The other birding areas nearby are in the Big Sandy unit of Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge.  The roads around the lake here can be confusing, even by the usual twisty-turny standards of rural Tennessee.   Go to the TN-NWR website (www.fws.gov/TennesseeRefuge/) and get a copy of the map of the Big Sandy Unit.  And have a good gazetteer or trustworthy navigation system.   Plus a bag of bread crumbs.

South of Paris Landing on the west shore of the lake is Britton Ford.  The highlight here is the wildlife viewing platform on Swayne Road.   It looks out over a complex of peninsulas and shallow bays.  Nearby are many fields managed for wildlife.  This is often a major wintertime magnet for geese and the “puddle ducks” – the dabblers that simply tip their rears up and poke their heads down to feed in shallow water.  It is not unusual to find all five species of geese that regularly occur in Tennessee here, along with nearly every species of puddle duck.

Britton Ford is another good spot for eagles, and it has a special distinction as being perhaps the best spot in Tennessee to spot a Golden Eagle.   Keep an eye to the sky, and brush up on how to tell the two eagles apart (that was the topic of one of my first Validity columns).   Remember that many young Bald Eagles do not have white heads or tails.

The third jewel in this crowning spot of Tennessee birding is Pace Point.   To get to this remote area you need to find your way north out of the town of Big Sandy onto Lick Creek Road.   This is simple enough, you just go north from the gas station, across the bridge, then first right, curve left, then right, bear left, then keep right, and… well, watch the signs and cross your fingers.   When you do successfully get on Lick Creek Road, take it about eight miles or so to the refuge entrance.

Once you get to the refuge, there are several destinations.   First, on your right you will come to the Bennett’s Bay overlook.  This is often another excellent spot to see ducks, geese, eagles and even the occasional swan.

Following the road all the way to its end (often muddy) will take you to Pace Point proper.   This unassuming spit of gravel presents you with a panoramic view of the lake.   You are only three miles from Paris Landing.  The Inn and Highway 79 bridge are easily seen across the lake.

One of the things for which Pace Point is famous is rare gulls.   Sorting out the gulls into species is a daunting task for a novice; suffice it to say that 16 different species of gulls have been found in Tennessee, and most of these have been seen at Pace Point.

If you don’t care to learn the arcane art of gull identification, you can just take in the panorama, and really feel like you are standing on the shore of a coastal bay, with perhaps even some pelicans winging over the water.

There are a couple of other areas near Pace Point worth viewing.   Just a few hundred yards south of the point, the road skirts the lake at what birders dub “Coot Bay.”  About a mile farther down, another dirt road (Lee Springs Road) forks off to the west that takes you to numerous views of the lake shore through the trees.   This area is dubbed ”Rocky Point.”

The major attractions of this part of Kentucky Lake are the big birds.   But, there are plenty of smaller critters (“dickey birds,” birders often call them) to be seen as well.  The fields, roadsides and forests can be quite active, and alert eyes have spotted rare sparrows and other smaller, feathered oddities here as well.   Regardless of whether you are looking at the charismatic megafauna or the dickey birds, a trip to the Gulf Coast of Tennessee can be a scenic and adventurous expedition.

Bill Pulliam

About Bill Pulliam

Bill Pulliam got started in birdwatching by his junior high science teacher in 1974, and has been an avid birder ever since in 48 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries. He is currently the Tennessee editor for eBird, an online project that compiles millions of observations from tens of thousands of birders around the world.

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