No longer just for the senior set, birdwatching is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the country, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Indeed, life gets a little more interesting when you start paying attention to the wildlife around you, and in East Tennessee it abounds, whether it’s a wild hare scampering across the trail ahead or a belted kingfisher chirping from the oak branches in your backyard. And learning to recognize more and more types of birds (and any kind of wildlife, for that matter) adds another whole level of enjoyment to spending time in the great outdoors.

But where do you begin making sense of the hundreds of bird species in East Tennessee? (If you didn’t know that a belted kingfisher is a type of bird, and a common one at that, then you’re in the right place.) This introductory guide to birdwatching in Knoxville is just the spot to get started, from local resources and information to outdoor places worth taking a hike and discovering the variety of feathered friends flocking nearby.

Getting Started: Finding and Identifying Birds

A Carolina wren on the move.
A Carolina wren on the move. Rain0975

Some experienced birdwatchers are adept at placing a bird by its call, color, or nesting habits. For newbies, however, an ideal place to start is a book (or e-book) with pictures of local species you’re likely to encounter out on the trails. Here, a few recommendations.

  • 100 Common Birds of Tennessee: This free online list put together by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency offers detailed information on common birds across the state with pictures, bird calls, colors, habitats, and a lot more. It’s searchable, making it a handy database for identification.

  • Audubon’s Guide to North American Birds: A free online search engine with a huge repository of birds identifiable by pictures, taxonomy, calls, and other traits. It’s searchable by region and taxonomy, offering a more robust but broader breakdown than the "100 Common Birds of Tennessee" list.

  • Hotspot Birding: A go-to resource for figuring out which bird species are where, based on counts and recordings from avid bird enthusiasts in the area. Search within a 15-mile radius (or more) of your location and find known haunts of a variety of birds at different times of year.

  • Books on birding: Out on the trails or in the mountains, where cell signal can be spotty at best, nothing tops a good old-fashioned field guide. Books (and e-books) specializing in bird identification and information are in ample supply. Birdwatching.com has some basic guides, and a search of the Internet will turn up more than you can shake a stick at.

Connect with Local Organizations To Learn the Ropes

Knoxville’s in no short supply of enthusiastic birders and places to see a variety of unique species. The Audubon Society lists several East Tennessee destinations at "birding hotspots" during the summer (more on that below), but the best way to learn the ropes is to get out in the wilds with people that know what they’re doing, and that’s pretty easy with several organizations and places where sightings are pretty much guaranteed close to town.

  • Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society: A local chapter of this statewide birding nonprofit, the KCTOS meets the first Wednesday of each month on the University of Tennessee campus, talking bird sightings and upcoming events. It takes part in many bird counts and other activities throughout the year.

  • Birdingpal Tennessee: A contact list of local birdwatching enthusiasts willing to take you out on a wildlife sightseeing tour free of charge (though it’s courtesy to pay for the gas if they’re driving). It’s a great way to meet interesting people and learn more about our feathered friends, with several listings for people in the Knoxville and Maryville areas.

  • Audubon Society Tennessee: Focused on grassroots conservation efforts, local Audubon chapters offer people a variety of opportunities to help protect the nature and wildlife they love. It also offers some great resources for birders, most of which are free.

Where To Go Birding in East Tennessee

One of the country’s most diverse environs, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must-stop of any birding enthusiast. 
    Clay Duda
One of the country’s most diverse environs, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must-stop of any birding enthusiast. Clay Duda

Around Knoxville there are tons of places to spot birds in the wild, including the river’s edge downtown, several spacious inner city parks, and numerous wilderness areas in the surrounding hills. Here are some of your best bets:

  • Seven Islands State Birding Park: The name says it all. Ranked as one of East Tennessee’s birding hotspots by the Audubon Society (along with several others on this list), this park just east of Knoxville skirts the banks of the French Broad river with more than eight miles of trail through a variety of habitats. Hiking, paddleboarding, and wildlife photography are popular pastimes.

  • Sharp’s Ridge State Park: One of the best places around to spot migratory songbirds in the spring, the 111-acre park in North Knoxville is also crisscrossed with hiking and mountain biking trails. Just minutes from downtown, this is a perfect place for a quick bird sighting (or trail run) before or after work.

  • Frozen Head State Park: Well known for its rugged beauty and remoteness, even just an hour’s drive northwest of Knoxville, this 24,000-acre park is a great place to find woodland birds in its lower reaches and high-elevation nesters up along mountain trails. With more than 50 miles of hiking paths through the park, it’s great for the active, adventurous bird seeker, though you can make sightings near the visitor center and campgrounds at its entrance.

  • Lakeshore Park: A well-developed park in West Knoxville with baseball and soccer fields, the 185-acre recreation area is also known for its plethora of bird species and a strong likelihood for sightings year round.

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park: What East Tennessee list of bird-spotting locals would be complete without the GSMNP? The wildly diverse landscape rises from 875 feet to 6,643 at its highest point, offering a range of environments for nesting and transient bird species, plus miles of hiking trails ready to be explored. Popular locals include Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome, plus plenty of backcountry routes to skirt the tourists for a real wilderness experience. Check out its birding checklist before you go.

Originally written by RootsRated for Visit Knoxville.