[Bristol-Birds] Paddle Creek exercise enjoyed success. Time will tell.

  • From: "Wallace Coffey" <jwcoffey@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Bristol-birds" <bristol-birds@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 29 Oct 2010 00:12:11 -0400

A random and limited exercise to determine the ability to fluctuate
a large farm pond near Paddle Creek in Sullivan Co., TN, in late
summer and early fall, to attract more shorebirds, produced
many interesting observations.

The logic for the exercise was based on (1) the seeming attractiveness
of the pond to migrant waterbirds; (2) the close proximity of the
South Fork Holston River and the base of Holston Mountain to 
form a possible narrow corridor and (3) the physical ability
to expose and increase the shoreline habitat by either pumping
water out of the pond with an electric pump and/or preventing inflow
of water via an underground pipe from the nearby creek.

The cooperation and interest of the landowners made the
exercise practical.  Their enthusiasm was both surprising and
appreciated.  The water level management would not
have been possible without their focus, energy and time.

From June to present, water birds, shorebirds
and other interesting species observed at Paddle Creek Pond 

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal

Pied-billed Grebe

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron

Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel

Semipalmated Plover

Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper

Belted Kingfisher

During August, September and part of October, birding visits
were made to the pond almost daily, including weekends.  
Most days received two birding visits -- one in the
morning or middle of the day and a second in late evening.
Several persons birded the pond and most shared their

Following a meeting with the owner, 16 August, BBC had
a verbal agreement to begin exposing the mudflats to 
optimum habitat.

It was an attempt to monitor the habitat throughout the
season and fluctuate the exposed shoreline to get 
the best possible conditions into November.  Even on this
date (28 Oct), the pond is at the lowest level we have
witnessed and mudflats are extensive.

Early on the expected first arrivals included the Spotted
Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper.  These were present in
June or July.

The smaller shorebirds were busy feeding daily and 
restricted to the shoreline or to relatively smaller organisms
for food.  Many small and black insects swarmed over the
mudflats of the shoreline as the water quickly dropped.

Competition peaked as the birds were forced to utilize 
common feeding areas where the food source seemed 
concentrated early on. It was not unexpected that  
competition was greater for preferred food items 
than for others.  

As the larger species such as Solitary Sandpiper, Greater 
Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs arrived, competition 
was keen with many smaller birds standing back in puddles 
along the shoreline or working well out from the prime 
area.  Solitary Sandpipers were by far the most aggressive 
and constantly chased smaller birds further along the shore 
and did not well tolerate one another. 

Killdeer, present from July and fluctuating almost daily with
a single bird to three dozen birds per day, utilized almost all
of the exposed and easily accessible shoreline.  They are
not always friendly to visiting birds.

As many as five Least Sandpipers were present at 
one time.  Three came early and stayed for more than a
month and for a day or two were joined by two others. 
Eventually two of the flock left during a weather front
approach.  The three were so distinctive they
could virtually be separated from the arriving pair.  The
Leasts always worked in a very small area of the mudflats.

It appeared that as their food supply apparently diminished,
they ventured out to explore other less-utilized shoreline
but would return every few minutes to search more and
more actively.  As a changing frontal system approached,
they were much more nervous.  The day after its passage,
they were gone when I arrived and no other Leasts were
seen since.

The Least Sandpipers appeared more shy and did not
become aggressive with other birders.  But they
would double back as the larger and more numerous
shorebirds moved slightly away and they would again
feed their preferred spots.

As summer enjoyed its peak, one and once two Great
Egrets were at the pond.  One Great Egret was
present daily for many weeks.  It always seemed to be
the same individual.  In the heat of the day it hid on the
back of the duck blind as did the Green Herons which
were mostly passing individuals.  A Great Blue Heron 
was present every day and still is.  It also hid in the
shade at the blind.  It has been the most frequent 
species present and there when even the Killdeer 
and Belted Kingfisher was not found.

Mallard and the Canada Goose were not often obvious
until fall began to arrive.

Of curious note was the very slow and deliberate hunting 
pace of the herons.  That in itself is expected but it was
soon noticed that the Great Egret and Great Blue Heron
which could catch several small fish a minute in a small
and shallow area, soon began to walk further and quicker
along the shoreline and became much less successful.

It was not unusual for the Great Egret to walk a very long
distance to lap the pond and, one day, it lapped the pond
twice while I was there.  It was still successful catching
minnows but much less frequently.  The Great Blue Heron
also lapped the pond on one or two days while I was 
present.  I was fascinated to imagine how many times
either or both larger herons lapped the pond in a single
day because my presence each day was only for short
periods.  Both large herons soon began to slow their 
hunting with less success as the weeks passed and 
they spent hours at their duck blind hideout.  

Eventually, some shorebirds showed more stress.  On
different occasions, I watched first a Spotted 
Sandpiper and then another day a Solitary Sandpiper
catch minnows that I thought neither could swallow.
And they couldn't.  They pecked the fish to death and
the Spotted was resourceful enough to throw and 
beat a minnow until its guts were burst open and then
ate some of the meat.

As fall advanced, the Great Egret left but would be back
in a few hours or later in the day.  Eventually it was
determined that its food source was declining so
rapidly it was flying down along the fields and
road to Paddle Creek where it spent hours and hours
hunting.  It would eventually come back to the pond
to walk and hunt.  When the heavy rain came 
in the last few days, it departed and seems likely
gone.  If another wandering Great Egret makes an
appearance, it seems reasonable it will only
make a short visit and maybe just to rest in safe

The larger species seem much less food specific than
the smaller shorebirds and, at least at this pond,
are not as restricted to the shoreline where the
little birds need relatively smaller organisms.  When
the Stilt Sandpiper arrived, it spent almost all of
its time hunting in deeper water of an inch or two.
The Solitary Sandpipers also waded considerably.
The yellowlegs ranged about the upper end of 
the pond because they could take advantage of
shallow water.  The Stilt Sandpiper was probably
a fast-moving migrant and did not stay long.  It
appeared to feed successfully but that was evidently
not an issue.

Despite the fact the winter season is about a
month away, the mudflats are extensive but nearly
void of passage birds.

It begs us to understand that some great looking
ponds and habitats may not support a bountiful
food source and birds passing well within their
appointed time of the fall migration may be hard
pressed for food.  Without much competition 
they can hunt out a living.  If aggressive enough,
they can discourage others from lingering and
helping diminish an already scarce food source.

A case in point may be
the utilization of the 
Spring Creek Embayment
by what apparently is
the same two Greater
Yellowlegs.  The species
has been there for at
least two or three weeks.
This photo was made on
12 Oct 2010 when one
was feeding in the same,
limited, shoreline habitat
on the east side of the
Musick's Campground
exposed area.  
Other nearby habitat
is not being utilized as much.  It frequently
stands a foot or so offshore for long periods.
When it feeds, it walks long distances rather
quickly and almost always walking in the water.
Of course moving and feeding out in the water
is one of the typical behaviors of this species.

It flew back into Spring Creek the other evening
and was joined in flight by a second bird which
appeared from near Washington County Park.
Less than 30 minutes later, one of the two came
back to Musick's and was again standing in the
water and feeding the same area it has for days.
The two went down along Lake Road near a
couple of ponds that I thought were dry but 
have not yet verified.  Are they also utilizing
the ponds and lake kind of alternately like the 
Great Egret at Paddle Creek ?

This is not much different than watching the
utilization of specific and preferred feeding areas
at Paddle Creek Pond.

At Paddle Creek Pond this year's exercise
has suggested:

    -- we now know how well we can manage
the water levels and exposed mudflats with

  -- there is a better understanding of timing
the mudflat exposure and increasing useable
shoreline for feeding and resting.

 -- nature can easily defeat the plan at 
critical times with heavy rainfalls coming
when not enough drawdown has been
created to offset raising the level too 
quickly as happened this year.

-- more diversity of species and greater
numbers can be accommodated with more
exposed flats earlier when the smaller
shorebirds are in passage.  This eliminates
competition and might provide more food.

-- the habitat and its food sources may
have been seriously damaged this year
by too much availability and depletion of
the food sources.  Will the outstanding,
small, black, creatures reproduce in 
abundance again next spring and early
summer in time to feed the migrants ?

-- minnows should do well because some
of them were possibly offspring of larger
fish which were not often taken for food.

-- what is the tolerance of such a good
habitat to repeated peak season
drawdowns year after year and the
possibility of tilting the pond out of
balance for two or three years?

-- Paddle Creek Pond is a man made
impoundment that is small enough that
several options are quickly available
to correct errors and restore the
balance.  Examples, fertilizing the
pond, restocking some aquatic 
plants, insects and such. Also a
hot-shot type effort of spreading 
straw or hay over the water to 
restore the food source.  We have
the resources to do whatever.

Let's go pond watching . . .

Wallace Coffey
Bristol, TN 

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  • » [Bristol-Birds] Paddle Creek exercise enjoyed success. Time will tell. - Wallace Coffey