Rare bird spotted diving in Tennessee lake, experts say. It’s a first for Southeast

It was a tense 3 1/2-hour car ride for Cyndi Routledge, who was chasing down a creature never seen before in Tennessee.

Routledge, secretary of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, had gone on drives only to miss animals she was searching for, she said. She hoped her trip on Saturday, Nov. 25, wasn’t going to be one of those days.

When she arrived at Chickamauga Lake, there were about two dozen birders huddled along the shoreline with their cameras and scopes, she said. Like her, they all were waiting to catch a glimpse of the rare animal.

Routledge scanned the water, patiently waiting. Then, suddenly, what she had traveled all that way for became worth the trip.

An ancient murrelet, a type of diving bird, popped out from the water after returning from its hunt for bait fish darting around the shallow lake floor. Then it went back to swimming around, coming within 50 yards of the group at some points, she said.

“It actually looked like it was flying underwater,” Routledge said.

The ancient murrelet was spotted by a pair of local birders on Friday, Nov. 24, Routledge said, making it a first sighting of the rare bird in the Southeast. As word spread among birders of the ancient murrelet’s arrival on Telegram, an instant messaging service, Routledge said some people got in their cars immediately and “zipped down there.”

About 170 birders traveled to the Tennessee lake as of Sunday, Nov. 26, Routledge said, which she tracked through eBird, a citizen reporting system for birds. More people likely have seen the bird since, because it was still reported to be at the lake on Monday, Nov. 27, she said.

There were even birders congregated around the lake from Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama to see the diving bird, she said.

The ancient murrelet is an agile auk bird that has the ability to fly directly from the water, according to the National Audubon Society. They live out on the cold, open ocean, although they can sometimes be found in salt bays, the National Audubon Society said.

The bird earned the “ancient” in its name to describe its gray back’s resemblance to a draping shawl, the society said.

Part of the excitement over the ancient murrelet’s visit is how far off course it was from its typical range, Routledge said, making it a “really rare” spotting.

The ancient murrelet typically is seen on the Pacific Northwest coastline and Alaska, according to the National Audubon Society. During winter, the birds may travel down California’s coast as the winter waters become colder, but finding it outside that range is uncommon.

“For one of those to be here and to be seemingly healthy and hunting and doing all the things that it does from what we can observe, it’s a big deal for birders,” Routledge said.

Although it was the ancient murrelet’s first official visit to the Southeast, it wasn’t Routledge’s first sighting of the sea bird. She said she visited Alaska last year and while out on a boat, she saw the bird diving out in the middle of the ocean.

“It was ironic because you got a better look at this bird in Tennessee than we did in Alaska,” Routledge said.

One word was circulating in the crowd of birders to describe how the ancient murrelet got there: irruption. Irruptions refer to the movement changes of birds due to lack of food access, according to Project FeederWatch. There’s been similar developments with limpkins, a tropical bird from Florida, in Tennessee, Routledge said.

There have been other recent ancient murrelet sightings in Minnesota and Wisconsin, CBS News and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Rare birds can get blown off their flight course by cold fronts or other weather patterns, too, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife specialist Mime Barnes told McClatchy News. The agency has no plans to interact with or relocate the bird, Barnes said.

Routledge had two simple pieces of advice for anyone who wants to spot the ancient murrelet or any other interesting birds: grab a pair of binoculars and look for the birders. For any rare bird sightings, Routledge said it’s common to find a group of birders standing together looking at the animal, which first-time birdwatchers are welcome to join.

A lot of times, birders are happy to share their view with anyone who is interested, she said. Welcoming curious passersby is important to Routledge, who said the experience could kickstart a passion for birds and nature, especially for children.

“You never know whose heart you’re going to touch when you share with a child,” she said. “They may be the one that grows up and saves the world.”

Chickamauga Lake is about 30 miles northeast of Chattanooga.

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