Category Archives: Middlebrook Lake

Unusual ducks pick Bristol’s Middlebrook Lake for brief visit


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck rests inside an aviary located at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. In the wild, this species of duck has been expanding its range in the southern United States.


Joanne Campbell notified me via Facebook of a visit of an unusual waterfowl on Saturday, May 18, at her home near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

I needed a moment to look past the obvious Canada goose in the photograph before my eyes registered the four small ducks on the grassy bank. I recognized them instantly as black-bellied whistling ducks.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are members of a group of ducks known as “tree ducks” and “whistling ducks.” There is some debate about whether they are more closely related to ducks or geese.


Photo courtesy of Joanne Campbell • The four visiting black-bellied whistling ducks line up along the edge of Middlebrook Lake as a Canada goose swims past.

Joanne’s recent sighting near her home culminates a series of sightings throughout the region over the past month or so. For whatever reason, these ducks have popped up in various locations throughout the region in recent weeks.

Birder and photographer Adam Campbell found 11 black-bellied whistling ducks at a new retention pond off Exit 14 along Interstate 81 in Abington, Virginia, on Sunday, May 12.

A month earlier, birder Graham Gerdeman, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, found a black-bellied whistling duck at the Harpeth/Morton Mills Greenway in Nashville on Friday, April 12.

On Friday, April 19, another lone black-bellied whistling duck was spotted in a grocery store parking lot in Fairview near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, by birder Kathy Malone.

Birders Ronald Hoff and Dollyann Myers observed a black-bellied whistling duck on Friday, May 17, on a small lake on Highway 411 south of Maryville, Tennessee, on the line between Blount and Loudon counties.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although widely kept in aviaries, black-bellied whistling ducks are becoming increasingly frequent wild visitors in the Volunteer State. East Tennessee saw a spike of sightings this spring of this duck.

In West Tennessee, closer to the Mississippi River waterfowl migration flyway, the black-bellied whistling duck is a more common bird. The ducks, which are typically found in Central and South America, range into the United States typically only in southern Texas and Arizona, as well as occasionally in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Florida. Some field guides indicate that these ducks are not long-distance migrants, but birders in western Tennessee would disagree with that assessment.

In appearance, males and females are similar with long necks, red bills and long, pinkish-red legs. The plumage is mostly chestnut with a black belly and a readily visible white wing patch.

These ducks are often described as being somewhat similar to geese and are not considered true ducks. They are classified by biologists in the genus Dendrocygna. Species in the genus include the West Indian whistling duck, wandering whistling duck, fulvous whistling duck, plumed whistling duck, spotted whistling duck, lesser whistling duck and white-faced whistling duck. Only the fulvous whistling duck joins the black-bellied whistling duck in ranging into the United States in such locations as Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck (foreground) and a fulvous whistling duck (background) share space within an aviary at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

Black-bellied whistling ducks will nest both in natural cavities or on the ground in areas with thick vegetation. If nesting boxes are available, these ducks will gladly nest in them. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, black-bellied whistling-ducks have been expanding their range in the southern United States. These ducks have experienced strong population growth, estimated at more than 6 percent per year from 1966 to 2014. The world population is estimated at 1,100,000 to 2,000,000 birds and increasing, which could explain why appearances are becoming somewhat more commonplace in states like Tennessee, as well as Virginia and the Carolinas.

Formerly called the black-bellied tree duck, this waterfowl has also been given common names such as “whistling duck” and “Mexican squealer.” As indicated by these different names, these are highly vocal birds with a clear, piercing whistled call.

The black-bellied whistling ducks at Middlebrook Lake lingered for several hours, which allowed many birders in the region to make the drive to the lake to observe such an interesting visitor to the region.

Joanne later posted on Facebook about the excitement generated by the ducks. “I couldn’t get any work done for watching them,” she wrote in her post.

The ducks are not the first rare bird that Joanne has alerted me to at Middlebrook. Back in November of 2015, she notified me of an American white pelican that spent a couple of days on the lake. I’m grateful to her for notifying me about both the black-bellied whistling ducks and the pelican.

I always enjoy hearing from readers with observations to share. To make a comment, ask a question, or share a sighting, email me at


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck enjoys a vigorous bath within its enclosure in an aviary at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. This duck is often kept in captivity. The wild population has expanded its range in recent years from Central America into the southern United States.

Great white heron pays unexpected area visit to Steele Creek Park

I wrote a few weeks ago about the tendency of long-legged wading birds to wander far afield from their usual coastal haunts in late summer. In the ensuing weeks, numerous sightings of some unexpected waders have been reported throughout the region and beyond. 
Jeremy Stout, the manager of the Nature Center at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, reported that a great white heron generated some birding excitement among park visitors. Stout noted that the heron was first reported by Sherry Willinger on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 7-8, and then found again by Ruth and Mary Clark on Friday, Aug. 11. Stout also managed to get a photograph of the heron, which has been seen just outside the park grounds between Ralph Harr Bridge and Highway 126. Steele Creek Park Naturalist Don Holt saw the heron again on Aug. 15. He invited others who see the heron to share their sightings by calling the park’s Nature Center at (423) 989-5616. Reports will help the park staff document the duration of the rare visitor’s stay and keep interested birders informed of its presence. 

Photo by Jeremy Stout
This great white heron was photographed near Steele Creek Park in Bristol. Currently considered the same species as the great blue heron, there is debate among experts about granting the great white heron status as a species in its own right. 

In early August, Cheryl Livingston reported a great white heron and a great egret at Watauga Lake in Hampton. While only a handful of records exist for the great white heron in this region, these observations will not help boost the lists of any area birders. The great white heron and the great blue heron, scientifically speaking, are the same species — at least for the moment.
According to the website for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this large wading bird, originally thought to be just a white color morph of the great blue heron, might actually deserve consideration as its own species. The website’s profile of the great white heron notes that recent research about the great white suggests that it is at least a subspecies of the great blue heron. Some preliminary unpublished data suggests that the bird may even be a completely separate species. That would be exciting news for many birders, who would be able to quickly add an unexpected bird to their life lists. 
The majestic great white heron usually ranges throughout south Florida and the Florida Keys, but individuals wander far from those parts of the Sunshine State after the nesting season. 
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Painting by John James Audubon of the iconic Great White Heron of Florida.

The great white heron — as its name suggests — differs dramatically in appearance from a great blue heron, mostly in having all-white plumage. In addition, the great white heron has a yellow bill, which is heavier and more solid than the slender bill of the smaller great egret, for which it could be confused at a casual glance. The great blue heron, known by the scientific named of Ardea herodias, can stand 54 inches tall and weigh close to eight pounds. 
Waders other than great white herons have been wandering this summer. Farther afield, Michael Sledjeski has been reporting little blue herons and great egrets at Rankin Bottoms, which is a birding hot spot at Douglas Lake in East Tennessee. The location is well known among birders as a magnet for shorebirds and wading birds. Sightings of wood storks have been somewhat widespread in Tennessee and Virginia this summer. 
In addition, other waders are showing up far from their usual ranges. For instance, a roseate spoonbill — a large, pink wading bird — has shown up as far north as Pennsylvania, marking the first time the species has been sighted in the Keystone State since 1968.  

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Identifying white herons and egrets can be a tricky business. This immature Little Blue Heron is just starting to get the          blue feathers of adulthood. 

I’ve not seen anything as exciting as a wood stork or roseate spoonbill at home, but on several occasions in the past couple of weeks my fish pond has been visited by great blue herons. A couple of these visitors were young birds, which are probably wandering widely during their first summer out of the nest. I’ve also seen green herons at the pond and in the creeks along the linear trail in Erwin. 
If the great white heron eventually gains recognition as a separate species, I will already have the bird on my Tennessee bird list thanks to a sighting of one several years ago at Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake in Bristol. Ironically, I’ll not have this bird on my Florida list, as I’ve not seen it in its southern stronghold. 
To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at  If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email

Pelican surprises residents of Bristol neighborhood


Birders learn fairly quickly that sometimes you just have to trust your eyes. Residents near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, might have been understandably surprised in the days leading up to Thanksgiving when they spied a large white bird on the small lake in their neighborhood.


All Photos by Bryan Stevens  •  This American white pelican recently spent some time at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

Alice Morgan, a resident of the Middlebrook subdivision, was certainly surprised. “We are lucky to have a view of the lake,” she said in an email she sent to me on Sunday, Nov. 29.

She correctly identified the visiting bird. “We think that in the last few days we have been looking at an American White Pelican,” she reported in her email. “At first we thought it was a swan that comes and goes, but when we got our binoculars out, this bird has a very long orange beak that almost trails the water.”

The reference to a swan was made because of a small population of mute swans that have resided on the lake at least the past 20 years. However, the bird that generated the recent excitement among area birders and Middlebrook residents wasn’t a swan or even a Thanksgiving turkey. The bird was truly an American white pelican, a rare and accidental visitor in the region.

“We have yet to see it fly to see if it has the black feathers in its wings, but the beak seems to be the marking of a pelican,” Alice noted. “They are not supposed to be in this area. Could it be lost, or are we incorrect in our identification?”


The pelican swam and associated with Canada geese at Middlebrook Lake.

In addition to the email from Alice, one of my Facebook friends, Joanne Campbell, tipped me off to the pelican’s presence.

“White Pelican on lake in Middlebrook,” Joanne wrote in a post to my page on Nov. 25. “I thought my neighbor was mistaken. I was within 25 feet of the pelican. Beautiful, but what the heck is he doing in Bristol?”

I responded to Alice’s email and Joanne’s Facebook post, informing them that their identifications were absolutely correct. Regarding whether the bird was “lost,” I am not sure of the answer. Middlebrook Lake most likely looked like a favorable location for a migrating pelican to stop in order to refuel and refresh itself.


The pelican scratches at an itch.

Bristol resident Wallace Coffey made the first report of the American White Pelican on Tuesday, Nov. 24. His post on Bristol-Birds, an online forum for sharing regional bird sightings, brought my mom and me to Middlebrook Lake the next afternoon. It didn’t take long to locate the large white bird sharing the lake with large numbers of Canada geese, American coots and hooded mergansers. The pelican sort of stuck out like a proverbial sore thumb. It didn’t seem wary of people, but I remained in my car and still managed to get decent photographs of the bird. While my mom and I watched the pelican, it swam among the Canada geese and coots on the lake. It also took time to preen its feathers and flap its wings.


The American white pelican certainly turned some heads during its brief stay at Middlebrook Lake.

The American White Pelican makes its home on large freshwater lakes and reservoirs across the prairie states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana and a few others — as well as the prairie provinces of Canada. They can be found along the Pacific and Gulf coasts during the winter, and as far inland as southern Minnesota and Wisconsin during the summer. By contrast, the smaller brown pelican generally does not leave coastal areas unless driven inland by hurricanes or other major storms.

Populations of American white pelicans residing east of the Rocky Mountains migrate along river valleys, including the Mississippi River, to their wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast and in Mexico. It is not unusual for a few to stray into the eastern United States. American white pelicans are social birds and prefer to travel in flocks, although some of the reported observations in the region have involved solitary birds.

The pelican at Middlebrook Lake represents the first sighting of an American white pelican in Bristol since May of 2010. At that time, a flock of seven of these large birds was reported at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake. Because the lake straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line, members of that flock of pelicans were observed in both Sullivan County, Tennessee, and Washington County, Virginia. There was also a sighting made by Patty Elton of three American white pelicans in Wythe County, Virginia, in May of 2014.


A flock of American white pelicans soars over Salt Lake City Utah in May of 2006.

In his book, “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee,” Rick Knight lists only five records of American white pelican sightings. The first-ever sighting in Northeast Tennessee took place on Nov. 3, 1981, at Austin Springs on Boone Lake. That observation, reported by Glen Eller and Harry Farthing, involved a single pelican.

Another ten years passed before another solitary pelican visited Boone Lake and South Holston Lake in December of 1991. One of the best-known sightings took place in February of 1995 when a single American white pelican took up residence at a small pond on the grounds of Mountain Home Veterans Affairs in Johnson City, Tennessee. After spending time at that pond, that pelican moved to nearby Austin Springs on Boone Lake and later the Holston River in Kingsport. Unfortunately, the pelican collided with power lines in the summer of 1996 while flying. It injured a wing, which had to be amputated by a wildlife rehabilitation expert to save the bird’s life. Since the pelican at that point was no longer able to survive in the wild, it was sent to a zoo in Bridgetown, New Jersey.


A flock of American white pelicans fly over the surf at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, in March of 2015.

Almost another decade passed before white pelicans were seen in Northeast Tennessee. That sighting involved my own observation of a single American white pelican soaring over my home in Hampton, Tennessee, on July 17, 2004. The actual credit for discovering the bird goes to my friend — David Thometz — who happened to look skyward and ask the question, “What is that big, white bird?” I think I must have been momentarily speechless when I focused my binoculars and immediately recognized an American white pelican. Eventually, I stammered out my identification

Two years later, on April 8, 2006, Coffey and Knight reported four American white pelicans at Spring Creek, which runs into South Holston Lake. After that observation, this large bird didn’t make another regional appearance until the 2010 sighting of the seven-member flock at Musick’s Campground mentioned earlier.


Early naturalist John James Audubon captured the American white pelican in its rather bizarre, ungainly glory.

So, evidently, American white pelicans do migrate through the region in basically every season of the year. They are not, however, among birds one might expect to see in Northeast Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m not surprised that the pelican selected Middlebrook Lake for its stopover. I’ve seen many unusual birds at this small lake over the years, including species such as common merganser, long-tailed duck, common goldeneye and tundra swan.

The American white pelican is one of North America’s largest birds. This pelican’s wingspan can span nine feet compared to the six- to eight-foot wingspan of its much smaller relative, the brown pelican. While the brown pelican dives into the water to capture fish, the American white pelican feeds while floating on the water’s surface. Flocks of American white pelicans will work cooperatively to corral and capture fish.

Worldwide, there are only eight species of pelicans. Some of the others include the great white pelican of southeastern Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as the pink-backed pelican of Arabia, Africa and southern India.

Pelicans, like most of our birds, have wings and are capable of long-distance flight. You never know what you might see. Keep your eyes open and a pair of binoculars handy.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email