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Winter Refuge at Radnor Lake
By LinnAnn Welch

In a time of increasing technology and something new every day, some natural things remain the same. Wild birds are living much as they have for thousands of years. Ancient migration patterns are still traveled twice a year to breeding or wintering grounds.

All is not peaceful for our avian travelers, however, as more people equates to less wildlife habitat and stressful encounters with humans. A jewel that shines in this picture is Nashville’s Radnor Lake, only a recent resting spot for migratory birds. With no hunting and virtually no human disturbance allowed, the ducks and other traveling birds can enjoy a well deserved respite from their constant vigil of watching over their shoulders.

Radnor Lake State Natural Area consists of an 85-acre lake and almost 1,200 wooded acres comprising the lake’s watershed. Located in south Davidson County, the area has some of the best birding in the state, with birders only having to hike a short distance to see and hear avian travelers in great numbers. Birds searched for during migration include the Wilson’s Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart, Swainson’s Thrush, and tens of others. Over 230 different kinds of birds have been identified at Radnor Lake over the last 80 years.

Radnor Lake is perhaps best known for the numerous waterfowl that stop over to rest during migration or that spend a good portion of the winter on the lake. In fact, the waterfowl can be given credit for helping to preserve the lake. Soon after the lake was impounded in 1914, waterfowl began to discover the new rest area. The Nashville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society discovered the birds soon thereafter. The variety and number of birds on the lake ignited interest in protecting them from hunting and later for protecting the lake from development.

Early in the fall around September, Blue-winged Teal stop over in rafts of up to several hundred individuals. American Black Ducks start to arrive about the same time. Some ducks may spend a good portion of the winter on the lake, especially if weather conditions in Nashville remain mild as they have for the last few years. Common winter residents include Gadwall, American Wigeon, Canvasback, Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, and Lesser Scaup. Radnor Lake is in fact one of the few places where Canvasback ducks can be seen from a short distance since they are easily frightened on most other bodies of water. The ducks seem to know that they are protected at Radnor Lake and only here can they breathe easy and relax, without threat of gun, dog, or motorboat. Canvasbacks are red-headed with a white body and black on each end. They have a sloping forehead.

Bufflehead are also very common on the lake. They are a small duck, easily spotted with a white body, black head and back, and white ‘bonnet" on top of its head.

The American Coot, a slate-colored bird with a white bill, is also very common. It winters in large numbers on the lake and slough.

Occasional visitors during the fall and winter include the Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Ruddy Duck, Common Loon, and Red-breasted Merganser. Rarely spotted is the Common Pintail and the American Bald Eagle.

Many birds seek winter refuge in Radnor Lake’s hardwood forest. Ecologically important old trees, including many types of oaks and hickories, often develop holes which provide protection from the elements and predators. The evergreen Eastern Red Cedar serves as home for hundreds of birds from owls to Carolina Chickadees. Dusk is a busy time around these trees as diurnal birds discuss where each will sleep and the owls use the limbs as perches for eating prey. Evergreen boughs effectively keep snow off of tiny backs. Many birds can be located around sumac groves and coralberry thickets, searching for remaining berries from the fall’s bounty.

Woodland birds seeking shelter in the natural area include the White-throated Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Brown Creeper, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Pine Siskin. White-throated and Fox Sparrows are two species that prefer shrubby, thick vegetation and like to feed on the ground. Fox Sparrows especially have mannerisms similar to a chicken as they scratch in the leaves. Both are often found under feeders in our area. White-throated Sparrows have a white patch on the throat and a yellow spot between the bill and eye. Fox Sparrows are rusty-colored with streaking on the breast. Brown Creepers are small, inconspicuous birds that spend much time on tree trunks, blending well with the bark. Brown above and white underneath, look for these birds as they search for insects, spiraling up from the base of the trunk.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker often found on a Sugar Maple, drilling for sap and insects. It has a red forehead patch, and males have a red throat. Also look for a white wing patch. Rows of small, round holes in trees indicate that this woodpecker has been in the area.

A tiny bird smaller than a warbler with a bright crown is the Golden-crowned Kinglet. The crown patch is yellow in the female, with some additional orange on the male. Although small, these birds are very active. Look for a flittering motion in the trees just overhead.

Many birds are year-round residents of Middle Tennessee. All of the common feeder birds such as the Northern Cardinal, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Tufted Titmouse reside at Radnor Lake.

Old farmland in the natural area, in varying stages of succession, provides tremendous habitat for rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, and other small animals.

Raptors abound above the fields and forest, waiting for a rabbit or squirrel to get caught without adequate cover. The Red-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel hunt during the day, replaced at night by the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Common Screech Owl. The Belted Kingfisher gets an intimate experience with the lake as it hovers over the water, awaiting a fish before it plunges into the water. It is a blue-gray bird, larger than a Robin, with a bushy crest. The female has a rusty outline on its breast.

Birds are only a minute part of the big picture. Although wild lands are disappearing at an alarming rate, positive steps are a being taken to preserve important areas for plants and animals. State park lands and especially natural areas provide much needed homes for thousands of species.

Humans love to gaze at birds in the sky or at feeders, envious of the freedom that flight has given them. Reconnecting with the natural world will do wonders for the stress of monotony and modern survival. It may also ease the pain of separation from nature. Take some time to marvel at the daily lives of birds in Tennessee and discover their secret of permanence.


(LinnAnn Welch has been a park naturalist at Radnor Lake State Natural Area for the past three years. She holds a degree in biology from Belmont University in Nashville.)

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Updated November 1, 1998; Send comments to Department of Environment and Conservation.

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