Radnor Lake State Natural Area
Radnor Lake State Natural Area is one of the crown
jewels of Tennessee's state park system. The park consists of the 85-acre lake
itself, plus the surrounding woodland area. Few major cities in this country can
boast of such a pristine environment right in the heart of the city. For birders,
Radnor Lake offers one of the best opportunities in the state to observe an incredible
variety of species in every season in a very relaxed environment. Of particular
interest is the large number of migrant wood-warblers in spring in fall, where
lucky observers routinely report upwards of twenty-five species in one morning.
Furthermore, Radnor Lake is almost without question the best place in the state
to see two of the more elusive warblers during migration - Connecticut and Mourning.
Radnor Lake State Natural Area is located in south central Nashville (Davidson County) along Otter Creek Road between Granny White Pike on the west and Franklin Pike on the east. A road map is available here. Note that the portion of Otter Creek Road between the West Parking Lot and the East Parking Lot is closed to vehicle traffic. Most birders prefer to start from the West Parking Lot, which is accessible from Granny White Pike (address: 1160 Otter Creek Road, coordinates: 36.06343°N, 86.81345°W).
For a Google map and directions to the West Parking Lot, enter either your full starting address including town and state OR your zip code:
BIRDING RADNOR LAKE
All specific locations around the lake referenced in this guide are identified in this map, which is reproduced and adapted with permission of Gary Pinkerton from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation web site.
As the map above illustrates, Radnor has an extensive trail network. However, the most popular route for birders is to begin at the West Parking Lot, head up Otter Creek Road to the Spillway, cross the Spillway to the Lake Trail, follow the Lake Trail to Otter Creek Road, and then return to the West Parking Lot along Otter Creek Road (for the remainder of this guide, I will refer to this as the "Lake Trail Loop.") At the end of this section, I will briefly discuss other areas of the Lake.
Birders are well-advised to start as early as possible, because as the day grows older, more and more people arrive for walking, talking, and other hiking activities that may interrupt birding along the trails. Groups should always be cognizant of these other users, and make sure to leave room for them to pass on the trails.
The Lake Trail Loop is a leisurely, mostly flat 2.5 mile hike. The west side of the Lake generally runs right along the edge of the lake, and the habitat is thick deciduous woodland, but with an extensive amount of underbrush, and a broken canopy in many places. There is some riparian bottomland habitat along the Spillway Trail and near the Long Bridge, as well as along Otter Creek Road. Hiking east along the Lake Trail, observers crossing the Long Bridge will notice an abrupt shift to more mature hardwoods with much less undergrowth. Because of the more diverse habitat and higher amount of undergrowth, the most diverse birding is generally along the Lake Trail Loop described above up to the Long Bridge, and for that reason birders with only a few hours to spend will often hike to the Long Bridge and then double back for another pass rather than finish the Loop.
Birders watch a Louisiana Waterthrush from Long Bridge.
Photos by Charles P. Nicholson
the Lake Trail Loop during spring and fall migration, any of Tennessee's warbler
species may be observed, although Swainson's (west and east Tennessee), Black-throated
Blue (east Tennessee), and Pine (habitat) are observed far less frequently than
the others. Add to that the potential to see six species of vireos, both tanagers,
all the thrushes, both orioles, any of the swallows, and a myriad of flycatchers,
and observers can quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer number and diversity
of the migrants when a big push is underway.
These birds can be found anywhere along the Lake Trail Loop, but a few areas bear special mention. The Spillway is where observers typically begin, and many a field trip has gotten no farther than the Spillway only to find that hours have past since they first arrived! Grassy Point (which is actually no longer grassy), too, is another area that regularly hosts a constant stream of migrants. The Long Bridge, with its more open shrubby habitat, can be productive due to its location along a stream and between the two distinct wooded habitats around the lake.
In the summer, Radnor hosts a typical mix of eastern woodland breeding species, including Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Kentucky Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and others. Of particular interest to birders is the very visible population of Prothonotary Warblers. These birds are easily observed along the Spillway and Otter Creek Road, and can be surprisingly approachable on the road. Wood Ducks and Canada Geese nest around the lake as well. Observers should be careful not to approach too close to Canada Geese with young, as these birds are very aggressive and have been known to bite the unwary!
In the winter, the main attraction is ducks. The lake generally hosts several hundred birds, consisting mainly of Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback, Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, Gadwall, and Mallards. However, almost any of Tennessee's duck species can occur hear, including records of all three scoter species and Long-tailed Ducks. Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots are also regular, with the occasional Common Loon or Horned Grebe to spice things up. Ducks are best observed along Otter Creek Road, except for a well-placed observation deck on Grassy Point. Always check Big Pond, which usually hosts most of the lake's wintering dabblers.
The Ganier Ridge trail is a more slightly more strenuous hike than the Lake Trail, but the solitude and the scenery are worth the trip, even if it does tend to have less bird diversity than the Lake Trail. It is, however, a very good area during the very early part of spring migration, and is often the most reliable location to find Worm-eating Warblers in summer.
If your time is limited and you approach Radnor from the east, it is worth a visit to the East Parking Lot just to bird around the parking lot itself. Mourning Warblers are occasionally found here.
Barred Owls are a common
Finally, there is the Hall Tract. The Hall Tract is accessible by a road (not
shown on the map) just west of Big Pond. This area is not open to the general
public, but the park staff are usually willing to grant birders permission to
enter. There are several paths that lead through a variety of open edge habitat
and around some small ponds. The Hall Tract can be every bit as good as the lake
itself, and is a much more reliable place for some early successional species,
such as Yellow-breasted Chat, Prairie Warbler, and Great Horned Owl. In some years,
American Woodcocks have been found displaying near the barn.
FINDING CONNECTICUT AND MOURNING WARBLERS
There is no place in Tennessee that offers a better opportunity to observe these two elusive birds. The peak migration period for these species is mid-May, generally peaking around the 15th, although both can be present almost any time throughout the month of May.
The best area for both species is the section of the Lake Trail beginning just beyond Grassy Point and ending at the Long Bridge, although both have been observed all along the Lake Trail Loop, as well as the East Parking Lot and in the Hall Tract. By far the majority of the sightings, however, have been in the vicinity of the Long Bridge and the trail just west of it.
To find these species requires two things: becoming very familiar with their songs, and a great deal of patience. Both species have fairly distinctive songs, but unpracticed observers could easily confuse them with other common species. Therefore, familiarity with the songs is critical to locating these two species.
Patience is also key, because both are very difficult to see. Both birds are almost always found very low to the ground, and Connecticuts are often seen right on the ground. Both also have a tendency to stay deep in the underbrush. Connecticut is perhaps the more difficult of the too, because they have a frustrating habit of going long periods without signing, and of sitting very still (a very unwarbler-like trait). Thus, especially if you are following up on an earlier report, do not walk though the area and leave without spending a bit of time searching, because the bird might very well still be there.
Occasionally these birds will respond to tapes of their species' songs, although the most successful efforts have been by taping individual birds and playing back their own songs.
OTHER SPECIES OF INTEREST
One other migrant that often draws birders to Radnor Lake is Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Like the two warblers discussed above, this species also migrates relatively late. Also like the two warblers, finding this species requires an intimate familiarity with the songs and calls, of which there are a surprising variety for such a small flycatcher. In particular, note that this species has a call that sounds almost identical to an Eastern Wood-Pewee, except that it generally repeats the same slurred whistle over and over, in contrast the pewee's variety. An unwary observer could easily pass of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher giving this call as a pewee, given how common pewees are around the lake.
Radnor, like any good birding hotspot, has also hosted its share of rarities, the most surprising of which was Tennessee's first Limpkin! Others have include Red Phalarope, Limpkin, Eared Grebe, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, and Say's Phoebe.
Radnor Lake is a designated Important Bird Area.
Hall Tract is home to the Anne Tarbell Memorial Library, an extensive collection
of bird-related books and journals. Access to the Tarbell Library may be requested
from the park staff.
Radnor Lake is also the site of the monthly meetings of the Nashville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Meetings are on the third Thursday of each month beginning at 7:00 PM.
For more information on Radnor Lake State Natural Area, check out the website for the park hosted by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Contributed by Chris Sloan.