The Tennessee River Gorge offers incredible bird watching!
It all started with TRGT avian researchers attaching geolocators to a particular migratory bird species, the Louisiana Waterthrush. After wearing the tracking devices for a full year, five of these birds returned to the Tennessee River Gorge equipped with units full of fascinating data. The geolocators revealed the migratory pathways and wintering destinations of the five birds; two of which spent their winter in Northern Guatemala. Part of the Lynhurst Foundation grant funding this project included a cultural exchange component in partnership with La Paz Chattanooga. The plan was to connect with communities on the other end of the migration to engage in a cultural exchange centered around neotropical bird migration. In the fall of 2019, TRGT and La Paz Chattanooga traveled to the Petén region of Guatemala to meet with partners and commence the cultural exchange program. For information about our initial visit to Guatemala, check out this link.
In the spring of 2019, TRGT brought our Guatemala partners to Tennessee to continue this cultural and scientific exchange. Representatives of the Petén Birders Association and the Wildlife Conservation Society flew over the Gulf of Mexico, just as the Louisiana Waterthrush had done earlier that month, and began an exciting two week adventure. The group traveled to Chattanooga area schools, community lectures, and meetings in which we personally engaged over 430 people. The representatives from each community shared artwork and letters between students from Guatemala and Tennessee followed by moving messages about how these migratory birds connect us. Our partners taught science classes about conservation in Guatemala, Spanish classes about Guatemalan culture, and community members about our shared responsibility to protect the environment. Each day before we met with classes and community groups, our Guatemalan partners accompanied the TRGT bird research team into the field to capture Louisiana Waterthrushes that had just traveled from Central America themselves.
Our Guatemalan partners are doing incredible work in Petén, Guatemala. Both the Petén Birders Association and Caoba Birders Club (a partner organization in Petén) work day in and day out to educate their surrounding communities about bird conservation and more broadly, the long-term benefits of protecting their environment. The group is also leading by example through demonstrating how eco-tourism and birding can provide economic incentives to leave their forests and farms intact, rather than selling the lands for incompatible land uses such as monoculture oil palm plantations. Our other partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society office in Flores, Guatemala, works to use compelling science to inform the protection of Guatemala’s unique wildlife. These organizations work to protect many of the same migratory species that we protect here in Tennessee, and in some cases, even the same individual birds!
This program taught us and the broader community how connected we all are and emphasized our shared responsibility to protect the species that call both places home. This exchange is still growing. We have partnered with Velo Coffee Roasters on a microlot coffee sourced from Guatemala. The proceeds from this coffee will support the Petén Birders Association in their mission to promote bird conservation and environmental education in the Petén region of Guatemala. For more information about this product, click here.
Stay tuned for more exciting news. This is just the beginning!
This project was funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation
Simple steps to improve water quality in your own backyard.
39 Geolocators Back in Our Hands!
From left to right: A Worm-eating Warbler wearing a geolocator, the 12 geolocators retrieved by TRGT, and Executive Director, Rick Huffines, and Business and Access Director, Eliot Berz, triumphantly holding the 12 geolocators.
After much hard work, TRGT has recaptured 12 migratory birds wearing geolocator tracking devices! This makes a total of 39 returned geolocators for the overall study with our partners at the University of Toledo, University of Tennessee Chattanooga, and Harding University. At the TRGT study site, an additional 14 birds were recaptured as control birds wearing only leg bands, making a total of 29 recaptured control birds during the entire study. The research team is currently analyzing the data to uncover where the recaptured birds traveled to over the winter, so stay tuned for the exciting results!
These birds were equipped with geolocators in the summer of 2018, then flew 1,000+ miles to spend their winter in the tropics. The very same birds returned to the exact same territories in the Gorge to breed and raise young the following summer. This was the first time Worm-eating Warbler migration has been tracked and one of the initial studies for Louisiana Waterthrush migration.
TRGT discovered exciting results from a preliminary pilot study tracking Waterthrush migration back in 2016 and 2017. The geolocators revealed an astonishingly fast migration speed (an average of 7 days for a journey of over 1,000 miles)! We are eager to uncover what information these new 39 geolocators are holding.
From left to right: A 5+ year old Louisiana Waterthrush after returning to Suck Creek for his fourth season, Avian Technician Caryn Ross searching for birds, and a Waterthrush from Middle Creek on Signal Mountain.
This is an exciting time in the avian research world. With modern technological advances, researchers are able to attach smaller and smaller tracking devices on migratory birds. Incredible innovations have led to the creation of tracking units as small as a half of a gram (roughly the weight of a paperclip)! These innovations have allowed researchers to now safely track all but the smallest bird species.
Thanks to the miniaturization of tracking devices, we are beginning to learn about the migratory behaviors of previously enigmatic species. The particular tracking device that TRGT and our partners used is called a light-level geolocator. These geolocators record ambient sunlight levels in reference to time in order to determine its location on Earth.
A tricky component of these geolocators is that they do not transmit any signal back to the researchers, but rather store the data until the device is returned. This means that researchers have to recapture specific birds after they have migrated over 1,000 miles each way and spent half of the year in a distant country. Despite this obstacle, many bird species will often return to the exact same territory to breed year after year. Therefore, researchers can equip devices to individual birds and send them on their way, only to recapture the exact same bird in the same spot the following year.
Stay tuned to learn where these 12 migratory birds from the Gorge spent their winter!
This project was funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Using bird migration to establish connections between international communities.
TRGT, University of Toledo, Harding University, and the University of Tennessee Chattanooga have successfully deployed 120 geolocator tracking units on 120 migratory birds in order to investigate the concerning population trends between the two species.
It was a brisk, March morning when Mariah and I made our way to Mill Creek. Our wool hats pulled tight and our dip nets and buckets in tow, we picked our way down alongside a series of splashy, miniature waterfalls. In contrast to the solemn gray river, cutting through the gorge below, the flowing tributary appeared especially bright and lively.
A recap of the 2017 bird banding season in the Tennessee River Gorge.
We huffed our way up the tight, rocky path, climbing over wind-toppled trees and stumbling over rocks. Far below, I could see the sun-bleached Tennessee River. In fact, I could almost hear it – even over the crunch of dry leaves – a churning, static noise that seemed to be getting louder.
On the north sides of the buildings snow persists from the weekend dusting, a fragile sheet of ice covers the pond, and the sun still lingers low as we pass by. The tilt is shifting, though, and these days of crisp, cool, clarity are numbered.
It’s a crisp fall morning. The cool air reaches your lungs as each footstep carries you over a complex rock garden, covered in slippery moss. You break through spider webs, and your legs and lungs feel every ounce of effort needed to propel your body up the next hill. Eyes glued to the trail, looking for roots or rocks that might trip you up, you find your rhythm.
There are many relationships that stitch together the tapestry of a place as biodiverse as the Tennessee River Gorge. John Muir famously wrote that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Some of those relationships are distant, tertiary. Others are direct and dependent, like the one between a striking butterfly and its’ host tree that are native to the Gorge.
We went by boot, snake gaiters strapped to our shins. Alongside the narrow canyon road, there was no beaten path so Executive Director Rick Huffines and I climbed through honeysuckle then started up a shallow creek, scrambling over mossy boulders.
Partnerships in nature come in all shapes and sizes, and rely on each other for survival—and to support entire ecosystems. We can find analogies throughout nature that represent the partnerships we’ve established that support the work we do here at the Trust.
The question was posed to me by Rick Huffines early one spring morning. The sun had just crested Signal Mountain, spilling orange into half the river gorge while the other half remained dusky-blue. It was cooler on the water than I had planned for. I hunched my shoulders against the wind as Rick and I bumped against the current in his motorboat.
We sometimes forget we are natural creatures with natural rhythms. As a society, we've outsmarted even ourselves, creating tools and means to work faster and harder and more. Just generally MORE.
And yet, all of this progress stands in the face a fact we like to ignore: we are limited, natural beings.
At the Trust, we don't think of our work as sexy: We aren’t developing the latest iPhone apps. We can’t give you tasting notes on local craft beers. And we definitely aren’t touting ways to trim that stubborn belly fat with PiYo.
Our work isn't trendy. And that’s okay by us.
Nature, like what we have in the Tennessee River Gorge, offers us that “ultimate meaning” that we are seeking. In becoming attuned to our connection to the “remainder of life,” in the form of trees, springs, birds, and wildflowers, we can be reminded of and comforted by our place in this world.
“So, what do you guys do?”
That’s the question I hear most often after introducing myself as the Business & Creative Director at the Trust. It's a fair question, and to answer I’d like to give you a rundown of our duties.