Birdwatching in Chattanooga

Written by Elise Steele

Members of the Chattanooga Ornithological Society pause along a trail to spot a bird in the distance. Photo by Elise Steele

A small cluster of binoculars and pointed fingers aim excitedly toward a skyline of trees on the Reflection Riding nature walk as members of Chattanooga’s Ornithological Society search for a cawing American Crow.

The Chattanooga Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (CTOS) is a local birding organization that offers members the opportunity to join together in appreciation and admiration for birds.

“CTOS is a great place for people who might be interested in birding to get that base knowledge and enthusiasm for being outside,” says Corey Hagen, current Board President of CTOS.

The organization offers field trips, informative meetings, and sources to other events for members. Regularly scheduled bird walks, which have just resumed since the start of the pandemic, take members to trails around the Chattanooga and South-Eastern Tennessee area. 

 “Your eyes are your first birdwatching tool,” says Ray Zimmerman, Secretary of CTOS and local writer. 

Most members also come with a helpful pair of binoculars strapped around their shoulders. The ears are the next important tool, and the CTOS birders are always prepared to stop in silence to listen to a distant bird song, thrilled when they can collectively identify its tune. 

“The amount of diversity that’s present in birds—you never get bored. You always see something new. You always see something exciting,” says Hagen.

Ray Zimmerman pauses to take a photo of a flower along a trail. Photo by Elise Steele

Zimmerman lags behind the rest of the birders on their Reflection Riding walk to snap a picture of a colorful Azalea flower.

According to Zimmerman, his creativity comes directly from the natural world.

“I have written numerous poems about birds and other nature persons,” he says. 

Along with his creative endeavors, Zimmerman also composes and edits The Chattanooga Chat, a newsletter for members of CTOS that details field trips, new developments, and recent bird sightings. It’s been especially useful to keep the CTOS community connected since they stopped meeting due to COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been increasingly important for people to invest in their relationship with the natural world, according to Hagen. The solitude of nature offers a sense of peace that is profoundly useful in times of struggle.

“I look at the humming bird—the smallest bird we have—the fact that they fly all the way over the Gulf of Mexico is fascinating to me,” says Hagen. “It is really just one of the wonders of the world.”

There is a freedom in the natural world that CTOS appreciates to the fullest. Members like Hagen and Zimmerman demonstrate how their unfiltered passions make birding something much more than a side-hobby.   

“Since I was a little kid, if I had a superpower, it would be to fly,” says Hagen. “I can’t imagine being a hawk and soaring through the thermals.”

With such passionate and enthusiastic people for a natural element so ever-present and overlooked, one has to wonder if the birds ever look down to scope out the most vibrant and compelling humans from the ground.

Check out The Chattanooga Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society and their membership opportunities at http://www.chattanoogatos.org.

Audio by Elise Steele

Meet The Storyteller

Elise Steele is a creative writer and journalist. Her poetry has been published in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Sequoya Review, Z Publishing’s Tennessee’s Best Emerging Poets 2019, and in Spring of 2021, Cornell University’s literary magazine, Rainy Day. Elise is twenty-two years old, living in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her two cats. She’s been writing since she was a young girl and to her, writing is a useful outlet to understand herself and the complexity of the lives around her.

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