Duck species returns to Little River for first time in over 100 years – Maryville Daily Times


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Eight juvenile common mergansers are shown on the Little River in July 2017 from one of the first successful breedings.
{span}An adult female and adult male common merganser swim on the Little River in January 2020.{/span}
An adult female common merganser sits on the Little River with very young chicks in April of 2020.

Eight juvenile common mergansers are shown on the Little River in July 2017 from one of the first successful breedings.
{span}An adult female and adult male common merganser swim on the Little River in January 2020.{/span}
An adult female common merganser sits on the Little River with very young chicks in April of 2020.
Common mergansers, a species of aquatic bird known as sawbills for their jagged beaks, returned to East Tennessee after disappearing for more than a century.
Retired TVA Biologist Wes James said the last reported nest in Tennessee before recent was in Smith County in 1899.
Local rivers and watersheds are an optimal environment for mergansers to thrive. Logging kept the species from staying in the area, because it demolished their nesting grounds.
“The lumber companies went in and cleared up timber on the Little River,” James said. “They took every possible log, including cutting down everything on the streams.”
In 1901, the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company was chartered by W.B. Townsend and a group of investors, history from the Little River Railroad museum states. The company grew to be one of the largest logging operations in Appalachia, built 150 miles of railroads and sawed 560 million board feet of timber.
The lumber company was a large contributor to development around the Little River and increase in the population of the area.
James said the regrowth of riparian zones, the preferred environment for nesting mergansers, could be a factor that encouraged their return.
Over the last seven years, bird-watching groups in East Tennessee have meticulously observed and reported the return of mergansers – a uniquely large species with an average wingspan of 37 inches. They are frequently spotted in rivers during the first half of the year.
Citizen scientists have played a key role in collecting raw data about local merganser sightings.
“Social media has been very beneficial because people can share information,” James said. “Citizen scientists are more important now than they used to be. The state and federal wildlife agencies are actively working but their staff haven’t increased a lot in the last 30 years.”
Randy Winstead, citizen scientist and former biologist, has been an active bird watcher for eight years. Winstead is one of the most vigilant and consistent sources of documenting merganser sightings on the Little River.
“I enjoy nature, learning about the different types of plants and animals,” Winstead said. “Enjoying yourself is a big part of birding.”
He and his wife Wendy Winstead travel Highway 321 to spot mergansers and areas where the species pair up. The Winsteads have searched all of the Little River, keeping records of sightings and nests.
Having sourced approximately 142 eBird reports of mergansers in Blount County, Winstead noted the number of sightings “began to explode” in 2020 with four successful breedings in 2022.

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