Establishing the Kingsport Birding Trail: Local, Collaborative, Holistic, and Replicable

A great blue heron and her nestling at the Kingsport Birding Trail. Photo by Rack Cross.

When it comes to birding trails one size does not fit all. Kingsport, nestled in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains of Northeast Tennessee, hosted an unforeseen series of events in our city of about 54,000 people that resulted in a municipal birding trail that serves to improve the quality of life of users.  In the case of the Kingsport Birding Trail (KBT), users say the locally crafted effort installed throughout the city fits like a glove. More precisely a slipper!

The Cinderella story of the KBT came to life spontaneously as Kingsport city leaders and staff wanted a vehicle to promote projects and to receive public feedback. The city manager requested a community project that could spin out of a city capital improvement project to benefit stake holding groups.

Having visited many birding trails of other states, I suggested a customized local birding trail. Enter the concept of the KBT. Local bird clubs agreed to host presentations and visit city offices as engaged stakeholders. The idea of a local birding trail was well received and forwarded. The following information describes major elements of how the KBT was completed and now used. Hopefully it serves as a how-to guide for other communities that desire to have a local birding trail.

Win-Win Site Selection

A Wilson’s snipe forages at the Kingsport Birding Trail. Photo by Rack Cross.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Tennessee State Representatives recognized the KBT as the first birding trail in the state as Tennessee did not have a state birding trail at this time (perhaps encouraging the completion of the state birding trails opened in 2015).

Local birders communicated locations and sightings via listservs and websites that published viewer submitted bird sightings. Many long standing places of interest to local birders were well known and often visited and of these only a courteous nod, so to speak, was reflected on the eventual state trail that did not direct users to the nooks and crannies which held a treasure trove of bird diversity known to local birders.

This could easily be the case with many other state birding trails trying to efficiently disburse limited resources. While creating the KBT another couple of thought layers were necessary to provide sustainability to both the viewer and viewee. Consideration was given to equitable distribution of resources to reach underserved  and low income areas as accessibility became the overriding priority.

To ensure long term public access a criteria of public ownership was followed when selecting sites. City, State, and Federal properties were compiled for consideration and sites were selected from this list based on how likely the location was to hold bird species diversity.  This process quickly yielded a pattern of sites that were surrounded by green / natural space, read good habitat for birds. Additionally, these sites that were accessible to birders and hospitable to birds were predominantly city parks and sports fields which meant more convenient interdepartmental collaborations could be used to establish a new user group at existing locations.

This approach offered an ease of implementation not available to mutual agreements with outside agencies, as well as, offering an “overlay” population of new users to existing infrastructure without having to increase capital or maintenance costs to the city.  Simply put, more facility users at no extra cost. Thanks to a network connection originating within the Tennessee Ornithological Society a partnership was established between the KBT and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to include a local hydroelectric dam and reservoir property as a premier KBT location. 

At completion of the site selecting process our local birding trail included a linear greenway, wetlands, a dam, a lake, a river, a golf course, a mountain top park, a mansion, and a full complement of sports fields, the type of public property that is popular throughout the country and lends adaptability to a municipal scale birding trail project to cities of any size.

Invitation by Promotion

Yellow-crowned night-herons nest at the Kingsport Birding Trail. Photo by Rack Cross.

In order to launch the newly designed concept a viewable presence was needed in print and digital formats that was beginner friendly, even geared to younger beginning birders. Local photographers contributed local photographs of the area’s most colorful and recognized species for use in promotional material. The City of Kingsport web site provides a KBT page with a dedicated URL, kingsportbirdingtrail.com, that gives detailed information on each KBT site including location, hours of operation, contact information, local bird photos, and a printable checklist for each location.

A valuable partner to the promotion effort is Kingsport Convention and Visitors Bureau, operating under the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, who provided professional art and copy resources for logo and brochure production. The initial promotional package was composed of a web site, color brochure, and bumper stickers. A slide presentation was developed and trotted out to every civic club that would host it as program.

A few multimedia interviews were conducted and press reviews were very positive toward the KBT. Soon after the release of the first wave of promotional material requests for presentations at state conferences were being received. Planning, Parks and Recreation, Environment and Conservation, Health, even Transportation state level meetings had KBT presentations in large part due to the numerous collaborative partnerships in place that exhibited a holistic atmosphere of positive influence and accomplishment.

National recognition was received from the National Parks Service and all KBT locations have been included in subsequent Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, as well as, being a registered International Migratory Bird Day location to round out the universal promotion effort.

Complete Community Partnership

The author, Rack Cross, at the Kingsport Birding Trail. Photo by Rack Cross.

Popular community topics that attracted partnerships ranged from economic impact to public health to public art with many others in between. Achieving mutually beneficial partnerships was goal of the KBT from the outset and identifying stakeholders that could share common benefits was a first step.

Initially the claimed local economic benefit of a birding trail is at best secondary, or already existing prior to implementation. At some point during the promotional activity consumers of the promotional information may become end users of products associated with the activity being promoted, in this case, travel expenses, bird watching books, optics, feed, etc. and increase sales receipts at purchase points.

Without a baseline of retail activity it is difficult to measure. What was more easily realized was out of our control locally, however, when the highly unexpected and very rare bird showed up on our existing birding trail it was a measurable success for the local economy. Only the fifth state record of a Harlequin Duck, two of which were checked in by hunters and a third was a one day wonder, brought birders from at least five states over a month long stay.

The location of choice for “Harley,” as she became known, was along a river bank behind a locally owned seafood restaurant. The owner called me to ask why the “binocular people” had invaded his backyard and that it must have something to do with birds. I explained the rarity of the ducks presence and the nature of bird watchers ensuring him that he could expect no property damage or litter. After he had served meals to several customers wearing binoculars he purchased a field guide, trained his staff, and began to point out Harley to all of guests.

After about 1,000 bird watching visitors and hundreds of meal served to them he requested KBT stickers for his entry doors. Many of these rare bird chasers stayed overnight at local lodging and had additional meals at various locations and purchased fuel and sundry items while visiting to add to the impact of the local economy.

Also, media aware of the KBT from prior promotional activity picked up the story of the rare duck and ran numerous news features that contributed to the economic success of the unscheduled event. Recently, the Tennessee Ornithological Society in its 100th year of operation grew by adding the new Fred J. Alsop III Chapter, also known as Birding Kingsport, founded by a group of KBT supporters and users.

Downtown Kingsport Association, a merchant membership non-profit, provides meeting space at no charge to the group that largely dines out in downtown Kingsport before meetings and encourages committees, field trips, and other club business meetings to utilize downtown facilities around meal times.

Great blue herons and wood ducks are resident breeding birds at the Kingsport Birding Trail. Photo by Rack Cross.

A tour of Kingsport was organized for the Tennessee State Health Department to see several projects around town that encouraged public health and highlighted sidewalks, bike lanes, and greenways. Each of these elements interface with the KBT at various points and when the group learned of the effort and intent of a municipal birding trail they quickly mentioned that a low impact recreational outdoor activity like bird watching available at no cost to the user certainly encouraged public health.

Dr. John Dreyzehner, Tennessee Health Commissioner, commented while on the KBT that birding is a family friendly activity he would like to see grow across the state and confirmed that studies show outdoor activity relieves mild depression. Drawing from these comments I surmised that a healthier person is a wealthier person due to lack of medical expenses and an outdoor active person a happier person because of being relieved of mild depression, thereby, birding on the KBT, or any other birding trail for that matter, delivers at no cost an opportunity for the user to be happier, healthier, and wealthier.

One of largest scale community projects known to Kingsport was successfully completed recently and included a major collaboration with the KBT. The Kingsport Carousel Project required thousands of hours from hundreds of volunteers in a public/private partnership that resulted in a new city park with a renovated carousel complete with all new volunteer carved animals and art. Included in the art are painted canvases of The Birds of the KBT.

As requested by Reggie Martin, the Kingsport Carousel Project volunteer manager, the names of 20 of the most colorful and common species of local birds were provided so sponsored artists could craft renderings to be permanently displayed on the carousel. Following the completion of the paintings sponsorships were made available for each painting with proceeds benefitting the carousel project. A poster compilation of all the bird paintings was printed as an ongoing fund raiser for the project, as was, a series of note cards.

Another partner in the arts, Kingsport Cultural Arts Department, co-sponsored an urban bird walk with KBT that featured an art docent and bird guide working in tandem to describe public art sculptures and murals that featured birds and wild birds being viewed in the urban environment. The event was covered by local news media and a photo of the group on the bird walk was seen on the front page of the local newspaper the next day.

Going Forward

Great blue heron nestlings and parent at the Kingsport Birding Trail. Photo by Rack Cross.

Continuing projects for the KBT are those that will attempt to increase diversity in the birding community by hosting beginner friendly field trips and inviting minority and multinational participants, as well as, addressing environmental injustice by providing bird watching programming and equipment in community areas where each is currently limited.

For example, a KBT collaboration with Birding Kingsport Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society recently completed a five week bird watching class conducted at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kingsport that included classroom sessions, fieldtrips, and a graduation ceremony to celebrate the accomplishments of the class composed of eight and nine year old boys and girls and staff liaisons.

The events and accomplishments of the KBT discussed here are certainly cherry picked successes and you can imagine a few or more mis-steps along the way. Each working themselves out one way or another in the process of figuring out how to provide a public birding trail at the municipal scale.

Not mentioned until now is the under laminate, yet common thread, of environmental sustainability. Bob Sargent (deceased), Hummer/Bird Study Group, once told me a large part of his effort was geared toward a soft sell of environmental awareness. He believed helping others to love birds would also help them to love bird habitat. I echo that sentiment and want to believe as Bob did that introducing or enhancing anyone’s relationship with birds will cause a ripple effect of positive environmental concern.

Rack Cross is Development Services Coordinator for Kingsport, Tennessee and Project Leader for the Kingsport Birding Trail. Currently serving as Vice President East of the Tennessee Ornithological Society and First Vice President of Birding Kingsport Chapter, as well as, a USGS Permitted Bird Bander. Rack enjoys working in public service and travel birding.

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