Birding in summer
It’s June, spring migration has passed us by and some jaded birders are putting away their binoculars and field guides, getting out their fly rods and golf clubs, content to wait until September when fall migration will once again make the forests and fields of the Smokies come alive with kinetic feathered energy.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. With dozens of species of neotropical migrants nesting in the region plus a host of resident songbirds and raptors, there is still plenty to see. And a wonderful thing about the Smokies is you can bird various and varied habitat ranging from 1,200 feet to 6,000 feet in elevation, insuring various and varied species. You can find white-eyed vireos and blue grosbeaks at Kituwah Farms in Swain County and chase magnolia warblers and vesper sparrows on Roan Mountain. Or watch lemon-yellow American goldfinches on your thistle feeder in your backyard.
Of course there is a difference between birding during spring migration and birding from now till fall migration. “Spring migration is like Mardi Gras—lively, colorful, musical, stereophonic surround-sound; over the top. In summer, everything slows down. You can focus on a few birds—the wood thrush that might still be singing on territory in the understory ‘ee-oh-lay, ee-o-lay’ or the ovenbird’s loud isolated ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’,” is the way author, Ijams Nature Center birdman and senior naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales describes it.
Smoky Mountain Living Magazine talked to a number of renowned birders (including Bales) across the Smokies from eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina to get a feel for what summer birding entails.
When Simon Thompson, co-owner of Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited and owner-operator of Ventures Inc., a birding and natural history tour company that operates here in the Smokies and around the world, thinks about summer birding he thinks about it as an “… opportunity to watch a lot more behavior as nesting is in full swing. We can listen and learn bird songs, watch nesting; raising chicks and territorial behavior.” Thompson said leading tours in summer was a little tougher and that he relied more heavily on bird song to help him find birds.
Some of Thompson’s favorite summer trips are along the Blue Ridge Parkway. He likes to seek out cerulean warblers along the Parkway from Craven Gap north toward the Craggies. “I love seeing them here in the North Carolina Mountains and then again on their wintering grounds in Colombia,” Thompson said.
Dr. Fred Alsop, ornithologist, professor of biology at East Tennessee State University, author of more than 100 published notes on birds, 18 books about birds, and working on the Birds of Tennessee, notes that nesting season is a time when much research is done. “During the late spring and summer when many permanent resident and summer resident birds are nesting, a lot of birders work to find nests, count clutches of eggs, band nestlings and take photos documenting the nesting cycle. This is the time when many types of breeding bird censuses are conducted and data compiled on the breeding success of many species. Such data may be used by many agencies to manage habitat for breeding species. The migrants are gone and the breeding avifauna of the region holds all our attention,” said Alsop.
A couple of Alsop’s favorite summer birding haunts are Roan Mountain and Unaka Mountain in East Tennessee. One thing that draws Alsop to these mountain habitats is, “… the striking elevational distributions that govern the vegetational zones as a birder ascends the mountains. You can bird for ‘southern’ species in the lowlands and in a short time be among ‘northern’ species in the highlands.”
Marilyn Westphal is past president of the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society in Asheville, retired from the University of North Carolina–Asheville where she worked in the Environmental Quality Institute, compiler for spring migration counts across Western North Carolina and author or co-author of several articles in The Chat, the quarterly bulletin of the Carolina Bird Club. Westphal is also partial to the Blue Ridge Parkway for summer birding because, “… many species found there are not found breeding anywhere else in the region. It’s also usually nice and cool up there in summer, the views are spectacular, the forest trails are lovely…and often harbor surprises.”
Two of Westphal’s favorite summer species are both mellifluous songsters. “The winter wren has long been one of my favorites because it has such a beautiful song and sings it with such energy. Its whole body shakes when it sings. My other favorite is the hermit thrush whose song to me is the most beautiful of any bird in the region. Listening to the songs of these two species echoing through the woods is something truly special.”
Dr. Marcus B. Simpson Jr. specializes in pathology and has penned volumes of medical and/or historical articles and books. But he is probably best known to birders across the Smokies as author of Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains: A Guide for the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah National Park and Neighboring Areas, a great resources for birders looking for great birding spots. Simpson sometimes does summer sorties along the Blue Ridge escarpment along the North Carolina/South Carolina border. He likes searching for Swainson’s warblers and other birds in protected public areas like Gorges State Park, Chimney Rock, Caesar’s Head, Jones Gap and Blue Wall.
Simpson and Westphal have recently been tracking and documenting hermit thrushes and Swainson’s thrushes in the Black Mountains near Mount Mitchell. Simpson said that hermit thrushes have been noted during nesting season in the region since 1979, but the first nest wasn’t discovered until last summer. So it may be awhile before anyone turns up a Swainson’s thrush nest, as they seem to have appeared around 2005.
Smoky Mountain Living asked our five experts about any rare or elusive summer nesters they sought out and surprisingly one diminutive puff of feathers with a big voice popped up on three radars. The northern saw-whet owl is a tiny (7- to 8-inch) owl about the size of an eastern bluebird. Bales says the northern saw-whet’s call is “… part mechanical, part other worldly; rhythmic; resonant; spooky.” He likes to listen for this high-elevation nester along Clingman’s Dome Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Peterson’s Field Guide of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America describes the call thusly, “Song, a mellow whistled toot repeated mechanically in endless succession, often 80–100 times per minute: ‘too, too, too, too, too, etc.”
Alsop also has a weak spot for this tiny boreal elf. Alsop said he became interested in northern saw-whets while in graduate school at the University of Tennessee in the late 1960s. He said he finally found his “life” saw-whet in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and that he and his graduate advisor, Dr. James T. Tanner, put up nesting boxes for them. Alsop said that while he and Tanner had no success, “Later in the 1990s with my own graduate students at East Tennessee State University, we put nesting boxes on Unaka and Roan Mountains and had successful nesting by these little owls.” Alsop said he and his students were able to provide some of the first documented nesting information regarding northern saw-whets and that one of his students, Mark Barb, earned his master’s degree studying the nest boxes.
Simpson also likes chasing northern saw-whets, “… as they are elusive and challenging to find and even more difficult to see.” According to Simpson some of the best spots to look and/or listen for northern saw-whets is along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Devil’s Courthouse (milepost 422.4) and Roy Taylor Overlook (milepost 433.3,) plus Mount Mitchell State Park.
Alsop remembers a former professor, David Snyder, who used to stop by his dorm room on weekends and talk him into going birding. “I was amazed that he could identify birds at a distance by sight; by their vocalizations; their posture and their behavior. I wanted to learn to do the same thing. I was hooked and began my life list in the summer of 1963 at my boyhood home in northern Kentucky. I never looked back. Birding has changed my life, taken me birding in all 50 states, most of Canada and to 18 other countries. More than 3,400 life species later, I am still in the hunt, “ said Alsop. “That bird that hooked me back in the spring of 1962 was a male rose-breasted grosbeak.”
And like they say—what goes around comes around. Bales said there was a bird feeder in his yard when he was growing up in Gatlinburg and that his mom bought him a “Golden Guide” to common birds. “But,” according to Bales, “the ah-ha moment came when I took a Smoky Mountain Field School class taught by Dr. Fred Alsop. We car-pooled to several spots in the Smokies. The first was the parking lot at the trailhead to Rainbow Falls. After getting out of the car, Alsop began naming all the birds around us that we could hear singing in every direction. It was spring and lots were singing. Out of the cacophony of songs he could pick out each individual species. Wow—I wanted to learn how to do that.”
A great place to start birding is in your own back yard. Feeder watching can be an end in itself or it can spur you to want to learn more. You can make feeding birds as simple or as involved as you have the time and energy for. Simple is a couple of different types of feeders like a wooden (most are from cedar) hopper feeder—basically a plastic hopper covered by a wooden frame. It’s good for large seeds like black oil sunflower, which will attract anything from chickadees to rose-breasted grosbeaks to woodpeckers. Add a thistle feeder for goldfinches and pine siskins and the obligatory hummingbird feeder and you could attract more than a dozen species of birds.
Please remember you don’t need commercial red hummingbird food with added dyes—a mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar is much healthier and just as attractive to these little guys. Then if you want to step it up there are tube feeders, platform feeders, suet feeders, peanut butter feeders and even oriole feeders. This is where you may want to seek help from qualified persons like Thompson and his staff at Wild Birds Unlimited in Asheville. The local birding community or the closest Audubon chapter can steer you in the right direction. A couple of helpful websites are; allaboutbirds.org and birdzilla.com.
Water features—anything from birdbaths to fountains to drips, to landscaping ponds—help attract birds. And nothing is better for native birds than native landscaping. Simple things to remember about native landscaping: layers—different species forage at different levels, so if you provide native grasses and ground cover, native shrubs and native trees you are providing suitable habitat for different species; diversity—like above, different species prefer different food sources so a diverse landscape attracts more species; dense plants—birds feel safer in thick vegetation and like to use dense plants for roosting, resting and nesting.
Native species representative of those layers include: groundcover and grasses—chickweed, panicgrass and sedges if you have wet areas; good native shrubs include blueberry, elderberry and viburnum; trees include oak, tulip poplar, sassafras and maple. A good resource to contact regarding what native plants might be right for your backyard is the North Carolina Native Plant Society and Caroline Douglas firstname.lastname@example.org.
All of our experts agree getting the best binoculars you can afford is the best way to go. Thompson has some information regarding selecting binoculars on his Wild Birds Unlimited website at asheville.wbu.com. Peterson’s field guide was highly recommended for beginning birders. As your birding skills progress you will likely add a guide or two—most birders do because different guides have different strengths and weaknesses. But Peterson’s is a great companion in the field.
Learning from birds
Blair Ogburn is senior naturalist at Balsam Mountain Trust. She is a certified environmental educator for the state of North Carolina and she has worked as a songbird field biologist for North Carolina State University. Blair and the Trust provide a lot of educational and outreach experiences at Balsam Mountain Preserve (a gated community in Jackson County that helps sponsor the Trust) and for schools and organizations across Western North Carolina.
Often, when Blair is leading bird walks at Balsam Mountain for young students, she brings her own birds, perhaps an American kestrel or a screech owl. Face it, trying to get a group of elementary students focused on a warbler that might be three inches tall is next to impossible—but whip a screech owl out of a crate and you’ve got instant attention. “It’s great for the kids,” Ogburn said, “to get to see that bird up close and personal, perhaps hear them and touch them.”
The Trust has eight non-releasable raptors that it uses for educational purposes. The birds have either been imprinted on humans or have been injured and are unable to fend for themselves. They range in size from and adult bald eagle to an American kestrel. In more formal sessions Blair and/or other staff from the Trust will fly the birds for the audience. “It’s just a great learning tool,” she says, “people can see how these amazing creatures are adapted for their life of flight.” And Ogburn noted that seeing the other adaptations of the raptors, their hooked beaks and sharp talons, show how different creatures fit into different niches in nature.
Ogburn said that one of the favorite classroom birds was the barred owl. It’s a common bird in the region but because it is mostly nocturnal it isn’t seen often, she said. Ogburn said she will often play the barred owl call and then show the bird and kids make the connection immediately with exclamations like, “Oh! I heard that in my yard.”
But basically we can learn from birds all the time by simply observing them. Whether we are watching colorful cardinals, striking eastern towhees or golden goldfinches at our feeders or fiery scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and fire-throated blackburnian warblers in the forests or sitting quietly at dusk listening to see “who cooks for youuu allll” from the barred owl or the wistful tooting of the northern saw-whet, we are learning. We are learning what unique and beautiful creatures birds are and how they fit seamlessly into the fabric of nature, and we learn that if we want to protect them we have to keep that fabric from unraveling.
Hit the Trail for Birds
Audubon North Carolina, along with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, North Carolina State Parks, North Carolina Sea Grant, and the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service began work on the North Carolina Birding Trail (NCBT) in 2003. The project was divided into geographical sections, creating the Coastal Plains Trail Guide, the Piedmont Trail Guide and the Mountain Region Trail Guide.
The Mountain Region Trail Guide comprises 105 sites across the mountains of North Carolina. These sites include:
• Cherohala Skyway, site 32, in Graham County — This 40-mile scenic byway between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains, Tenn., along the spine of the Unicoi Mountains provides great birding opportunities. Summer species include common raven, northern saw-whet owl, rose-breasted grosbeak, chestnut-sided warbler, Canada warbler, blackburnian warbler, veery, red-breasted nuthatch, least flycatcher and more.
• Stecoah Gap, site 34, in Graham County where the Appalachian Trail crosses NC 143 — Summer species include scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, ovenbird, northern parula, black-throated blue warbler, black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler and American redstart. Golden-winged warblers and blackburnian warblers can likely be found in early June.
• Ferguson Fields/Kituwah Farm, site 77, in Swain County on U.S. 19 between Cherokee and Bryson City — Kituwah is a treat for mountain birders offering lowland species like white-eyed vireo, yellow-breasted chat, blue grosbeak, common yellowthroat, yellow warbler and willow flycatcher.
• Whiteside Mountain, site 48, in Jackson County on U.S. 64 East between Cashiers and Highlands — Peregrine falcons have nested on Whiteside since being reintroduced there in 1985. And while peregrines fledge in May it is not uncommon to see adults and/or immatures in June. Other summer residents of note include yellow-bellied sapsucker, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch and Canada warbler.
• Heintooga Spur Road, site 42, in Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties along the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 458.2 — Heintooga is another great spot for high-elevation specialties like common raven, least flycatcher, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, least flycatcher, blackburnian warbler, Canada warbler, hermit thrush (at Polls Gap,) winter wren and occasionally red crossbill and pine siskin.
• Little Tennessee Greenway, site 50, in Franklin — This site offers some great in-town birding. A colony of cliff swallows may be observed under the Tassee Bridge near the southern end of the greenway. Other summer greenway birds include green heron great blue heron, blue-gray gnatcatcher, orchard oriole, eastern kingbird and red-tailed hawk.
• Highlands Biological Station, site 49, in Highlands — Summer residents include blue-headed vireo, black-throated blue warbler, golden-crowned kinglet, red-breasted nuthatch and northern parula.
• Lake Junaluska, site 37, in Haywood County — Summer is probably the slowest birding season for Lake Junaluska, which attracts lots of waterfowl and passerine migrants during spring and fall migration. However a trip around the lake in summer can be quite rewarding. Summer residents include, barn swallow, tree swallow, northern rough-winged swallow, purple martin, chimney swift, green heron, great blue heron, eastern bluebird and belted kingfisher.
• Pink Beds, site 86, in Transylvania County on U.S. 276 four miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway — Summer residents include brown creeper, great crested flycatcher, pileated woodpecker, blackburnian warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated blue warbler and wood thrush.
• Davidson River, site 82, in Transylvania County along U.S. 276 — Site follows the Davidson River from near Brevard to the Blue Ridge Parkway and offers great and varied birding. There are several pull-offs along the highway but traffic noise can sometimes be problematic. However there are a number of gravel Forest Service roads and numerous trails that offer more solitude. Most of the wood warblers like hooded, black-throated-blue, black-throated green northern parula, ovenbird and hooded may be found here. Rose-breasted grosbeak and scarlet tanager are also common. Peregrine falcons commonly nest on Looking Glass Rock and early morning and/or late evening forays are often rewarded with the ringing call of the whip-poor-will.
Some other great sites include, Craggy Gardens, Mount Mitchell State Park, and the Boone Greenway. To learn more about the NCBT and the Mountain Region Trail Guide visit ncbirdingtrail.org or to order a copy visit ncwildstore.com or your local bookstore.