Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains Apr 17—24, 2006

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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This was the fifth “birds and botany” trip offered by Victor Emanuel Nature Tours to this area. The itinerary included Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park in Knoxville, Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, and numerous areas inside and around the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We began mostly at low elevations and then, by traveling to higher elevations, gradually experienced a reversal of spring, ending with early spring plants and birds at the highest elevations. Spring started dry in the southern Appalachians, but midway through our tour the rains arrived, and for two days we had to keep umbrellas at hand. As one local fellow noted wryly, “When there is thunder and lightning over Rich Mountain, it’s a gon’na rain. You can take it to the bank.”

The botanical diversity in the park is daunting?the highest anywhere, for the size of the area, in North America. We searched for flowers and plants at every turn, inside and outside of the park and, despite the cool temperatures, ended our trip with the longest list of plants to date. Birds were generally more difficult to see in the park, but we had fine looks repeatedly at several warblers including Ovenbirds, Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, and even Worm-eating Warbler. Sharp’s Ridge was excellent this year and one area, in particular, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, provided us with some of our best and easiest viewing of migrant warblers.

We were a bit early for some orchids this year, although we found them either just beginning to flower, or within a day or two of flowering. Some good finds were Pink Lady-Slipper Orchids (never quite in flower), Large Yellow Lady-Slipper Orchid (one plant in flower), many trilliums (especially Large-flowering Trillium and Sweet White Trillium), carpets of phacelias, Dutchman’s Pipe, and Spotted Mandarin.

The Smokies also provide a rare opportunity to stand in the shade of some beautiful old growth forest where one can view immense yellow birch, buckeye, beech, and maple trees. Once virtually blanketing the eastern half of the continent, such remnants now survive in few places outside of this park and, but for the work and foresight of a few, we and our future generations might never have been able to experience this magnificent sight. May your travels always include many birds and flowers!