Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains Apr 21—28, 2007

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 our sixth birds and botany trip to the Great Smoky Mountains region. The Easter freeze, which caught much of the central and eastern U.S. by surprise this year, did not spare eastern Tennessee. The leaves of many trees and wildflowers were frost-damaged, which reduced wildflower displays and may have slowed spring bird migration. Consequently, our plant list was somewhat smaller than in previous years, although eventually we found most species we usually see. Large displays of flowers, however, were generally not evident, although later blooming species like Yellow Trilliums and Catsby’s Trilliums were numerous, and we even found a hillside group of Red Trilliums. Also known as Stinking Benjamin, this trillium is renowned for its rotten meat smell, although some of our group claimed they could not detect the odor.

Top sightings this year included a Black Bear, seven species of salamanders, Swainson’s Warbler, several Worm-eating Warblers, Blue-winged Warbler, Wood Ducks at a tree-hole nest site, flowering Pink Lady’s Slipper and Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids, Dwarf Ginseng, nice displays of flowering Thyme-leaved Bluets, and a new site for Vasey’s Trillium. Palm Warblers were abundant during our forays afield in Cade’s Cove and we enjoyed numerous sightings of Hooded Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers, a Chestnut-sided Warbler near Waynesville, and a sprightly pair of Winter Wrens and many Golden-crowned Kinglets on the Appalachian Trail.

Park news includes the continued decline of Frasier Fir, the result of a non-native woolly adelgid infestation. Sadly, most Frasier Fir has disappeared from the park and we also noticed many Eastern Hemlocks infested with another species of woolly adelgid (this one an accidental introduction from Asia). First reported in the park in 2002, over 50,000 hemlock trees have now been treated, but will have to be treated again in three to four years, an expensive and labor intensive effort. And this is only a fraction of the several million hemlocks in the park. Government and private agencies are experimenting with a tiny predator “ladybird” beetle that offers hope of fighting this infestation that could potentially kill almost all hemlocks in eastern Northern America. The park also works to reintroduce elk to the park, to restore River Cane to selected streamsides, to battle Kudzu, Burdock, and Oriental Bittersweet, which are invading the park, and to apprehend many people that illegally dig ginseng, orchids, trilliums, and rare plants within the park.

It is sad that this, our grandest park in eastern North America, this magnificent symbol of beauty and wilderness, and one of the few places in the eastern United States where we can still walk among giant old growth trees, is now under such assault on so many fronts?while at the same time elected officials turn a blind eye, or worse, reduce funding for national parks. It is a sad commentary when we place corporate profit above stewardship of the land where we live, and the heritage that we bequeath to future generations. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, unfortunately, has come to represent this battle of opposing interests, and grave scars are now evident across this grand old park. We should wonder about what our children and grandchildren and future generations henceforth will think of what we are doing today.

Not to end on a tragic note, the Smokies still provide a rare opportunity to stand in the shade of ancient forests, and they are a place that harbors many breeding birds, the highest diversity of salamanders in the world, and one of the richest temperate latitude floras anywhere in the world. Let us hope it remains so.