Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains Apr 20—27, 2008

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 seventh birds and botany trip to the Great Smoky Mountains region. Great weather and some early spring rains prior to our arrival brought out the best of the spring flowers this year. We didn't see a bear this year (actually we've seen only one on a previous trip), but a Virginia Rail, two surprising Buffleheads on the sewage treatment lagoons in the park, a very cooperative little Winter Wren, Swainson's Warblers, Worm-eating Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, some very close Blackburnian Warblers (including two males locked in near-mortal combat that fell almost at our feet), Scarlet Tanagers, and a scattering of migrants throughout the trip were enjoyed by everyone. Don't forget our lovely scope views of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak along the parkway! On the botanical side of things, flowering Pink Lady's Slipper and Large Yellow Lady's Slipper orchids, Dwarf Ginseng, and outstanding carpet displays of spring beauties, fringed phacelia, foamflowers, bluets, and several enormous displays of trilliums made this trip unforgettable. And the weather was near perfect throughout!

Park news includes the continued decline of Frasier Fir, the result of a non-native woolly adelgid infestation and, even worse, a dramatic decline in the Eastern Hemlocks which are now infested with another species of woolly adelgid (this one an accidental introduction from Asia). Many already appear dead or virtually leafless. 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, 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.