Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains Apr 25—May 02, 2009

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 first Great Smoky Mountains trip in which we have encountered fires in the national park and in surrounding areas. One fire along the Laurel Falls trail on the Tennessee side of the park, and another, a much larger one, on the Cherokee Reservation and adjacent Cove Road on the North Carolina side of the park, were roads that I had planned to visit. The fires required a revision of some activities, but resulted in the discovery of two new areas as good or better than the ones we would have visited, most notably the beautiful walk to Hen Wallow Falls and later, a walk along Indian Creek that included two lovely waterfalls, nice spring flowers, and a serendipitous Swainson's Warbler—the first of two we would see.

The spring wildfires resulted, I suspect, from the notably dry conditions in the park this year. The dry conditions did not affect the northward movement of spring warblers and other migrants, except that these birds continue to move rapidly northward as long as fair weather prevails. We noted good numbers of warblers on Sharp's Ridge the first day, and in subsequent days in the park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This trip, however, isn't about large numbers of species, or chasing rare birds, but rather more about seeing and hearing spring warblers over and over each day with the opportunity to become familiar with their colorful plumages, their behaviors, and their songs. For those living in the western United States, new "Smoky Mountain" experiences also included seeing large numbers of trilliums and flowering dogwood; gnatcatchers building nests; a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in full breeding regalia; listening to the call of a Chuck-will's-widow; the chance to hold and admire a freshly-killed Yellow-billed Cuckoo that was in perfect condition; and yes, even fireflies. Particular highlights for some included close studies of Chestnut-sided and Canada warblers, and Gray Catbirds (curiously understated birds).

We botanized at various elevations, generally backtracking through spring as we ascended to progressively higher elevations. We noted the mounting loss of eastern hemlock to the hemlock adelgid, as well as the skeletal remains of the Frasier fir which has almost completely succumbed to another adelgid moth, this one from Europe. There were fewer human visitors in the park this year—perhaps as much as forty percent fewer—a result surely attributable to the economic crises. Still, life goes on—birds build nests and raise young (remember the American Robins at the hotel); warblers sing, court, and engage in territorial disputes; and flowers fill overlooked recesses with bright color for those that look. In fact, as one person noted on the trip, the Smokies are not so much about large carpets of flowers as about little patches of color and remarkable beauty tucked away in all manner of nooks and crannies. Among our floral highlights were seven species of trilliums; eight species of violets; three orchids (only one in flower); and some great displays of phacelias and spring beauties at various elevations, and of flowering dogwood and silverbell trees.

If you haven't spent a few delightful spring days in the Great Smoky Mountains, we invite you to join us on a future trip. I believe you will agree that that the combination of birds, wildflowers, and gentle scenery is memorable.