Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains Apr 28—May 05, 2012

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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Our trip was classic Smoky Mountains this year—4 black bears, a Ruffed Grouse, displaying Wild Turkeys, and beautiful spring-plumage warblers, among them Cape May, Blackburnian, Swainson's, Worm-eating, Canada, and Black-throated Blue. There also was a spectacular diversity of plants including 6 species of orchids, 6 trilliums, and more than 20 species in the lily family. And, as an added dimension, Mark provided us with a running commentary on interesting butterflies in the national park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We concluded the trip with a sample of Appalachian mountain music and history at the Old Timer's Festival on our last afternoon, and a final evening of botanizing above the city of Townsend.

Anyone living in the eastern and central United States this past winter and spring will recall that temperatures have averaged far above normal and precipitation well below normal—in short, we didn't really have a "winter" and it stayed unseasonably warm right through the spring months. Consequently, flowers bloomed earlier this year and birds migrated earlier. Peak spring wildflower blooms in the Smoky Mountains occurred well before we arrived this year, but with some persistence we were able to find almost all of the early blooming species, albeit in much reduced numbers. In addition, because of the warm weather, we added several species that normally would not be in bloom until well after the dates of our tour.

This trip isn't about a long list of birds but, rather, more about seeing and hearing spring warblers and other migrant birds each day with the opportunity to become familiar with their colorful plumages, their behaviors, and their songs. Other "Smoky Mountain" experiences include seeing a remarkable diversity of trilliums, some immense old growth trees, and botanizing in one of the single richest floras on the North American continent.

We birded and botanized at various elevations, generally backtracking through spring as we ascended to progressively higher elevations. Among our floral highlights were 6 species of trilliums, 6 species of orchids, nice carpets of fringed phacelia at high elevations, and many other little gems tucked away on road banks and rocky outcrops. One cannot visit this region today, however, without noting that the park's flora is under siege on numerous fronts. At lower elevations the mounting loss of eastern hemlock to the hemlock adelgid is evident, as are the skeletal remains of Frasier firs at high elevations. The fir has almost completely succumbed to another adelgid moth. And the list continues. Nevertheless, the park offers a rich experience with birds and plants and will doubtless continue to do so. Spring, in particular, is a great time to visit the southern Appalachians with its incomparable combination of birds, wildflowers, and gentle scenery. I hope that everyone enjoyed the trip as much as I did, and I look forward to seeing all of you again somewhere.