Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thank You for Smoking: Birding Appalachia Part I

American Crows are easy birds in much of North America. They are not easy birds in central and southern Arizona, and I don't really know why their range seems to end with the Mogollon Rim in AZ. To remedy the fact that I see Crows infrequently, and also for various other reasons, I spent some time in eastern Tennessee in mid-June. Butler's Birds set up shop at a lodge on Douglas Lake as a part of the Schiffbauer family reunion, which put the B'sBs operation within striking distance of the Great Smoky Mountains subset of Appalachia. In this national park there are many birds. There are many fantastic trails. There are many waterfalls (yes, chase them). There are many bears. There is mountain honey. There is opportunity for family drama. There are one-way 11-mile loop roads full of geriatric traffic. Yes there are many potent forces coming together, and as a French commander famously said to his British counterpart as their forces approached on the eve of battle, "It will be a good day for the crows when we meet, mon ami."

But just showing Crow photos gets a bit macabre, not to mention boring. For one of our day trips I pushed the family to go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains NP on the Abrams Falls trail. The trail terminates in a pleasant 20-foot cataract after about 2.5 miles and stays fairly level throughout, so it takes all comers and is recommendable for a large group of varying ability. 
Of course, once the party was underway I had my own plans for splitting off, or at least dawdling to pursue the various and sundry calls coming from the canopies and rhododendron thickets. 

We saw multiple Black Bears driving to the trailhead, and the trail itself had additional non-avian wildlife. The deer didn't seem to care too much about people, or else they just thought they were much better at hiding than they actually were.

Dragonflies and Butterflies, such as the Diana Fritillary below, were enjoying quite the carefree summer day. This seemed a bit cavalier, as there was a simultaneous massacre going on around them, butchery of an emotionless and efficient level matched only by piranha swarms and anteaters on a hill.

I was first alerted to this bird's presence by the chirps, croaks, and gurgles of its expiring victims, and then the buzzing war-call emanating from its carcass-clogged maw. 

I first became acquainted with Worm-eating Warblers last summer in a similar and nearby area. In that previous experience it was cloudy, they were skulky, I was nervous, and we all went home feeling disappointed, like a lame date for which you had such high hopes because, you know, their profile picture looked really cute. 
Anyway, that was not the case this time around. Maybe because it was earlier in the summer, these birds were super active and super vocal, buzzing out their hatred for worm-kind and all things associated with the vermiculated arts. 

Black-throated Green Warblers maintained a chorus throughout most of the hike, and Indigo Buntings were always vocal in clearings along the trail. We also had several Vireo species and hiccuping Summer Tanagers. This was all to be expected, and also to be expected was the ever-presence of Northern Parulas, probably the most common eastern Warbler. 
Everything was so damn green it kinda washed out the Parula colors when they did finally come low, but I guess this bird is nothing new at this point eh? They're hot stuff. They know it. We know it. We all know we know it.

They say that no one could beat the Yankees because they were distracted by their pinstripes. This was only partially true in baseball, but also applies to Worm-eating Warblers. The pinstripe helmet serves both a diversionary and illusory function, distracting insects with the handsome pattern while also distorting depth perception as to how far away the bird's lunging moth really is. It worked on this inch worm, which then became half an inch worm, and then a quarter, and so on and so forth to infinity.

There were a pair of WEWAs gathering food, and since they were not consuming it they were most likely bringing it to a cup-shaped homestead up the trail slope. The key to surviving in this world is to find a specialty, find a niche, and fill it well. WEWAs are very good at what they do.

Being an inconsiderate dork and all, I did not actually take pictures of the trail-terminus waterfall. The hike was scenic and enjoyable, but a bit too low and flat, too open, to have that thick and primordial Appalachian feel. Before this hike had ended I was already planning another to higher climes and thicker trees, and to the birds that might be there.


  1. Dude, this is nice. WEWAs are not easily photographed in my experience. Also, dig the lep. Leps are badass.

    1. Cheers Nate,

      Threw the lep in just for you. It was a new one for me, and apparently don't stray much out of the SE U.S. states in mountainous areas, so a good snag.

      My WEWA experiences matched yours up to this point, but these birds were real go-getters and I'm pretty sure I saw where they're nesting with youngsters. It always helps to be able to use one's children as hostages to force photo compliance eh? didn't comment on the Crow. Didn't you like the Crow??

  2. Western AND eastern warblers? Dang. How ridiculous is it that I saw my first WEWA 8 years before my first NOPA, which only just got on my life list a few months ago? Apparently, once you learn their call NOPAs are literally everywhere. Embarrassing.

    1. Hmmm...that does seem pretty ridiculous Greg, but then again I know little about Indy birding so maybe that's the run of things. You probably got Henslow's Sparrow before, like, lots of other sparrows that I accidentaly piss on, and I would donate a solid quart of blood for shady looks at a Henslow's.

      What you say about NOPAs is truth. The cicada-like call will haunt you in your sleep, because there will be a NOPA in your room.

    2. HESP is only worth a quart of blood to you? Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Ammodramus.

    3. Ok ok, but remember this is a solid quart--and that's a major pain to extract.
      Also, it's my own blood. Usually I donate other peoples'.

  3. always have such great descriptions! The last WEWa photo is classic. Love it.

    1. Thanks Kelly.

      "Classic WEWA" has a certain ring to it, like the class clown of a 3rd grade Navajo classroom.

  4. Why, oh why have we never seen a bear?! Even non-birder friends of ours have run into them from time to time, and I feel like we're missing out. Especially since we're trying to beef up our mammal lists. Kudos on scoring some charismatic megafauna.

    Gorgeous fritillary and WEWA shots. Looking forward to Part 2 (and beyond?)

  5. I Love worm eating warblers, but have not seen one in awhile as they do no nest in Maine. I need to go south to Ct to find some. I can see you have seen a smorgasbord of them! Great pics and humorous prose once again, Laurence. You never disappoint! Oh, and congrats on your Lifer Black-throated blue! (next post) I forgot to mention there!