Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thank You for Smoking: Birding Appalachia Part II (Getting High)

The foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains offer much by way of diverse flora and fauna. So much greenery and water makes one feel transported to a rainforest more so than the Tennessee/Carolina border, and yet there still is something lacking. A good birder and a good American desires more, he or she desires not only the lush, but also the hard and craggy. One must climb ever upward, to the Appalachian balds and the hardy spruce/fir forests that dwell there. It's like Caspar David Friedrich's ideal picnic. In the early mornings these primordial mountains exhale deeply, linking earth and sky with an intoxicating timeless mist and blurring everything in between.
P.S. It's super tricky to bird in said mist. 

This is the sort of place one can get lost. This is the sort of place one hopes to get lost. This is the sort of place one loses oneself. This is also the place one finds some birds.

With those who were willing and able, we went on an 9 mile hike along the Charlie's Bunion portion of the Appalachian trail, moving between 4,500 and 6,100 feet, up from the deciduous forest to the ancient evergreen peaks. Sunlight was a rare thing and dryness rarer still. From the bowels of heavy growth and pervasive mist, Veeries chimed and Black-throated Green Warblers buzzed in a perpetual homage to the smoking mountains. Once above 5,500 feet, I was reacquainted with a recent lifer and what I believe to be one of the most aesthetically successful Warblers.
There was also an actual lifer in the form of this Blue-headed Vireo, but it's best not to dwell on that.

The Black-headed Blue Warblers were still defining and defending territory, and their periodic outburts also tended to stir up other birds including Canada Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and the inevitable hordes of Dark-eyed Juncos. Black-throated Blue Warbler is so damned good-looking I want to tear my face off and put it back on upside down. Yeah, you heard me.

Rather surprising to me was the abundance of amphibians, given the altitude and temperature (but less surprising given the moisture). Apparently this area, the southern Appalachians, has more Salamander diversity than anywhere else in the world, or so sayeth wikipedia. The Southern Two-lined Salamander was about two inches long and skinnier than a pencil. The Appalachian Red was about double that, and equally shy, while the mighty and better-armored Northern Dusky Salamander adults (the most common species in mountain streams) dwarfed them both.

There were times hiking along the ridge when we'd pause and look out into straight nothing. The low-stratus clouds emanating from the mountains were so thick we could not see the range on either side of our trail, but as the morning drew on eventually the smoke gave way and shapes took form.

The termination of Charlies's Bunion was supposedly named by one surveyor in honor of his accompanying buddy's gigantic toe affliction that he revealed upon resting in that area. Given the heavy vegetation it was hard to tell exactly the to-scale dimensions of said bunion, but the tree-line birds did not pay that ambiguity much mind. 

The dour weather dampened the birding overall, but Black-throated Blues would have been compensation enough. Chestnut-sided Warbler was another potential lifer for others in our group however, and I had been puzzling at their absence all morning, since in previous experience at this altitude they were the most common behind Black-throated Green. 
All worry was put to rest on our descent, perhaps when the birds were more confident their parades would not be precipitated upon. Upon hearing their calls at long last I ran down the trail to catch up with Pops, only to hear him likewise calling back that he was, "Surrounded by singing Chestnuts and in danger." Indeed. Awesome.

Unfortunately we did not have enough time for further exploration and pursuit of Blackburnian, as well as Ruffed Grouse, but the hike was gorgeous It was like that level of totally comprehensive, soul-shaking gorgeous that sticks with you weeks later and sustains you through torrid summer working conditions...