Friday, August 22, 2014

Take a Deep Breath: Birding in the Great Smokeys

While dawdling in North Carolina I had the great fortune to spend a few days in Waynesville, which is only a delightful 30 minute drive from some excellent birding trails in the Great Smokey Mountains, and equidistant from Asheville NC, one of North America's weirdest and most entertaining places.  Leaving before sun up, there was the predictably thick layer of fog along the mountain road, but even after the sun had its say, the mountains seemed to continue producing their own as the thick trees transpired with the cool morning air. It was beyond lovely, and it felt almost vulgar to zoom my focus in from the scenery and look at the little, mortal things. 

Juncos and Indigo Buntings were among the first birds to great the dawn, as well as Cedar Waxwings and a resident Golden-crowned Kinglet--a bird it felt very strange to see in late June. Because I couldn't find the famous Art Loeb trailhead, which I had driven past, I spent the morning on Black Balsam. It didn't pass through as much pine as Art Loeb, but the habitat was still gorgeous and there was plenty of activity. Chips and squeeks issued forth from the many tangles, while little flashes of yellow were more tantalizing, dare I say titillating, than an all-you-can-eat Thai buffet. 
The Chestnut-sided Warblers, seen the day before on Clingman's Dome, were still present and vocal, and another colorful lover of the elevated brush popped into view as well.  

Almost every eastern Wood Warbler feels like a long-overdue lifer, even though my opportunities for seeing them have been few and far between. It must be the saturation, the fact that so many of these birds' images are used on bird books, posters, club and company insignias, event or festival signs, and so forth. It's very understandable that these colorful fellows are the poster-children for birding paraphernalia, but the side effect is that, for one such as myself, it's like I've been missing a big, obvious, existentially essential aspect of North American birding (and to that point, I guess I have). 
The Hooded Warbler, with its obvious cowl, tries to stay out of the spotlight. The hood also doubles as a veil of anonymity for these birds, who have very controversial stances on Capital Punishment. J.J. Audubon nicknamed them "The Cheerful Executioners."

The Black Balsam trail was also the site of another personal victory, though one with less clear photographic proof. Through the misty morning the simultaneously mournful and delightful call of the Veery echoed forth from the thickly vegetated hillsides, as it had done the day before. This is a common experience any time I've birded near thick woods in the east, but never before had I actually seen the bird. 
Many of them called far from the trail, and the dew-soaked grass had already made my trousers chilled and uncomfortably form-fitting. But one bird called out just close enough to the path, and after some thoroughly saturating bush-crashing and a not inconsiderably amount of pishing (which may have had no effect), I finally stole a glimpse and a poor photo, of this woodland operatic phantom.   

As I mentioned before, one of the main attractions in Carolina was being able to explore beautiful areas without any pressures from time, temperature, or the Border Patrol. Taking scenery shots that really capture the atmosphere and environment of an area is very difficult, unless you're Jen Sanford. It's funny that in retrospect, scene shots such as the one below are pretty ubiquitous for the area. An American Dipper or two on the creek rock would be the only possible improvement.

It was a bit disappointing to miss the higher, thicker pine forest due to my choice of trail, but the alpine meadows and liminal brush between them and the deciduous woods had plenty of good stuff. The birds mentioned earlier made for a wonderful opening, but the last lifer of the day stole the show. Even with the incredibly high standards set by the Wood Warblers, this bird is a real looker. The vast majority of their breeding habitat is far to the north in Canada, but plenty of these birds, like many other Warbler species, stray down from their more northern range and breed along the Appalachians. 

The yellow spectacles and prominent eye, plus the bird's quaint accent and charmingly good manners all make it a winner. But best of all, this bird comes with its own built-in carcanet, a dripping medalion that draws the eyes up to the pure yellow throat and simultaneously down to the breast. Many would-be femme fatales and even ambitious trophy-wives cannot pull off this look, this balance, so well as the scrub-loving Canada Warbler. It's aboot time someone did it right.

I will have another opportunity to bird in this area, on the Tennessee side, next June, but for sake of my sanity and living in the moment, etc., I should say nothing more than that I am looking forward to it tremendously. There was still some birding work to do in Carolina, even after returning from the mountains. A little chunk of territory, Wayne County, needed to get its eBird information on the map.