Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Birding the High Country

You could go with this - Craggy Gardens, Blue Ridge Parkway
We had good intentions Saturday, I swear we did. We were supposed to be doing yard work for most of the day. Lord knows our little lot could use some TLC. After whoever cleared the homesite, they took away all of the topsoil and replaced it with mulch to cover up the clay. To keep the mulch from washing down the hillside, they planted vinca, which now of course is trying to choke off all other plant life that remains. Yep, Sue and I were going to spend the day planting native vegetation, marking out future footpaths and pulling that goddamn vinca, but then there was a chip note ... and then another.
Tennessee warbler
With binoculars in hand, we went onto the back deck and started searching the treetops; Tennessee warbler, black-throated green warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, Swainson's thrush, scarlet tanager - the fall songbird migration had come to our backyard and as bird watchers, we are helpless to resist its siren song. In addition to the birds flitting about the trees, a look skyward showed many more still high in the stratos. The vast majority of migratory songbirds travel at night and navigate by the stars. At dawn, the weary travelers descend into whatever landscape lies below to rest and refuel until the sun sets again. By 9 o'clock, the skies were clear except for a kettle of 12 broad-winged hawks Sue spotted gliding over the house while I was inside pouring another cup of coffee. The action in the trees, however, didn't stop the entire day. The Tennessee warblers foraged in the pokeweed while thrushes, tanagers and rose-breasted grosebeaks attacked our two black cherry trees for fruit. The pewee (a type of flycatcher) hawked insects from exposed perches while our cadre of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzed around the feeders in their never-ending quest for world domination. It was a most-pleasing riot of feathered life. I am reluctant to put numbers to the species we spotted using the yard to forage and bathe. I got the impression most of our visitors from the northern breeding grounds were hanging around with little turnover. In the name of scientific documentation though, these are my guesstimates as to the magnitude of the count (though Sue says I'm being conservative).
Or you could go with this
  • Swainson's thrush: 6-8
  • scarlet tanager: 5-7
  • rose-breasted grosbeak: 3
  • eastern pewee: 1
  • Tennessee warbler: 20
  • black-throated green warbler: 3-5
  • black-throated blue warbler: 2
  • black-and-white warbler: 2
  • blackburnian warbler: 5-6
  • bay-breasted warbler: 4-5
  • blackpoll warbler: 2
  • blue-gray gnatcatcher: 4-5
  • broad-winged hawk: 14
It was about as much fun as I think anyone can have in their own backyard. Sue and I spend a rather significant portion of our lives searching for birds, so it's especially rewarding when they come to share our little habitat oasis with us. The action finally settled down as dusk approached. I guess the migrants used the time to take a siesta from their frantic search for food, and prepare for the long journey ahead. Many of the birds we saw will be in Central America or the Caribbean in just a few weeks, where they will spend the winter in lush tropical forests where the living is easy. But why were they here now? Much of the Southeast has been trapped under a stagnant high pressure system for the past 10 days. In addition to their own wing power, migrating birds take advantage of passing cold fronts and their accompanying north and northwest winds to help push them southward. We haven't had favorable wind conditions for a couple of weeks. Maybe the birds just got tired of waiting around for the travel forecast to be perfect. Maybe they just decided it was now or never.
That night, we opened our copy of "The North Carolina Birding Trail - Mountain Guide" to search for a high-elevation site where we could get closer to the pulse of the migrating wave. We settled on a spot on the Blue Ridge parkway at around 5,600 feet above sea level called Craggy Gardens. Would there be anything happening up there in the morning or was the phenomenon in our backyard merely a flock of gypsies, waiting around for conditions to improve? We'd just have to wait and see.
Getting out of the house the next morning took us a little longer than it should have - it always does. But even at the relatively late hour of 8 a.m., we knew we were in for a special day. At 4,000 feet and climbing, we started to have to use the brakes to keep from colliding with birds as they crossed the road heading up the mountain. By the time we pulled into a parking space at the ridge-top visitors center, the awesome spectacle of autumn migration was pouring over our heads through the mountain pass. From the incredible vista to the northeast, songbirds of every description followed the topography until they went up and over the spine of the Blue Ridge, right past our noses. This was not birdwatching for those who prefer leisurely looks at pretty passerines. These birds were on the move, and unless you had some solid experience identifying songbirds in flight or by flight calls, the tiny travelers would have to go unnamed. For me, the easiest to name were the boldly-patterned rose-breasted grosebeaks - more than I had seen at one time in my life. Others were ocassionally identifiable; black-throated blues, thrushes, etc. At an early point for Sue and I, however, the massive flight over the mountain became more of a life experience than a test of our ID skills. How many birds and of what kinds? Sue says I'm being conservative again, but here goes ...
  • rose-breasted grosebeak: 400
  • unidentified thrush (mostly Swainson's): 275
  • Tennessee warbler: 800
  • unidentified passerines: 3,000
I know more seasoned birders could have garnered a more accurate count and description of what took place, but in the grand scheme of things, it was enough for us just knowing it had happened over the course of 90 glorious minutes. To be sure, our experience is not unique among birdwatchers in the Blue Ridge. The region is hallowed ground for those who find themselves compelled to seek out mass movements of birds. The birds themselves have been using the mountain range to guide their migrations for eons. Undoubtedly, they will be using it for eons to come, but how many will largely depend on the health of the ecosystem and the habitats they require on two continents. I'll think about my role in meeting those challenges another day. For now, I'm just going to revel in the splendor of nature.


  1. Borat says: Yes, there is nothing I like more than the flocking gypsies.

    I know you won't believe me, but I saw my first ever black-throated blue warbler Saturday while sitting in the stand. Its no hummingbird, but its a striking bird. A flock of about two dozen blue wing teal buzzed me right after sun up...its ON!

  2. I believe you. A male black-throated blue is not easily confused with anything else. There was a dozen blue-winged teal at a small park pond over in Swannanoa this weekend. It is on.

  3. And you thought there were no ducks in western NC...I bet you a cold beer at one of those fancy pubs near your house you could find a beaver swamp within a half-hour of your house.