32 years and counting for birding expedition

georgeThis past weekend marked the occasion of the 32nd annual Great Smokies Birding Expedition. Fred Alsop, the ornithologist at East Tennessee State University, Rick Pyeritz, the now-retired physician at UNCA, and I initiated the event in the fall of 1984. Since 1985, it has been held the first or second weekend in May.

The number of participants has ranged from over 50 some years to less than 15 in others. We prefer to have not more than 20 so as to enhance the learning experience for beginning birders. Identification is made by either visual markings or by vocalizations (both calls and songs) or both. 

 So as to add a bit of spice and focus to the event, we keep a checklist of the birds encountered each year. The goal each weekend has always been 100 species. I’d guess that number has been tallied perhaps 15 times. The record of 116 species was set several years ago. This year the total was 95, counting a yellow-billed cuckoo found dead in Bryson City that been hit by a vehicle. 

These are not huge numbers. There are many experienced birders in this region who could easily total 100 or more species in a single day. Our emphasis is placed on having fun, helping beginners learn some fundamentals, and obtaining good views of as many species as possible.  

We did better than usual with warblers this year. The total for that group was 20 or so species. These included some that we don’t always see or hear, like worm-eating and Swainson’s warblers. 

Saturday morning we started off in downtown Bryson City, birding both sides of the Tuckasegee River and adjacent yards and fields. Within an hour and a half we had totaled 50 or so species of the sort found in towns and cities: rock dove (pigeons), mourning dove, chimney swifts, eastern phoebes, purple martins, barn swallows, Carolina wrens, yellow warblers, cardinals, bluebirds, Carolina chickadees, song sparrows, house sparrows, American goldfinches, and so on. 

One unusual sighting in town was a flock of perhaps 12 fish crows flying over Bryson City. More about that later. 

Lunch was at the Collins Creek Picnic Shelter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That site turned up more species, including black-throated green warblers, northern parulas, and ovenbirds.

From there we birded at various stops up the Blue Ridge Parkway to its junction with Balsam Mountain Road. Excellent views were had of scarlet tanagers, black-capped chickadees, chestnut-side warblers, black-throated blue warblers, golden-crowned kinglets, ravens, red-breasted nuthatches, juncos, and others.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the extensive fields and sloughs associated with the Katuwha site off U.S. 19 between Cherokee and Bryson City, which is owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.         

In addition to blue grosbeaks we spotted a small flock of migrating bobolinks feeding in the high-grass fields.  

Having retired to our house for a potluck dinner, we heard a cerulean warbler singing in the shrubbery off the back deck. It was the first of that species ever recorded on our property.

By the end of the day Saturday, the total was 87 or so. We were close to 100 species but the last ones are always the hardest to come up with.    

Sunday morning was spent in the Nantahala Gorge at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and at the raft put-in area eight miles upstream. These areas turned up many birds already tallied as well as several new ones, including the always elusive swainson’s warbler.

At the Tulula Wetlands Mitigation Site in Graham County we didn’t locate golden-winged warblers, which are sometimes encountered there. But we did have exceptional views of a worm-eating warbler.

Through the years, the first sightings of three birds have occurred during the GSMBE. The first was of cattle egrets many years ago. Within the last five or so years, cliff swallows have been observed building their jug-like  nests under the bridges in Bryson City. And this year, as mentioned above, the first fish crows were recorded.

Normally a coastal bird that is obviously extending its range inland, the fish crow resembles the common everyday crow. But its call is unmistakable. Instead of “cawing,” the fish crown flies around all day saying “uh-uh” … “uh-uh” … “uh uh.”

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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