You’re hiking streamside through a rhododendron tangle when you hear a short, musical trill – it kind of mimics the riffles in the stream. I know, you’re in a hurry – got a lot of hiking to do. But if you have a minute to track this little chorister down you won’t be disappointed. What you’re hearing is a Canada warbler.
I spend six weeks every spring doing bird surveys for the Forest Service across Western North Carolina. My travels take me from Hiwassee Dam, to Lake Chatuge, to Black Balsam, to Hot Springs, to the Pinks Beds, to Roan Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Roaring Creek and Boone Fork plus other locations.
This 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.
I just finished four wonderful days of birding in the Smokies, helping out with the 66th Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Well 3.8 wonderful days and 0.2 days getting drenched last Friday before we gave up. Man those pilgrims are tough!
I was having my morning coffee on the small floating dock in the narrow, clear Weeki Wachee River about three miles upstream of the Gulf of Mexico and watching for manatees. The girls and I had discovered that early morning was a good time to catch these unique creatures headed in or out of the river. The loud, incessant calling of a red-shouldered hawk from the woods across the river suddenly shattered the morning quiet.
Due to contractual obligations with the Forest Service I have been in the woods a little earlier than usual this year. I’m not complaining, it’s been wonderful watching spring arrive. I began hitting the woods in February and everything, except the conifers and other evergreens, was brown and/or gray. There was a little bird life — chickadees, titmice, juncos, woodpeckers and other winter residents — but not a lot, a few chips and call notes but only an occasional chickadee song.
Waterfowl have been scarce across Western North Carolina this fall and winter. Traditional haunts like Lake Julian in Asheville, Lake James near Marion and our own waterfowl magnet Lake Junaluska have been mostly vacant this season. Even coot numbers are really low this year.
One of the greatest shows on Earth is about to take center stage. Spring ephemerals will begin clawing through the gray-brown leaf litter within the month. Some of the earliest wildflowers to open will include spring beauty, various violets, hairy buttercup, hepatica, trailing arbutus, bloodroot and trout lily.
Remember the scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” where the Kid was asked by an old miner (I think Butch and the Kid were applying for positions as payroll guards) if he could shoot, and tosses a small object on the ground 20 or 30 feet in front of them? Kid holstered his sidearm and prepared to draw and the old miner stopped him, saying something like no, no, no, I just want to know if you can hit anything with that.
They say great minds think alike, and who am I to argue with “They?” The Franklin Bird Club and Carolina Field Birders (CFB) each schedule their annual CBC (Christmas Bird Count) for the last available weekend in Audubon’s count window. They do so for the same reason — both counts are relative newcomers to North Carolina’s organized CBCs and both groups have participants already committed to longer-running CBCs in the area.