A record-breaking weekend of birding
Last week, we set the stage for the 29th annual Great Smoky Mountains Birding Expedition (GSMBE). The group starts at 9 a.m. at George and Elizabeth Ellison’s office/studio in downtown Bryson City. I know, birders out there are rolling their eyes — to start a count at 9 a.m. is like missing half the day, but there are caveats.
The count officially starts at midnight Saturday morning, and participants are encouraged to check out their immediate surroundings before making it to George and Elizabeth’s.
An early start at the historic Fryemont Inn by some of the group got the 29th annual GSMBE off to a rolling start. One species — summer tanager — was a first-ever record for the GSMBE. The group turned up a lot of other good birds at Fryemont like blackpoll warbler and worm-eating warbler, which meant we didn’t have to beat the bushes for these later.
The river behind George and Elizabeth’s quickly produced tree swallow, barn swallow, northern rough-winged swallow, cliff swallow (which have recently taken up residence under the nearby bridges) and purple martin. Northern waterthrush, Baltimore and orchard orioles, yellow warbler, yellow-throated warbler and spotted sandpiper were some other species picked up along the river.
A vacant lot across the street from the Swain County Administration Building provided more hints that it was going to be a special count. We were watching Savannah sparrows when a swamp sparrow caught Pyeritz’s eye — we moved closer, trying to get a cleaner look when a least sandpiper appeared in a large puddle in the middle of the lot, next behind the puddle, an Empidonax flycatcher flitted in the weeds. There are five Empidonax flycatchers (Acadian, least, alder, willow and yellow-bellied) that migrate through and/or nest in the region. And they are very difficult to differentiate between by sight. Willow was our best guess because of habitat — brushy with water nearby. We played the willow song (once) and instantly received affirmation via a throaty, buzzing “fffiittzzz-beww.”
A quick turn across the street and we were greeted by another brand new record for the GSMBE. We found a Henslow’s sparrow foraging in a garden along with a bunch of Savannahs. Next hard-fought victory for us was a female Cape May warbler. There are a pair of Norway spruces near the river that have often produced Cape Mays for us in the past (spruces of any type are Cape May magnets during migration). There was no song coming from the spruces, but we weren’t giving up that easily. After a few minutes of watching intently, we saw a small bird flitting between the tops of the spruces — a female Cape May.
We tallied species after lunch at Collins Creek Picnic Area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and we were up to 86 species. The “record” juices began to flow. We looked at the list to see what we had and what we needed knowing we still had the Parkway and Kituwah in front of us. Because of the time — after 1:30 p.m. — we decided to head straight for Heintooga Road to see what high elevation species we could find. They were waiting for us when we got there. We quickly recorded golden-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, dark-eyed junco, chestnut-sided warbler, Canada warbler, black-throated blue warbler, winter wren, hairy woodpecker and veery.
With those under our belt, we headed down to Kituwah and some lowland birding. Rain was sneaking into the picture, but birds were still coming. We quickly added blue grosbeak, great blue heron, green heron and blue-gray gnatcatcher — then the rain came. And it was a rain that wasn’t going away.
We hadn’t made it to the wetlands or searched the fields for bobolinks — what to do? Well, we split up, and the dedicated — or is that foolhardy — group hit the soggy fields in the rain. Now hard-core birders are known to do some foolish things, but in this crew were newbie-birders Ben and Vashti Colvin who appeared to enjoy the whole soggy business. And it was a good turn list-wise as we added five species to the list — bobolink, blue-winged teal, common (Wilson’s) snipe, eastern kingbird and northern (yellow-shafted) flicker.
While it was a soggy ending to a great day of birding, it didn’t dampen any spirits as we were on the verge of establishing a new record for the GSMBE. The old record of 110 was set on the 20th Anniversary count and that record was broken Sunday, May 19. But it seems we are better birders than we are counters. The official list is making its way around now for scrutiny. We have somewhere between 115 and 117 total species for the count. We are trying to sort it out so we will know which bird was 111.