<< We interrupt this unfolding mountain-saga to actually comment on the bird life encountered. >>
Never having been in the Smoky Mountains before, I didn’t know what to expect. That also goes for the local birding. I think that of all the things I learned during this particular adventure, it was the positively “layered” location of the various species. What I mean is, Nelson and I encountered specific elevations that seemed to harbor a specific bird's unique taste in environment. While that interesting notion didn’t exactly dawn on me on the way down the mountain, I was convinced upon the return climb. Using the smaller pair of Bushnell binoculars I had in a pouch on my web belt was not very practical due to the dense foliage and humid conditions, however using my ears worked quite well instead. If you read this blog with regularity, you know how important listening is to a bird-watcher.
When we began the hike from Clingmans Dome (at 6,643 ft) on our chosen segment of the Appalachian Trail; the prominent bird was the Carolina Chickadee. I could hear its "feebee feebay, chick'adee-dee-dee" song as we carefully picked our feet up and around the endless loose cobblestones. Another bird species that inhabited the similar higher elevation were Dark-eyed Juncos. Hailing from Wisconsin as I do, I don’t get to see juncos in the summer time. It took me a few minutes to figure out what bird was making the sounds I was hearing. Juncos nest in boreal coniferous forests so I guess; the Great Smokies are a natural place for its family-building activities. As we lost some elevation, the high “tsee, tsee, tsee", sound of Golden-crowned kinglets filled the trees. As per my rough calculations; I would estimate that the optimal elevation for these kinglets was between 4500 and 3800 feet as I did not hear them above, nor below. This small discovery alone was something wonderful to concentrate on while my blistering feet were constantly reminding me of their own unmistakable existence. Funny how when you are struggling through something unpleasant, even the smallest pleasant distraction can provide one renewed determination and energy.
Around 3,500 feet I heard the unmistakable calls of an Eastern towhee. I asked if Nelson could discern the “drink your teaaaa” song. He said that he could and laughed. In this part of the country, Eastern towhees begin their breeding migration to the (GSM) Smoky Mountains in March and will remain there until October. A primarily ground-dwelling species, the Eastern towhee is a bi-pedal (both feet simultaneously backward) scratcher. They forage through the leaf and needle litter for their summer food source of insects. Beginning around 3000 feet, many other new bird songs were detected as we trudged along. Eastern wood pewee, Great-crested flycatcher, Acadian flycatcher, and Chimney swifts made their presence known. Red-eyed and Yellow-throated vireo sat high in treetops singing their familiar songs of, “Here I am, over here, see me, where are you…” as the summer sun and humidity washed over Deep Creek valley.
As we walked along the rocky bank of Deep Creek, I was hoping to catch (and share) a glimpse of my “spark bird,” the American dipper fishing in the rushing waters of the creek; but alas none were to be sighted. I think that perhaps the lower water level, and numerous rocks were prohibitive. As dusk settled in to campsite 53, a barred owl could be heard asking its unanswerable question of “who cooks for you…who cooks for you-all?” No other night sounds could be heard above the constant whooshing of Deep Creek’s rushing water. None unless you count the annoying verbal titter of an unlikely Swedish boy and girlfriend combo (also on site 53) that had decided to hold an extended authentic American campfire experience. Unfortunately, that bed-time distraction seemed to fade away only when Nelson and I simply passed out from trail-exhaustion.
One of the most ethereal sounds to drift through the tall trees was that of the Wood thrush and Veery. We heard them between the 5000 to 3500 foot range. Their (twin) syrinx-generated, double flute-like notes are difficult to pinpoint as they float on the still forest air, but are musically moving nonetheless. Finally, to round out this avian interlude, I will account the list of other notable birds “heard” during our hard-core back-packing experience: Canada warbler, Black-throated green warbler, and Indigo bunting. While this particular trip was not quite crafted to be birder's holiday, it did provide a small glimpse into the summer season, high altitude, life-cycle of more than a few species I traditionally lose sight of back in Milwaukee. That my bird-blog reading friends - is a wonderful thing anytime.
► Stay tuned for part four of this blog-entry which will detail day two – a “strenuous” climb in the (pouring) rain ... and bees.