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Wednesday, 16 September 2009 15:54

The Naturalist's Corner

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Surprises under fog

I decided to take advantage of a few free hours last Friday morning to get a firsthand look at fall migration. My strategy was to drive up to Soco Gap and then follow the Blue Ridge Parkway back to the Waynesville exit and home. It was a little overcast at my home when I left. When I got to Soco Gap at the Parkway it was socked in — visibility a couple of hundred feet at best.

I decided to press on because you never know when you might round a bend on the Parkway to see blue skies, plus I happen to be one of those weirdoes that like fog. My first stop was Thunder Struck Ridge Overlook.

It was damp and gray and quiet — not a chirp to be heard. The goldenrod and asters were ringed with faint foggy halos and the bright red-orange mandarin berries glowed like candles from the edge of the woods.

It was hard to break the spell of that all-consuming quiet. But I summoned all my will power and phished out loud. An immature male rose-breasted grosbeak and a gray catbird immediately popped up to the top of the brushy cleared overlook about 30 feet apart. Movement and chirping to my right announced that I had also stirred a couple of dark-eyed juncos. I also caught a fleeting glimpse of one warbler. I’m not 100 percent certain but the habitat, habits and brief look all said immature chestnut-sided to me.

I got back in the truck and pushed onward in the fog. I stopped again at Cranberry Ridge Overlook. Again, all was quiet. I phished. A pair of scolding red-breasted nuthatches appeared at the tips of a Fraser Fir. I watched the nuthatches for a while as I listened to the slow deliberate chick–a-dee-dee-dee of black-capped chickadees. Movement at the top of a Fraser Fir caught my eye and my binoculars revealed a Cape May warbler.

The fog was so thick I decided to drive a bit to see if I could shake it. I crossed U.S. 74, headed towards Asheville on the Parkway. I don’t know if it was geography or time, but the fog now would come and go. I decided to head for Licklog Gap Overlook. Licklog is a good fall migrant flyway but often the birds don’t stop and you’re left trying to glass the feathery phantoms as they fly by.

Friday was one of those days. Birds were passing through but it was hard to get any kind of definitive ID, except for the hummers. In the 25 to 30 minutes I spent at Licklog I saw at least a dozen hummingbirds buzz through. I saw 20 or so passerines fly overhead. I feel pretty sure that two were Baltimore orioles, because of the bright yellow-orange color.

But the best find of the day wasn’t in the skies. I heard the loud raspy chip notes of common yellowthroats and went to investigate. I phished and a yellowthroat popped up. There was another bird close-by in the tangle. When I first glassed the bird, I thought orange-crowned warbler because of the drab olive back, but it was too yellow below. I finally got good looks, and it turned out to be an immature mourning warbler — a rare spring and fall migrant in Western North Carolina.

Even in the fog, we sometimes see the unexpected.

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