Last weekend (5/21-5/23) was a blur of birds, bears and blooms — a combination of work, friends, fellowship and family that left me beat and begging for more.
I started out in the thick damp predawn hours Friday morning. I headed to Harmons Den where I have bird points to survey for the U.S. Forest Service. Morning came grey and muggy from the heavy, black night. The clouds were close, and rain was imminent.
My first stop was at the edge of a wildlife opening. I was there at 6:10 a.m., and before the truck came to a stop, I was greeted by the enthusiastic and energetic call of the whip-poor-will — clearly jarring the last vestiges of night. This is the second whip-poor-will I have encountered this spring. The first was at Tsali where I also arrived in the wee hours to survey bird points.
I finished one more point Friday morning before the overcast turned into a steady light rain. Protocol doesn’t allow surveying in the rain, but my GPS was still locked in so I decided to locate and flag more points. Following the GPS, I wiggled around the backcountry of the French Broad Ranger District, over Max Patch then detouring up to Del Rio, Tenn., to connect to U.S. 25/70 and back down to Hot Springs.
I followed the French Broad north out of Hot Springs to a couple more points. Winding around the edge of an old clearcut, I flushed a yearling black bear that galloped away up the hill. A couple of turns later, two yearling white-tailed deer took the opposite tack, abandoning the clearcut for the dark recesses of the forest. As I was flagging these points, pine warblers and great-crested flycatchers sang out to remind me that I would have to bring my low-elevation ears when I came back to survey.
Saturday I slid out of the house again before dawn, this time headed up to Highlands where the Highlands Plateau Chapter of the Audubon Society was hosting Audubon North Carolina’s annual meeting. I led a field trip off of Flat Mountain Road around the old Highlands Ranger District Headquarters and down to Cliffside Lake Recreation Area and back up.
Saturday morning started out kind of wet and muggy too, and the birds were reticent to strut their stuff. Well, not all the birds. Chestnut-sided warblers were singing, chipping, buzzing and twittering from almost every brushy nook and cranny. A black-and-white warbler sang loudly and incessantly, allowing everyone to get good looks.
Birds that we heard but did not get good looks at included ovenbird, Canada warbler, blackburnian warbler and worm-eating warbler. However, a scarlet tanager and a couple of indigo buntings posed long enough for views through the spotting scope.
And while the early morning dampness may have quieted the birds, it encouraged glowing orange red efts to venture out on top of the leaf litter. We saw three or four red efts along the trail to Cliffside. We also found Catesby’s trillium in bloom alongside the trail.
The huffing and puffing and good-natured grousing of flatlanders elicited by the “Bataan” march back up the trail so as not to miss lunch at the Mountain Retreat and Learning Center, where the Highlands Chapter hosted NC Audubon’s annual meeting, quickly abated when the group was welcomed at the trailhead by a yellow-breasted chat noisily practicing his chops from the adjacent clearcut. Not a bad bird at 4,000 feet elevation.
Leading field trips is always fun. But being out with groups with a love for, knowledge of and an interest in the outdoors is especially rewarding.
Sunday morning and the alarm is buzzing again at 4 a.m. Though tired, I’m a bit excited because I have a special companion this morning – my 8-year-old daughter. I go into Izzy’s room to wake her and before I even touch her, she says, “Is it time?” And she is up and dressed and we’re on the road by 5 a.m.
Our first stop is Big Butt Trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mt. Mitchell. I have two points to survey here. We stop at the first point, and it’s apparent that Izzy is too excited or simply too “8-year-old” to stand still and quiet for 10 minutes. So we strike an intuited agreement, and Izzy creeps away to a place in the woods where she can play quietly while Daddy listens for birds.
As is the norm in birding, blackburnian warblers that we couldn’t see yesterday were all over me today. Along with them were high-elevation specialties like golden-crowned kinglets, red-breasted nuthatches and Izzy’s favorite — the winter wren with its long bubbly song.
Due to technical difficulties — GPS failure — we were out for a long time Sunday, more than 12 hours. Izzy was a trooper through it all, and I can’t wait for the days when she will be a regular companion on these predawn sorties into nature.