Move over harbingers

George Ellison talked about the harbingers of spring in his Feb. 28 column in The Smoky Mountain News. Well those harbingers now have lots of company.


The other day as I was bringing groceries into the house a blue flash danced in the air past my head. I imagine this tiny blue sprite was a spring azure, one of the earliest “blue” butterflies to be on the wing in our area.

A walk around Lake Junaluska March 22 turned up five more species of butterflies. One was a sulphur. The tentative ID on this one would be cloudless sulphur, once again because of its early appearance and because of its strong, direct flight.

The next two butterflies were unmistakable. A mourning cloak started across the lake but must have found the headwind a bit strong and returned giving ample opportunity to see its distinguishing characteristics even without binoculars.

The mourning cloak is a large (nearly monarch-sized) butterfly. Actually dark brown above, it appears black in the field with a creamy-yellow border all around. Mourning cloaks overwinter as adults and emerge in spring to mate.

A large yellow and black eastern tiger swallowtail was also found at the lake along with a cabbage white identified by the dark corners and black spots on the forewing.

The other butterfly was a coppery colored one seen flying across the lake. No way to ID this one but both question marks and eastern commas could be on the wing now.

Avian migrants are also returning to Lake Junaluska. Tree swallows made it back in mid March, followed shortly by a couple of purple martin “scouts.”

The same walk that turned up the butterflies also provided my first-of-the-season spotted sandpiper and northern rough-winged swallow. I am pretty sure there was a barn swallow in the mix but I didn’t have my binoculars so (unlike ivory-billed woodpecker searchers) I’m not 100 percent sure.

American toads have also begun to add their trill alongside the spring peepers Ellison referred to in his column. The loud “waaaaahhh” of the Fowler’s toad should jumble that chorus any day now.

Trout lily, hepatica and spring beauty are some of the early wildflowers that are appearing on my property. Spicebush is also blooming along with the red maples.

There was a crack in the dyke when George wrote about the harbingers, back in February. That crack is widening. In another month the dam will be burst and spring will be rolling through the mountains like a juggernaut.

Tens of millions of Neotropical migrants will fill the night skies. The brown forest floor will disappear under a kaleidoscope of colors as more and more spring wildflowers bloom. And the forest canopy will begin to turn green once again.

For the last 56 years, one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the rites of spring has been the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage held in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This year is no different. This year’s Pilgrimage will be April 23-29.

Registration for the 173 programs has already begun online at To learn more about the 2007 Pilgrimage go to

The Naturalist's Corner

Back Then with George Ellison

  • One of the Smokies’ finest poets
    One of the Smokies’ finest poets Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of The Smoky Mountain News. Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical…
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