The Naturalist's CornerWritten by Don Hendershot
Stop and smell the flowers
Sure, we all hear it and we all think, “I’m gonna do just that as soon as I catch up.” And then next year we hear it again.
Well thanks to a wonderful offer from Chuck Dayton and Sara Evans from St. Paul, Minn. and Waynesville, I had the opportunity to ditch my rapid, rabid point to point birding survey for the Forest Service and stop and smell the flowers on Saturday, May 23.
Chuck and Sara were entertaining a group of friends from Minnesota and asked if I would lead a birding/wildflower trip. I had met Chuck and Sara on this spring’s Waynesville Watershed hike and knew they were knowledgeable about and had a keen interest in the natural environment.
Chuck is a retired environmental lawyer whose many accolades include being dubbed Minnesota Sierra Club’s Environmentalist of the Decade for his work in the 1970s to increase and expand wilderness protection in the Boundary Waters. Sara’s love for the outdoors may be in her DNA. Her Mom, Maxilla Evans helped establish and design the Cornelia Bryan Native Garden at Lake Junaluska and in 2006, Maxilla was awarded the 20th annual Tom Dodd Jr. Award of Excellence which is presented each year at the Cullowhee Conference on Native Plants in the Landscape.
There were no hard-core birders in the group so we had a rather leisurely start from Chuck and Sara’s around 9 a.m. Saturday. I believe there were 13 guests from Minnesota plus Chuck, Sara, Kate Queen and myself.
While it was a large group, it was the kind of group hike leaders dream of. The group was interested and attentive and it was easy to see they were enamored by our beautiful old mountains.
We ended up with a decent bird list (58 species) for birding primarily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in late May. And while birds — many likely incubating — were hard to coax from the woods and/or tangles we did get some really good views of Canada warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated blue warbler, northern parula, wild turkey(s) with polts and sadly, ruffed grouse fledglings on the side of Heintooga Spur Road, where their mom and one brood mate lay mashed by some inattentive driver.
Our birding time was also compromised — in a great way — by all the wildflowers in bloom. I was surprised to find serviceberry and silverbell still blooming at higher elevations along with large-flowered trillium. Other trilliums included wake robin and painted trillium. Canada mayflower was beginning to bloom along Heintooga Road and we found some large stands of umbrella leaf.
Two of my favorite wildflowers were duly noted. Pinkshell azalea, Rhododendron vaseyi, is blooming profusely around the wet, ragged rock outcroppings just before and just beyond Waterrock Knob.
The pinkshell was discovered in 1878 by George Vasey and is known from only four counties in Western North Carolina. The majority of pinkshells are, indeed, pink. But blossoms can range from almost pure white to deep purplish-pink. Grandfather Mountain is home to an extensive population of pinkshell.
Another of my favorite wildflowers, Indian paintbrush is in bloom along the shoulder of Heintooga Road. You can’t miss the scarlet head of Indian paintbrush glowing from the green roadside. But the color is not from the flower. The flowers are actually yellowish-green and the scarlet bracts surround them.
Pinkshell azalea and Indian paintbrush are both ranked S3 in North Carolina meaning they are at moderate risk of extinction due to restricted range and relatively few populations. But both of these species, as well as countless others, are in full bloom now so there’s no excuse not to stop and smell the flowers.