Nature & Outdoors
Beautiful Birds & Magnificent Mountains — Bird Watching in the High Country
By Paul Laurent, with Photos by Amanda Laurent
The air feels cool and crisp as we hike between house-sized boulders strewn across the steep slopes of Grandfather Mountain. The red spruce and Fraser fir trees covered in moss smell strongly of Christmas on this cool May morning. Many people who make this strenuous hike say it feels like walking through an enchanted forest that should be home to gnomes and fairies when you reach the higher elevations. The bubbly songs of Winter Wrens and Hermit Thrushes echo through the forest, but the bird we are searching for is much harder to find. Listening carefully, we can hear a different song drifting through the trees — much higher and thinner than the excited chatter of Wrens and Thrushes — it’s the breeding call of a Brown Creeper.
This morning’s birding tour began at 6:30 a.m. at the base of the Profile Trail in Grandfather Mountain State Park. Our guests are here to see this small and very hard-to-find bird singing in his breeding territory — something very difficult to experience in the South. Today we can hear several of them singing from the tree tops. Brown Creepers are incredibly well camouflaged, with mottled brown backs and white bellies that are usually hidden as they furtively climb tree trunks in search of insect larvae. We finally see one working its way up the trunk of a large fir, and we get to watch as it flutter-falls its way down to the base of the next tree — looking more like a falling leaf than a bird.
This brief look at a small, brown bird might not seem worth the three hours of hiking, but this is no ordinary little brown bird, and this is no ordinary mountain! Brown Creepers normally nest far to the north in the deep forests of Canada, and only migrate to the Carolinas in the winter. The high, rugged peaks of the North Carolina High Country are one of the only places in the south where you can find Brown Creepers in the springtime. The habitat in these southern highlands has far more in common with Nova Scotia than Charlotte, which you can see on the horizon on clear days. There are dozens of species of birds that can be found breeding here that you would normally expect to find nesting in the far north.
One of the most amazing things about our mountains is just how old they are. When you walk through the woods here you can feel the weight of ages hanging on the slopes. These mountains may not be as tall as they once were (Grandfather Mountain was once taller than Mount Everest!) but they have witnessed eons of change. Oceans rose and fell, continents collided and then drifted apart, dinosaurs wandered their slopes, then mammoths, then bison, elk and beaver, and eventually early humans began coming to this ancient land looking for hunting grounds in the warmer seasons. Ice ages came and went, but the glaciers never quite reached these southern peaks.
This is what makes the High Country such a remarkable place for bird watching. As the glaciers pushed plants and animals out of the north, they settled in what is now the Carolinas. When the glaciers retreated and temperatures warmed, those northern species began to recolonize their traditional ranges — except for here in the High Country. The cooler weather caused by the higher altitude combined with the rocky, mountainous terrain to make a habitat very similar to the far north, and some of these traditionally northern birds began breeding here instead.
The Brown Creepers singing at the top of Grandfather Mountain are just one of the harder to find northern residents. Common Ravens can be seen daily cartwheeling above the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Dark-eyed Juncos are the most common bird in many areas here, but are found nowhere else in the Southeast except in winter. But the most stunning examples of northern birds breeding here in the High Country have to be the warblers.
This family of tiny and colorful birds has long enthralled bird watchers across North America. Most of these remarkable birds usually breed in Canada, and then embark on incredible migrations to Central and South America for the winter, only to return to Canada in spring to breed again and continue the cycle. There are 37 species of warblers that can be found in North Carolina, but in most of the state they are seen only for a few weeks each fall and spring as they pass through on their migration. We are fortunate to be able to see these stunning creatures all summer long!
A walk around Trout Lake outside of Boone in the spring gives you a good chance to see Canada Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Ovenbirds (named for their oddly shaped nest that looks remarkably like a tiny pizza oven made of twigs on the forest floor), Hooded Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and many other species in just a few hours. The stunning Blackburnian Warbler can be found nesting near Julian Price Lake, and the incredibly rare Golden-winged Warbler can be found breeding just north of Boone.
The brilliant colors that male warblers sport each spring is reason enough to get a pair of binoculars. A male Blackburnian Warbler looks like a four-inch fireball of orange and black as he bounces from treetop to treetop. The darker colors of the Black-throated Blue Warbler seem dull until he emerges into the sunlight to show off his royal blue back and dark throat, with a bright white belly and wing patches to nicely accent both colors.
Warblers are stunningly beautiful, and they make some of the most incredible journeys on earth. Many of the over 200 species of birds found in the High Country will migrate for the winter. Some may only fly a few hundred miles, others travel thousands of miles each year, crossing oceans and continents before returning to the same spot to breed the following year. Of the 184 species of birds we have documented at Valle Crucis Community Park, 115 can also be found in Costa Rica. When my amazing wife Amanda and I lead birding tours to Costa Rica each winter, we often see lots of birds that could have easily spent the summer in Banner Elk or stopped by our house on their way south from Canada! It can be a bit strange to lead a tour in October in the High Country and see Yellow-throated Vireos, Black-and-White Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Broad-winged Hawks, Yellow Warblers, and Chestnut-sided Warblers — then see those same species on a tour in Costa Rica in November!
Birds connect us to the rest of the world and are among the most incredible creatures on earth. They are the descendants of dinosaurs that now come to our bird feeders and poop on our windshields. Whether we take people birding in the High Country or the jungles of Costa Rica, we try to show how these beautiful creatures connect the world, and how many depend on special places like the North Carolina High Country to continue to thrive.
Paul and Amanda Laurent are expert birders and naturalists. They offer small group and private guided birding tours in the High Country, Costa Rica, and many other amazing places across the country and around the world through their business Epic Nature Tours. Learn more at www.EpicNatureTours.com or email them at [email protected].