Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Jewels of the North Carolina Mountains: Day One -- June 10

Blue Ridge Mountains -- view from Elk Ridge Cabin above Waynesville, NC -- June 2011

            For the past three years, I have made a week-long escape to the North Carolina Mountains as soon as school let out for summer to seek out the jewels -- the birds, the waterfalls, the cooler temperatures, the flowers and the 3-dimensional vistas!  Nirvana!  This year was no different.  Carl and I returned again to the Elk Ridge Cabin, close to Waynesville and Cataloochee, to continue our exploration of this favorite area.  Everything is ideal about this cabin -- the privacy, the views, the decor, the porch swing, the comfortable beds, the deck!  The owners have thought of everything so you need not worry if you forgot something.

Elk Ridge Cabin above Waynesville, NC -- June 2011
             On our first full day, keeping an eye on the weather due to a threat of rain, we decided to explore familiar places close-by on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) which we had not really visited since becoming birders.  Out of Waynesville, we took Hwy 215 up to the BRP.  The higher we drove, the foggier it became.  Suddenly, on our right (4 miles from the top), we spotted  a rushing torrent -- a waterfall with a very serious output of water that flowed under the road.  We parked and I captured the following photos. 

Pigeon River West Fork Waterfall on Hwy 215 -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

          On this trip, I tried shooting waterfalls a couple of ways.  First, I sought to create the smooth water flowing over rock with long exposures.  Then, with short exposures, I "froze" the torrent in action.  With this particular fall, I prefer the freeze frame method as it captured better the raging mood of the river.  See the 2 photos below for a comparison.  What do you think?

Pigeon River West Fork Waterfall on Hwy 215 -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

Pigeon River West Fork Waterfall on Hwy 215 -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

We assumed the yellowish tone to the water was due to sediment stirred up by recent rains.  We did not see a signpost for this fall.  But later, with a little googling, I was able to discover its name: Pigeon River West Fork Waterfall

          The rain began as we finished up with this fall.  We continued our route up to the Devil's Courthouse up on the BRP at Milepost (MP) 422.4.  Carl and I had never really visited the Devil's Courthouse as birders before.  Having heard that good species could be located here, we were interested in seeing what we might find.  The rain stopped by the time we had arrived but we were completely socked in by clouds.  We were not going to see much!  Fortunately, my significant practice with the Larkwire birdsong recognition program paid off.  On the trail up to the top, we only saw one bird -- a female Canada Warbler -- but I was able to ID several others including Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian Warbler species, Winter Wren and Brown Creeper!  On our descent back to the parking lot, we saw Chestnut-sided warblers and Cedar Waxwings.  As we returned to the car, the rain began again.  Because we had studied the radar map that morning, we were convinced that the shower would not continue long. 

         So we then drove to our next destination -- the Sam Knob trail head where we waited out the rain.  While waiting, I used the Sibley app on my tablet to practice differentiating the birdsongs of 2 flycatchers that I hoped to see & hear: the Willow Flycatcher and the Alder Flycatcher.  The birds are identical to the eye and can only be identified in the field by song.  Both birds had been reported on this trail in the last 2 weeks and both birds would represent life birds for me.  Certainly, I wanted to be able to identify them!  We had hiked this trail once before in 2004 (I think).  Carl did not remember this hike though until he saw the meadow that we had to cross to get to the bald. 

View from Sam Knob of meadow below -- North Carolina  -- June 10, 2013

As we crossed the meadow, I was disappointed not to hear or see any flycatchers.  There was, however, no shortage of the common American Robins, Eastern Towhee, Song Sparrows, Gray Catbirds.

American Robin and Eastern Towhee in the meadow at Sam Knob -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

Signpost with a Gray Catbird headed in the right direction -- Sam Knob trail -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

Carl photographing the Devil's Courthouse as seen from Sam Knob -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

On our approach to the top, Carl photographed the vista and I concentrated on Dark-Eyed Juncos and Chestnut-sided Warblers along the trail. 

Dark-eyed Junco -- Sam Knob -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

Dark-eyed Junco -- Sam Knob -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

Chestnut-sided Warbler -- Sam Knob -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013

               The bald is not so bald anymore.  It had been far grassier years before on our previous hike.  Now it is covered with head-high rhododendron and some grass.  Before, you could see across the bald.  This time, we decided to take separate routes to the top rock and we soon discovered that we could not see each other nor quickly find each other.  Because of the wind, we could not hear each other calling except intermittently.  Oh well, I was not too worried.  I knew the way down and I figured Carl did, too.  Suddenly, I heard one of those flycatchers -- I recognized it as the Alder Flycatcher song!  Then I inadvertently flushed it, along with a Black-throated Blue Warbler, giving me a visual on my new life bird!  I continued to hear the bird and hoped to discern the Willow Flycatcher also.  But no, each time it was the Alder.  Finally, I decided it was time to head down the mountain as I had not heard Carl call out recently. As I started down, I saw only our 2 sets of footprints heading up so I knew he was still on the knob behind me.  I took my time crossing the meadow, photographing Robins and Towhees.

American Robin -- Sam Knob trail -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013
Eastern Towhee -- Sam Knob trail -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013
Carl found me in the meadow. 

Carl crossing the meadow, coming from Sam Knob behind him -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013
Between the two of us, Carl is much better with the landscape photography as is exemplified by his stunning 180 degree panorama from the top of Sam Knob.

180 degree panorama from Sam Knob -- North Carolina -- click here for a large view on Carl's Flickr page. -- June 10, 2013 

       On our way home to the cabin, we made one more stop on the BRP at the Pounding Mill Overlook as I have always had good luck finding birds there.  This time, I managed this shot of a Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
         I also found this beautiful Eastern Comma butterfly.

Eastern Comma butterfly -- Pounding Mill Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway

       I believe this is a lifer for me as well as far as butterflies go!  Now, the next question -- will I begin listing my butterflies?  I am considering it! 

       Thus concludes my first post in this series: Jewels of the North Carolina Mountains.  I hope to have another post ready in a couple of days.  Stay tuned!


  1. as always, I have no favorites. all the photos you 2 publish are worth viewing! G

  2. Cathy, thanks so much for mentioning Larkwire and what a great piece about North Carolina! If you'd ever like to do a review of Larkwire (perhaps Waterbirds?), we'd be happy to provide a complimentary review copy.


    Phil Mitchell
    Larkwire founder