Monday, June 24, 2013

The Jewels of the North Carolina Mountains: Day 2 & 3 -- June 11 - 12

       This post continues the travelogue from my and Carl's North Carolina Mountain vacation from June 9 through June 16 outside of Waynesville and Cataloochee.  If you wish to read the introduction to this vacation and the events of Day One, click here.

180 Degree View from Sam Knob -- North Carolina -- June 10, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller

         Before leaving on our vacation, I contacted a birding guide via Birdingpal .  Last month, I had been reminded of this global volunteer service by a fellow birder that Carl and I met by chance on a weekend trip to the Beaufort area.  Via this site, traveling birders can connect with local birders who volunteer their time to show visitors the species of his area.  This same fellow, Rod, was headed to the Asheville area and he had contacted a birding guide who was going to show him a Cerulean Warbler!  In all of my trips to the NC mountains, I have missed seeing the Cerulean Warbler so I quizzed him a bit more.  His guide, Steve Semanchuk, was certain that he would be able to show him this species.  Sure enough, a few days later, we received an e-mail from Rod and his wife Marie.  They did indeed, with Steve's help, see a Cerulean Warbler.  Thus, I also contacted Steve via the Birdingpal website and we set up a time to go out in search of this new life species for Carl and me.  Steve was a bit concerned that we might arrive too late.  Cerulean Warblers stop singing mid-June and are difficult to find once they stop singing. 

        We met Steve on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) just north of Asheville to begin our day of birding.  One of the best ways to see warblers along the parkway is to stop at overlooks with an open area.  The birds like these edges and it is easier for us to look into the treetops as often we are looking down into the trees.  At our very first stop along the parkway, we found a family of Black-Throated Green Warblers!  The little wigglers did not sit still for a moment.  But I managed to get these 3 shots below.

Black-throated Green Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway just north of Asheville, NC -- June 11, 2013

Black-throated Green Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway just north of Asheville, NC -- June 11, 2013

Fledgling Black-throated Green Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway just north of Asheville, NC -- June 11, 2013

        Steve predicted that we would see Cerulean Warblers possibly at our next stop (I think it was
Craven Gap overlook).  Sure enough, with our windows down, I could identify the song of the Cerulean Warbler -- "Poor, poor pitiful me!" -- even before we exited the car.  There he was -- practically over the car.  He entertained us quite awhile -- dancing around from branch to branch singing his song and chasing away another Cerulean Warbler!  He would not sit still long enough for us to get a decent focus lock on him.  But we finally managed the next few shots.

Cerulean Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

Cerulean Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

Cerulean Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller
We were thrilled -- so early in the day and we had achieved our primary target species!  We continued along the parkway stopping frequently at overlooks and we were able to see and hear several more species including Blackburnian Warbler (a life species for Carl!), American Redstart, American Goldfinch,

American Goldfinch -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Carolina Wren, Scarlet Tanager,

Scarlet Tanager -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

 Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Parula, Red-Eyed Vireo, Blue-Headed Vireo, Black and White Warbler,

Black and White Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

and of course, Indigo Bunting.

Indigo Bunting -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

In-between stops, we saw plenty of American Crows and American Robins in the road and occasionally a Wild Turkey alongside the road.

Wild Turkey -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

I was so focused on the birds that I did not take much time to study the lovely wildflowers along the roadside.  I did spot this favorite though -- a Hairy Spiderwort.

Hairy Spiderwort -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

We did not just notice the little birds.  We also saw Broad-winged Hawks and this beautiful Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craven Gap overlook -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

       We continued to climb in elevation.  We stopped at the Craggy Gardens picnic area and decided to hike down a trail where Steve had seen Canada Warblers about 10 days before with Rod and Marie.  Sure enough, the Canada Warbler sang a little song and Steve pished him into view.

Canada Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- near Craggy Gardens picnic area -- North Carolina -- June 11, 2013

         At that stop, we decided to continue on up the parkway to just past Mount Mitchell State Park to the Bald Knob Ridge Trail.  I had hiked that lovely trail once before a couple of years ago and was eager to do it again as I had had an in-your-face encounter with a Blackburnian Warbler who flew in when I phished.  We heard and saw in the tree tops of the spruce trees several Golden-crowned Kinglets and a few Blackburnians.  No one descended to visit us face to face though.  There were also several Dark-eyed Juncos.  We mused on our desire to see Red Crossbills.  I had struck out on those for 2 years and I was not expecting to be lucky this year either.  This was the trail though that a friend had recommended to me 2 years ago and one could still hope.  Suddenly a flock of 12 chupping birds flew overhead and lighted in the hemlocks.  Steve and I looked at each other and I said "Red Crossbills?"  He responded with "Let's go check."  Well, we were certainly at a disadvantage in terms of lighting.  These birds were grossly backlit and distant for the reach of our lens.  But we did get photos that indeed confirmed my ID -- Yes, Red Crossbills -- 2nd life bird of day and third life bird of the trip!   It was also a great find for Steve as he reported that he had not seen any in 2 years!

Female Red Crossbill (left) looking back at male Red Crossbill (right) -- Bald Knob Ridge Trail -- Blue Ridge Parkway -- June 11, 2013
 After this thrilling sighting, we decided to return to the car and make a brief stop at Mount Mitchell State Park.  Along the Commissary Trail, we saw and/or heard Winter Wren, more Canada Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Brown Creeper, Song Sparrow, and Cedar Waxwing.

          What a fabulous day of birding!  My Larkwire training certainly paid off in helping me to hear and identify birds once again and Steve's expertise and humor were invaluable and greatly appreciated.  Back in Asheville, we thanked Steve and bid him goodbye.   And thus ended a wonderful Day Two of this great vacation!

          Back at the cabin, I began plotting Day Three.  Using e-mail and tips from Steve, I connected with other fellow birders for leads to another priority life bird -- the Golden-winged Warbler.  The population of this species has declined significantly in the Appalachian mountains, reportedly down 98%!  I was not sure that we would be so lucky as to find one.  Additionally, we were told that this bird also stops singing mid-June.  I certainly wanted to try to see this species, particularly after reading a recent article in Living Bird, magazine for members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, on a conservation plan to save the species by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its partners in the Golden-Winged Warbler Working Group.  We learned from our contacts where we might find this bird along Max Patch Road and so our plan for Day Three was set.  We would visit Max Patch, one of our very favorite balds, in North Carolina.

         Our route to the bald would be different this time.  In order to find the bird, we needed to take the very scenic farm land road, Highway 209, which would eventually connect to Max Patch Road.  We had never driven along this road before and we loved the scenery as we passed through old farm sites!  In the past, we had always accessed the bald via a heavily wooded route from the Harmon Den exit (no 7) on I-40.    Following the "fieldmarks" as they were described to us -- old barn, old house and pond, we found a site that looked promisingly birdy.  Even before exiting the car, I thought I heard a Golden-winged Warbler along with Field Sparrow, House Wren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Hooded Warbler -- quite the riot of birdsong!  Sure enough -- our target bird, the Golden-Winged Warbler -- Life Bird no. 4 of this trip, was there and feisty.  We watched him run off the Chestnut-sided Warbler!  

Golden-winged Warbler -- Max Patch Road -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013
Chestnut-sided Warbler -- Max Patch Road -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

Golden-Winged Warbler -- Max Patch Road -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

Not all of the birds heard were very willing to show themselves but I managed to capture this House Wren bringing nesting material to a hole in this snag!

House Wren -- Max Patch Road -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

          It was difficult to leave such a birdy area -- species found there not previously mentioned include: Broad-Winged Hawk, American Robins, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Towhees, Mourning Doves, and this Song Sparrow....

Song Sparrow -- Max Patch Road -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013
and this Gray Catbird.

Gray Catbird -- Max Patch Road -- June 12, 1013

        Carl and I though were ready to hike on the bald so we continued the climb up Max Patch Road to arrive at this familiar destination.  With our eyes to the sky, we noted some dark clouds beginning to build to the south but we figured that we had at least an hour to hike before we need worry about a pending storm.  After all, sometimes these storms simply do not manifest.  We took the easy route up through the old orchard (apple, I think).  The hillside was crawling with sparrows as we approached the wooded area.  They would  pop up and then pop back down into the grasses and berry brambles.  We could identify by song, Song Sparrow and Field Sparrow but we could not get a visual on these wigglers.  Carl did find this superb Red-Eyed Vireo singing in the woods which we both attempted to photograph in the deep shade.

Red-Eyed Vireo -- Max Patch -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

           And I worked on trying to capture ephemeral beauty of the loveliest of all mountain blooms, the Flame Azalea.

Flame Azalea -- Max Patch -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

Flame Azalea -- Max Patch -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

I never feel as though my photography truly captures the essence of these blooms.  But, I must say that I am fairly content with the above images this time. 

         Carl moved ahead as I stopped to concentrate on a birdsong.  Thus, he was the first to photograph this amazing LBJ -- Little Brown Job -- aka unidentified sparrow -- singing his fool head off.  I soon joined Carl though in this amazing photo op provided by this songster.

"LBJ" or "Little Brown Job" -- Max Patch -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013
 Carl initially thought this guy was a Song Sparrow but he was not stripey enough and the song was not right either for a Song Sparrow.  So I consulted my Sibley's App on my tablet.  The eye ring did not seem to be very strong but he sure sounded like the Vesper Sparrow song and responded to it by flying right by me to land on the post behind me.  This bird was certainly excited enough so I did not continue to play the song.  Other Vespers were singing nearby to keep him singing though and to provide us with more photo ops.

"LBJ" now identified as Vesper Sparrow -- Max Patch -- North Carolina -- June 12. 2013

Vesper Sparrow -- Max Patch -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

Carl is more willing to carry his tripod on hikes than am I.  And considering the nearly constant wind on Max Patch, he was smart to do so.  Because he had the tripod, he also was able to shoot video of our songbird so that we could share it here.

Thankfully, Carl was able to edit most of the sound of the wind out of the video so that we can truly enjoy this bird's song unencumbered.  At last, here is a photo of a happy Carl quite pleased with his photo op!

Carl on Max Patch -- North Carolina -- June 12, 2013

            The storm clouds that had earlier appeared to be amassing had moved away from our area.  So we were safe from stormy weather.  We enjoyed our walk back down the bald.  Other birds that we saw or heard there included the Eastern Towhee, an Eastern Bluebird family, Barn Swallows, Least Flycatcher, Song Sparrows, Field Sparrow, Indigo Buntings, American Robins and Cedar Waxwings.

           By mid-afternoon, with errands to run in town, we decided to call it a day.  We enjoyed our drive back and stopped a couple of times for more birds at another old barn, old house and pond site along Max Patch Road.  There, we saw and/or heard House Wrens, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Barn Swallows, Indigo Buntings, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Gray Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak!  We also saw a family of chickens.  This young chick did not follow its mother when she scurried her brood away from us as he was quite preoccupied with his beetle!

Chick from a chicken! -- Max Patch Road -- June 12, 2013

Chick from a chicken! -- Max Patch Road -- June 12, 2013

        Thus concluded for us another two days of wonderful mountain birding excursions!  We were quite pleased at how our vacation was going -- 4 life birds for both of us!  For our next day, we decided we would return to Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to hike, bird and shoot more photos.  Stay tuned to learn about our great morning there in the next edition of Pluff Mud Perspectives!



  1. What a birding bonanza you had, and such fine photos of the birds. so glad you figured out the Vesper. ...wonderful song video.

  2. Très Joli , as usual !

  3. A great post from your vacation. Thanks for sharing your pictures, video (real nice job Carl) words & links. Always a joy to read!

  4. Let me wipe the drool from my chin! Handsome Golden-winged! Sweet Vesper singing.
    That's good birding!
    Pam Ford