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Monday, June 20, 2011

Epic Mountain Birding, Part I - The Beginning!

The Appalachian Mountains are full of unique wildlife, and on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, doubly so. Mostly it’s full of things like high-elevation salamanders and plants, but it’s also got breeding birds you can find nowhere else in the state! So, when a group of young birders (read: average age of about 20 or so) decided to go after these special breeders, man I was game!

Because I had to work on Thursday night, I couldn’t leave with the first wave of birders, so I left with James and Mark K of The Belted Cowbird on Friday… a little late, unfortunately, so we didn’t get to the Tennessee side of Roan Mountain until 10pm. Mistake #1! Not setting a meeting place – our cell phones didn’t work on Roan and we couldn’t find the other guys at the camping site or the summit. No problem. We had targets to find.

We started on the summit, over 6200’. A cool wind split the night, and the bright orange moon was larger than I have ever seen it. City lights twinkled below, and in the shrubs along the summit, fireflies blinked with some odd kind of synchronicity. After searching around the parking lot, we decided our target was nowhere to be found, and so headed back down to the thicker spruce line. We pulled off the road real quick to listen, and there it was.

Pu pu pu… pu pu pu pu pu pu…

We found it on the side of the road, caught it just barely in Mark’s powerful lantern… and the damn thing ran out of batteries! WTF, terrible timing! Then  we heard it just up the road and ran after it, stepped up the hillside just a bit and found it in our low powered flashlights, low among the spruces, just ten feet away! Northern Saw-whet Owl!

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Roan Mountain, TN; 6/17/2011

We watched it for a good five minutes while James manually focused his camera in our flashlight beams. A couple of shots later and we had a fantastically decent image of this bird in what is the most southerly part of its breeding range. And the kicker? We found the bird on the Tennessee side of the mountain, and not a minute after we drank in our views it flew over to the North Carolina side, giving us a SWEET state bird that is particularly hard to find anywhere else in the Carolinas.

One target bird under our belt, and we still had a whole day of birding to go! Stay tuned for the exciting sequel: Epic Mountain Birding, Part II – The Continuing!

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