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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Epic Mountain Birding, Part II - The Continuing!

In the Appalachians, much of the wildlife more common way north of NC exists around pockets of extreme elevation. These animals can be so demarcated by altitude that mountain peaks can sometimes act as “islands” for many bird and mammal species. So, after a night of fruitful owling, and a lack of camping sites at the base of the mountain, we bought a day parking pass and slept in the car near the top of Roan Mountain, in the beautiful Rhododendron Garden. I woke up early the next morning serenaded by the raspy songs of Veerys, and it was clear we were strangers in a strange land.

No sooner had I left the warm comfort of Mark’s Toyota Matrix when I heard on odd sound and saw a finch-like bird with a large bill atop one of the spruces – a Red Crossbill, a lifer! Soon after, James, Mark and I headed for the Round Bald near Carver’s Gap, which was supposed to be THE place for our first target bird of the day. On the way down towards the spruce line, we flushed a rabbit with its baby, which could have only been an Appalachian Cottontail given the altitude (damn near 6000’). This rabbit is an excellent example of the island-like nature of the mountain peaks – they are genetically different from the normal Eastern Cottontails that you can find most anywhere else, and only exist at the top of very tall mountains like Roan.

Once on the bald, we immediately found our first target. In a small rhododendron patch upon the uniform grassy bald, we could hear the husky song of an Alder Flycatcher flitting among the evergreens. We found it gleaning insects, and dropped anchor when it popped up right in front of us to give us our life views! Immediately afterwards, a random Chestnut-sided Warbler showed up in the same bush, giving James his life bird.

Alder Flycatcher - Roan Mountain, NC; 06/18/2011

There were no Vesper Sparrows on the bald, which is unfortunate because it was another target, but we had other fish (birds?) to fry. We checked out some fledgling Dark-eyed Juncos in a grove of pines, which turned out to be very ironic – because of the lack of cell service, we missed meeting up with Jacob Socolar, Scott of Birdaholic, and Ali Iyoob. Turns out, the tents on the other side of that grove belonged to those very guys! They decided to sleep in, so we never met up with them the rest of the trip, a missed opportunity, but again, the birds were waiting. A Red Squirrel on the way down gave me my second mammal lifer of the day, and with that, we headed down the mountain.

American Red Squirrel - Roan Mountain, NC; 06/18/2011

The first pull-off gave us fantastic looks at a couple of Canada Warblers, one of which landed on a rock just a couple of feet from us. A life bird for James, and the best look I’ve ever had.

Canada Warbler - Roan Mountain, TN; 06/18/2011

Other pull-off birds include Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-throated Blues, Least Flycatchers, and more Veerys. Mark thought he saw and heard a Black-billed Cuckoo, but we couldn’t get on it to confirm the sighting. No dawdling, we had places to get!

Black-throated Green Warbler - Roan Mountain, TN; 06/18/2011

Our next site was Hampton Creek Cove, a great place that’s kind of a sonuvabitch to find. Immediately out of the parking lot we had a nice look at a Yellow Warbler, a nice male singing his heart out. 

Yellow Warbler - Hampton Creek Cove, TN; 06/18/2011

A bunch of fledgling Tree Swallows sat on a dead tree, occasionally being fed by a nice-looking adult. A quick look by the creek yielded a nice vocalizing Willow Flycatcher, our third Empidonax flycatcher of the day, albeit one I still need in NC – Hampton Creek Cove is on the Tennessee side of the mountain, dangit. On the way back, we heard the opening notes to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”. That ZEEE zee zee zeet! belonged to another of our target birds, which soon showed up and gave us great looks – an amazing little Golden-winged Warbler, only the second I have ever seen, and another lifer for James (he was kinda cleaning up by that point, lol). 

Golden-winged Warbler - Hampton Creek Cove, TN; 06/18/2011
A quick look at a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler, and we had to head home, but not before James got one more life bird out of Hampton Creek Cove. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler - Hampton Creek Cove, TN; 06/18/2011
A nice Broad-winged Hawk flew overhead, one of the more common raptors in the mountains. We needed some North Carolina birds, and our plan quickly changed to include Grandfather Mountain and Elk Knob… which turned out to be, for me anyway, a HUGE mistake!

Stay tuned for Epic Mountain Birding, Part III – The Reckoning!

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