Wild Connections: The birds of spring in the mountains of Western North Carolina

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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wild_connections_ashvegas_2015Editor’s note: This column is one in a series produced by Warren Wilson College Environmental Studies faculty member J.J. Apodaca and his students. The goal is give students writing experience while encouraging people to experience, and help preserve, Western North Carolina’s beautiful environment.

As spring rolls around again the blossoms open, the birds migrate, and the people feel the itch to get out and explore. And what better place to go and see then some of the trails that are hard to reach during the winter months? In Western North Carolina we are lucky enough to have incredible hiking trails that go through areas of rich and unique flora and fauna like nowhere else in the world. While there are many things to keep a look out for this time of year is excellent for birding. You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the wide variety of bird songs and maybe you can even learn a couple of new bird species. It can make for a perfect weekend outing to pile in the car with your family and head up in elevation to explore some new trails.

The high elevation spruce-fir forests in Western North Carolina, particularly along the Blue Ridge Parkway, are unique opportunities to experience flora and fauna more characteristic of places 14-20 hours drive up the East Coast. The extensive forestland variety surrounding the parkway makes for extensive habitat for many birds, and unique populations of birds. Spruce-pine in particular, contain populations of beautiful and captivating birds, and is a hotspot for avid birders and members of the Audubon society, seeking to find a mysterious and impressive Northern saw-whet owl, or many other birds which share the range.

Keep your eyes peeled for some frogs or salamanders, mushrooms, animal tracks, wildflowers, and so much more. Grab some water and snacks and head out to a trailhead on your next day off.

Here are some spruce-fir inhabitants to listen and look for:

Northern saw-whet owl

Saw-whet owls are highly nocturnal and seldom seen, but if you do see one, you will notice its small stature, cat-like face and stunningly bright yellow eyes looking back at you. Their feathers are mottled brown with a whitish colored facial disk and white spotted head. During the day you may see them perching closely to tree trunks in dense vegetation at eye level. Their call is shrill and may be repeated many times in succession.


Toot 1

Toot 2

Toot 3

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglets spend a majority of their time up high in the dense spruce fir foliage. Listen for high, thin call notes and song. They are scarcely larger than hummingbirds with yellow crests and a distinguishing black eyebrow stripe. They have short thin beaks which specialize in snapping up small insects. Golden-crowned kinglets have olive and grey colored bodies with yellow edges on their black flight feathers.


Brown creeper

Brown creepers are tiny birds that love hanging out on big trees. They like to pick at loose bark with thin, curved beaks which specialize in finding and eating insects that like to hide out underneath. Brown creepers are easier to pick out by their piercing calls, but if you are looking to see one keep your eyes peeled for a small but long body with streaked brown or buff feathers on its main body and mostly white coloring on its belly. Their heads are brownish with a broad, buff-colored stripe over their eyes which is called a supercilium.


Winter wren

Winter wrens are small, brown birds with upturned tails and energetically bright eyes. Their plumage is uniformly colored and they have thin, pointed bills. A fun fact about winter wrens is that they deliver their calls with 10x more power than a crowing rooster! Their song is a beautiful, continuous stream of notes and they vary by region. When they call, they will belt out sharp husky notes, usually in pairs.


Sharpshinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawks are blue-gray in color with thin, horizontal rust-orange bars across their breast, and dark broad bands across their long tails. Having a small body and rounded wings makes them agile fliers capable of speeding through dense foliage to surprise their prey. During migration, it is common to see them in open habitat or high in the sky following ridgelines. This hawk has no true song, but males and females tend to call to one another in a series of “squealing” sounds or shrieks, with males tending to have higher pitched voices than females.


Pine Siskin

Pine siskins are a nomadic finch species which ranges widely across the continent each winter searching for seed to eat. These tiny birds are streaked with shades brown with yellow and dark brown flight feathers. In flight, look for their pointed wingtips and forked tails. As their name implies, pine siskins love to eat the seeds of pines and other types of conifers like hemlock, spruce and cedar, which makes finding them feeding in a spruce-fir environment highly likely. Their songs are considered nasal or wheezy compared to other finches, males tend to string together short ascending notes, trills, slurs and husky notes lasting 3-13 seconds long.

Call, Song

So now you know what to look for, but aren’t quite sure where to look? Try these three fun hikes in Mount Mitchell state park:
Balsam Nature Trail
Old Mitchell Trail
Commissary Road

Already know Mount Mitchell like the back of your hand? Here’s a couple more great trails for bird watching not in the state park.:
Flat Laurel Creek Trail
Buckeye Creek Trail

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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