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Birdings best kept secret The Blue Ridge Parkway Fall Migration
By Michael Chakan

After two months and 1500 miles of cycling and wildflowering in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania I was starting to get burned out when I received the first of three calls from Bill Haddad from his cabin in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Bill informed me  that he was starting to see small (what he calls pre-migratory )mixed flocks of birds there in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two weeks later after receiving his third call on how the flocks were increasing in size to hundreds of birds I decided it was time that I migrated from Pa. to his cabin in NC. Over the last twelve years I've birded with Bill in the NC mountains so I knew what to expect. I arrived at Bill's cabin on the evening of August 20. Below are some of the highlights of the week.

The next morning we got up early and headed out to his favorite spot, Heffner Gap, which is only a little over three miles from his cabin! Heffner Gap is one of many scenic lookouts overlooking the mountains and valleys of the Blue Ridge along the Parkway. It's elevation is 3065 feet but the best part is that it faces East so when the sun comes out at daybreak it's at your back and affords great views as the birds come over and forage in the trees on the west side of the Parkway.

We arrived at Heffner just at daybreak. Bill said they would arrive at 7:15. He was right. They started trickling over, then the groups got larger until 7:30 when groups of 20 to 50 birds flew into the trees across the Parkway from us. Unfortunately the skies were gray and the lighting was poor making it very difficult to I'd many of the birds.  On this day we I'd more species of wildflowers then birds.  Of particular note was some late blooming Columbine as well as Purple Flowering Raspberry, Bladder Campion, Virgin Bower and beautiful Sourwood trees (which Bill pointed out).  Altogether, even in this late season, we identified almost 50 species of wildflowers on this trip. 

On Tuesday Aug. 24 we decided to bird the higher elevations around Mt. Mitchell. We arrived as usual at daybreak and waited for some action. By  7:30 after not seeing many birds we decided to walk the edge of the Parkway to the Perley Toll road which was about a quarter mile from the Ridge Junction Overlook. We walked down the Perley Toll road (which is a two track road through the woods with some early local history) looking for Brown Creepers and Red Breasted Nuthatches. After a half mile walk without seeing much we started to "panic"  (a private joke)  and walked back to the Parkway. By this time it was 8:30 and although we didn't say much we were truly disappointed.  Then it happened! First one then two then five then ten then thirty then fifty then too many to count. They were pouring over, landing in the trees and blow downs right in front of us affording great looks. I've heard of fallouts when birds crossing the gulf encountered storms and when they hit the first piece of land they literally fall to the ground by the hundreds exhausted. I myself experienced a fallout while out at sea on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.   Well this was its counterpart, a " fly in". Hundreds of healthy birds foraging in front of us.

This was by far the best birding day of my 13 years, when you can say that the" trash birds" were the Black Throated Green Warblers and the Blue Headed Vireos of which we I'd over 50 of each! Other warblers seen were Black and Whites, Black Throated Blues, Blackburnians, Chestnut sideds, Cape Mays , the start of the Tennessee's and a Yellow. Amongst the 30 other bird species seen were Yellow throated vireos, Brown Creepers, Red and White Breasted Nuthatches, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks and a Yellow Billed Cuckoo. As an added treat we saw many butterflies along the Parkway two of which were freshly caught (still struggling as a spider was wrapping them for supper). This birding action went from 8:30 till 10:00! On the way back to Bill's cabin we stopped at Crabtree Meadows along the Parkway where we again encountered large flocks of birds (although not as large as at the Ridge Junction Perley Toll Road area).

On Thursday we again attacked Heffner Gap. This time the bird gods were with us as the sun arose from the east to clear skies. At promptly 7:30 the birds started across and continuously came till 9:30. Adding to the enjoyment of seeing hundreds of birds in front of us was being serenaded by a pair of very vocal Carolina Wrens who were either excited or angry at the intrusion of so many birds to their area.  Warblers I'd were 4 Hooded, 1 Tennessee, 2 B. T. Blue, 1 Redstart, 2 Blackburnian, 2 Black & White, 5 Worm Eating, 10 Chestnut sided and 12 B. T. Green. We saw many other species of birds including Indigo Buntings and Red Eye Vireos. Noticeably absent were the Red Breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers and Golden Crown Kinglets which were seen in abundance at the higher elevations on Tuesday. When the action stopped we headed back to Bill's cabin on Humpback Mt. for lunch and a much needed rest.

After lunch we retired to the rockers on Bill's deck to relax and sip as Bill would call it a Mint Julep (aka Bush Light). At approximately 3:30 we were awoken by the loud calls and sounds of  many Tufted Titmice. Flocks of birds were now swarming above and below Bill's deck. They were foraging in the Jewel weed, Pokeberries and Elderberries below his deck and the Tulip and Cherry trees straight out from his deck. What a treat to I'd birds while looking DOWN on them at close range  (unlike Saddle Creek where most views are from forty feet below the bird). We were looking DOWN on Worm eating and Oven birds(clearly seeing the stripes on their heads) as well as Hooded and Tennessee's.  Other warbler species seen from his deck were Canada, BT Blue, BT Green, Black & White and Chestnut Sided. Among the other species seen were Blue Headed Vireos, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, Carolina Chickadees, Juncos and White Breasted Nuthatches. In Bill's own words "best all day of birding I've ever had"

The next day I bid goodbye to Bill and left for home. Somehow the 670 mile 12 hour drive back flew by as I was still reeling and reviewing the  best birding week I had ever had.

During the next three weeks Bill would call me with updates to the action that was going on. It seemed that there was no end to the flocks of birds coming in every day! In his last call on September 17th  he reported seeing a Philadelphia Vireo, a Wilson Warbler, a Nashville, a pair of Yellow Breasted Chat, Golden Wing Warblers and a Brewster's Warbler from the deck of his cabin in the last few days! This was tooo much for me to take so I packed my bags and once again headed to North Carolina. Below are the highlights from this second venture.

Tuesday, September 21. Once again we went to Heffner Gap and once again at 7:30 (15 minutes later due to the shorter days?) the birds poured in. Bill described what he saw as a swirling ball of birds including a Magnolia, Cardinal, Cedar Waxwings and many Tennessee's in one clump of Pokeweed. The many Tennessee's become the" trash bird" of the week along with the hundreds of Rose Breasted Grosbeaks we I'd.
Bay Breasted Warblers were now coming in as well as a sporadic Nashville. This action lasted till 9:30 at which point we were tired of lifting our binocs. After this we retreated back to Bill's only to be treated with more flocks of birds at his cabin and more rocking chair birding with " Mint Juleps".

Wednesday, September 22. We decided to head to the Mt. Mitchell area again, one of our favorite spots (Mt. Mitchell, Ridge Junction, Perley are about 25 miles from Heffner Gap). Once again the flocks came in although not as large as the previous time, none the less there were still large numbers of migrants. These flocks were dominated by Tennessee's and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks. Amongst the new additions to the list were Ruby and Golden Crowned Kinglets, Swainsons Thrush and 5 Magnolias. A special treat was a flock of seven Ravens flying overhead and a sharp shinned hawk continuously harassing a crow. However the real thrill was seeing hundreds of Monarch butterflies migrating through the area as well as Crabtree Meadows on our way back. They seemed to be everywhere nectoring on the beautiful golden rod along the Parkway and the Meadows.  An extra added treat was the gorgeous Gentian in bloom along the Parkway. When we got back to Bill's we were once again treated to great deck birding as the flocks of migrants came by. As a bonus we've been looking for Redstarts for the last week as well as my previous trip only to have two of them show up off the deck of the cabin!

Thursday, September 23. Today we decided to head to my favorite spot, Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail at Carvers Gap. We encountered some small flocks flying into the area and had sporadic action from 7:30 till 11:30. We had 14 species of warblers the highest I ever had at Roan. They included the first of the season Palm and Yellow Rumps as well as a Parula, 4 Cape Mays, 2 Magnolias and a Nashville and of course the now ubiquitous Tennessee's. It seems that this areas "trash bird" was the Red Breasted Nuthatch, which were everywhere.  Beside the best birding I have ever had on Roan Mountain an added bonus was that as we were hiking down the Appalachian Trail I spotted what to me was an unusual low plant with beautiful red berries that I photographed and later found on the internet to be a Ginseng plant.

Friday, September 24. Bill wanted to try one of his other favorite spots which he calls the Orchard. It's a scenic overlook that does overlook a valley and a commercial apple orchard which is only another two miles down from Heffner Gap. We got there at the usual starting time and as like the other spots the flocks started coming in at 7:30. By this time of the trip I was starting to get "birded out" and my arms were starting to hurt from lifting my binocs. so much during the week. However to lift my spirits a Saw Whet Owl decided to entertain us for about 15 minutes with his loud call. Unlike the screech owl thaty Dr. Paul Fellers can imitate so well even I can imitate a Saw Whet. As the Saw Whet was calling I was trying to pick through the Tennessee's and to my surprise a Golden Wing Warbler popped up and waved to me! I called Bill but when he got to me the Golden Wing disappeared into the thick Jewelweed. Fortunately about ten minutes later Bill got onto one a little further down the Blue Ridge Parkway. By this time we had seen most of the same species that we had seen at the other spots. After the birds stopped we headed back to Bills but stopped at Heffner Gap on the way. We finally met another birder after all this time and she informed us that she had seen a Mourning Warbler about ten miles down and off the parkway! This would have been a life bird for the both of us.

Well, maybe next time and--- maybe next fall we can have more pairs of eyes as Bill invites his friends at Lake Region Audubon to a September trip to enjoy the great birding in this scenic area. 

Good Birding

Michael Chakan


 

 

 

 

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Bill Haddad at Heffner Gap.

Mike Chakan at the Ridge Junction Overlook.
Wilson's Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla)
Archive Photo © R. Munguia/Wildstockphotos.com
Black & White Warbler (Mniotilta varia)
Archive Photo © R. Munguia/Wildstockphotos.com
White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
Archive Photo © R. Munguia/Wildstockphotos.com
 

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