It’s Time to Try Birding Beyond the Backyard

It’s Time to Try Birding Beyond the Backyard

Aaron Searcy

by Aaron Searcy, Publications Associate

If you found yourself paying closer attention to the natural world around you this past year, you’re not alone. Months of lockdowns, layoffs, and isolation have translated into soaring popularity for simpler outdoor pastimes, including a unique growing community of “bird nerds.”

Guide and former biologist Keith Watson (left) leads a birding group on a tour in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.
Guide and former biologist Keith Watson (left) leads a birding group on a tour in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.

Birdseed, birdhouses, and high-end binoculars have all been scarce at times in recent months, and birdwatching and wildlife identification apps like eBird and iNaturalist are flush with newly active accounts. This spring, there have been far more reported sightings of rare birds in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park than ever before — most likely a sign of more human eyes on the skies and not a sudden profusion of Swainson’s Warblers or Golden-crowned Kinglets.

“I think this year has definitely been exceptional,” said Keith Watson, a professional birding guide and former biologist with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “There are a lot more people out there, and I’m seeing a lot of new names on the reporting forums that I use, especially eBird.”

Keith Watson, a professional birding guide and former biologist with the National Park Service, pauses to listen for birdsong in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.
Keith Watson pauses to listen for birdsong in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.

While the pandemic put a hold on some of Watson’s usual birding tours this year, he says the national park offers some of the best birding opportunities in the southern United States due to its wide range of elevations and more than 800 square miles of mature and unbroken forested habitat.

“To have such large contiguous blocks of that kind of forest is really essential to the conservation of these birds, especially the northern hardwood forests and the spruce-fir forests at the higher elevations, which are hard to come by until you go much further north,” said Watson. Whether it’s the high-elevation spruce-fir forests or the close-canopy deciduous forests common at lower elevations, the Great Smoky Mountains have a lot to offer if you happen to be a bird.

“It’s just a huge green mantel of forest below, which — to anthropomorphize a little bit — has be appealing to birds who use that kind of habitat,” said Watson. “It’s just got to be joyful.”

Black-capped Chickadees use at least 13 different vocalizations to communicate complex information and warn other birds about threats in dense vegetation. Photo courtesy of Warren Lynn.
Black-capped Chickadees use at least 13 different vocalizations to communicate complex information and warn other birds about threats in dense vegetation. Photo courtesy of Warren Lynn.

Watson presented a crash course on birding in the Smokies as part of this year’s Science at Sugarlands speaker series hosted by park partner Discover Life in America (DLiA). Archived recorded sessions from the series and registration links for future events are available online at dlia.org.

“The thing about these mountains that makes them so rewarding for birding is there are lot of northern species whose southernmost range occurs in the Smokies,” said Watson. “So, if you’ve got a target species you’d like to find, you can zero in on their habitat. Black-capped Chickadee, Red Crossbill, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Saw-whet Owl—those are the kinds of things you know you’re going to have a good chance of seeing when you’re in the right habitat, and that’s always easy to find in the park.”

Actually laying eyes on some of those birds once you’ve made it to the mountains can be difficult—especially in summer. Once deciduous trees put out their foliage, visibility drops rapidly, even with the benefit of binoculars.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are small, sprightly birds known for quickly hopping along trunks and branches in coniferous forests as they forage for food, often hanging upside-down. Photo courtesy of Warren Lynn.
Red-breasted Nuthatches are small, sprightly birds known for quickly hopping along trunks and branches in coniferous forests as they forage for food, often hanging upside-down. Photo courtesy of Warren Lynn.

“In most parts of the park, people will be more likely to hear birds than see them,” explained Paul Super, the park’s research coordinator, “with open areas like Cades Cove and Oconaluftee being the exceptions.” Even so, several areas in the park have been included on state-level birding trails for their exceptional viewing opportunities.

“We have three sections of the park in the North Carolina Birding Trail: Big Creek, Heintooga Spur Road, and Oconaluftee Visitor Center,” said Super. “The park will also soon be part of the statewide North Carolina Breeding Bird Atlas, which invites volunteers to document the birds they see in eBird.”

Listening to birdsong can be just as rewarding as seeing the birds themselves, whether it’s tuning into the ethereal yodel of a Wood Thrush or catching the syncopated hoot of a Barred Owl. In fact, some bird researchers rely mostly on vocalizations to identify birds and take stock of species diversity in a given area. Casual birders can use the same approach.

“At first you have to rely on sounds to locate many birds, but once you learn their songs, you can identify them and go searching through the developed canopies,” said Watson. “High-elevation specialist birds tend to sing a little longer into the season than the lower-elevation birds, so you’ll still find plenty from July through August if you spend some time around Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, or Alum Cave Trail.”

Smokies LIVE

Newly invested pandemic birders and the birding-curious looking to explore beyond the backyard this summer can find a printable checklist of GSMNP birds online at nps.gov/grsm. Be sure to check out the North Carolina Birding Trail and the North Carolina Bird Atlas while you’re at it, or snag a copy of the Birds of the Smokies field guide.

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