By Logan Boldon
Marketing Content Specialist
Driving to and from work the past couple days, a common question I’ve heard coming over the radio is, “What’s your favorite part about summer?” Some answers I’ve heard include food like corn on the cob and activities like spending time at the beach. My favorite part about summer is when it’s over.
I do not enjoy hot weather. Once temperatures surpass 60 degrees, I start complaining. I’m less social than normal when the heat drives me into air-conditioned rooms. For an outdoors person, this can make for some dull weekends. Thankfully, in the Smokies, relief from the heat is found at the higher elevations of the park where temperatures can be up to 20 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg, Cherokee, Townsend and Cosby.
Comforted by this knowledge, I signed up for our “Birding Among Flame Azaleas” Branch Out program, which started as high as you can go in this park – Clingmans Dome. As a birding enthusiast, I was also drawn toward the opportunity of spending the day with professional birding guide Kevin Burke to learn more about Birds of the Smokies.
I arrived at the Dome a little before 8 a.m. and excitedly stepped out of the car into the brisk 40-degree air. With my jacket hood pulled up to keep my ears warm in the ever-present breeze and a notebook and binoculars in hand, I set out to meet my companions for the day.
Five of us set off along Forney Ridge Trail for the downward trek to Andrews Bald 1.75 miles away. The breeze faded away as we descended below the level of the parking area and so did our chatter, which gave way to intense moments of silence as we looked and listened for our feathered friends.
Birding is like a scavenger hunt. It’s always fun to see how many species you can encounter in a day, a year, and a lifetime. And like a scavenger hunt, it’s not always easy going, especially if you’re lacking in patience! Easy triumphs included the ubiquitous Dark-eyed Juncos, which serve as the high-elevation welcoming committee; the Cedar Waxwing regally perched on a snag illuminated by the morning sun; and the Golden-crowned Kinglets flitting around, small and fast, testing our speed and accuracy with binoculars. Sometimes we felt mocked even with no Mockingbirds around. We could hear a bird singing but couldn’t seem to locate it. That’s when it turns into a game of hide-and-seek.
About halfway to our destination, at the junction of Forney Creek Trail, Kevin pulled us to a halt when he heard the high, thin song of a Brown Creeper. As its name suggests, this songbird has cryptic brown coloration and likes to spirally creep up the trunks of trees looking for insects to eat. Spotting a bird that looks like bark on bark became our quest. By silent agreement, we weren’t going to leave until we were victorious. I don’t think I was the only one holding my breath as we waited for the audible clues that would point us in the right direction as the bird went from tree to tree.
Our patience and determination paid off as we spotted the little guy coming around the trunk of a tree about 20 feet away. With as much excitement we could show while maintaining a quiet demeanor, we followed our quarry a little longer as he searched trunks this way and that for tasty morsels.
As we continued on our way enjoying the flurries of birdsong, we took time to check out wildflowers in bloom. An added bonus of high-elevation hiking this time of year is that past-peak plants in lower elevations may still be in bloom higher up due to the cooler clime. Bluets and blackberry flowers, lilies and rhododendron broke the sea of forest green.
When we emerged from under the trees onto the grassy bald, Flame Azaleas lit the sky with patches of brilliant orange – brighter than the sunshine! We all took off in different directions like children in Willy Wonka’s factory ready to ingest all the eye candy we could. The bald offers stunning mountain views to enjoy while sitting down to a sack lunch.
After we had our fill, we headed back into the woods for our return ascent. A self-prescribed “bird nerd,” I couldn’t help sharing some of my favorite bird facts as we stopped along the way to breathe – ahem – bird watch. For example, if you like to eat chicken tenders, you are actually consuming the supracoracoideus muscle that is essential to the powered flight of birds as it raises the wings.
By the time we found our way back to the Clingmans Dome parking lot, we had identified 19 species of bird by sight, sound or both. While I love birds and flowers, mountain vistas and cool weather, the best part about this hike to Andrews Bald was meeting five strangers and saying, “Until next time,” to five friends. When you Branch Out with Great Smoky Mountains Association, you get to connect with the nature and history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but connecting with each other makes the lasting memories.