Blue Ridge Mountains Spring Birding Tour
Nature and Birding tours with Naturalist Journeys
May 4-11, 2013
The fabled Blue Ridge Mountains are among America’s greatest scenic wonders. While not as high as the Sierras or Rockies, they have a distinct charm quite different from the western mountains. For westerners, the Blue Ridge may change your whole concept of mountains. The nearly constant blue haze for which they are named is the result of water vapor from the lush vegetation. Forests climb all the way to the summits, and the varied elevations produce some of the most species-rich plant communities in North America (for example the Great Smoky Mountains National Park harbors more tree species than all of Europe). One can make the equivalent of a trip from Georgia to Canada simply by ascending the Blue Ridge! These mountains also support a diverse bird community, which includes many species at their southern limits. In spring and fall they are an important conduit for migrants. Wildlife of all kinds abounds, providing frequent sightings of black bears, bobcats, woodchucks, and white-tailed deer, and the region is known as the salamander capital of the world. Wildflowers are constantly in bloom from spring through fall, and the diversity of rhododendrons and azaleas is impressive. Even those interested in geology will find much to interest them. Most visitors are surprised to learn that North Carolina has the greatest variety of minerals of all the 50 states.
Just as fascinating as the natural history of the Blue Ridge is its human history. These mountains, much more than the Rockies, were a historically significant barrier to westward expansion of the fledgling U. S. The difficulty of traversing them also made them a haven for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, who escaped the Trail of Tears, as well as isolated communities of European settlers who preserved songs and customs dating back to Elizabethan times long after they had disappeared elsewhere. Numerous cabins, mills, and farm buildings have been preserved for the enjoyment of future visitors. The Blue Ridge is the epicenter for bluegrass and old time music. Our guide, Doug Pratt, is not only a naturalist, but also a musician who grew up learning these traditions in North Carolina, and he will have his autoharp and mountain dulcimer available to demonstrate.
Fortunately, all of this richness is made easily accessible by the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), a long narrow national park with a low-speed highway down the middle, which follows the crest of the mountains from Shenandoah NP in Virginia south to the Great Smokies in North Carolina. Our tour will focus on the NC part of the parkway where it reaches its highest elevations. We will also leave the parkway occasionally to visit good birding spots nearby. Our itinerary is designed to maximize the birds, wildflowers, and scenery without great physical exertion, although some hikes will require a little stamina. We will use two hubs over the course of the week, so we will only have to “move” once.
Sat., May 4 Arrivals/Drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway
We begin our odyssey at Charlotte International Airport. Plan your arrival for before 2:00 PM. A three-hour drive takes us to Asheville, and then up the Blue Ridge Parkway to cloud level and our accommodations at the spectacular Pisgah Inn, which will be our base for four nights. We will enjoy a quiet evening at the lodge, where American Woodcock often display at dusk.
Accommodations at the Pisgah Inn (D)
Sun., May 5 Birding on the Blue Ridge Parkway
We will begin our day on trails near the lodge looking for warblers, vireos, tanagers, and grosbeaks. Later we heading back south with stops at Looking Glass Rock Overlook, Graveyard Fields where Alder Flycatchers and Northern Bobwhite can be found, and Richland Balsam, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The wildflower display here can be downright stunning. Much of this area traverses spruce-fir forest where Dark-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, Carolina Chickadee, White- and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin, Ruffed Grouse, Northern Raven, and raptors such as Peregrine Falcon and Sharp-shinned Hawk are found. We will be especially attentive to chickadees, because this is one of the few places where both Carolina and Black-capped, along with hybrids, can be found. We will try to time ourselves to be at Devil’s Courthouse, a huge rock outcrop where Peregrine Falcons nest, at dusk so we can hear the wonderful chorus of Winter Wrens and Veeries. After dark, Northern Saw-whet Owls may begin to call.
Accommodations at the Pisgah Inn (B,L,D)
Mon., May 6 Great Smoky Mountains National Park/Cherokee Indian Reservation
Today we head south to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Heintooga Spur Road will take us into the eastern edge of the park at Balsam Mountain. This is an excellent area for Ruffed Grouse, Chestnut-sided, Canada, and Blackburnian Warbler, Least Flycatcher, Veery, Black-capped Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill, Hermit Thrush, Veery, Cooper’s and Red-tailed hawks, and occasionally Black-billed Cuckoo. Flame azaleas and maybe even Turk’s-cap lilies may be in bloom along the roadway. At the southern terminus of the parkway lies the town of Cherokee, something of a “tourist trap”, but we will do a drive-through and may stop at a souvenir shop if there is demand. We will stay off the parkway to return to Pisgah Inn a little more quickly.
Accommodations at the Pisgah Inn (B,L)
Tues., May 7 Folk Art Center/Mt. Mitchell State Park
Today we explore northward on the parkway, with our first stop at the Folk Art Center near Asheville, then to our main destination, Mt. Mitchell State Park, where we can drive to the summit of the highest peak east of the Mississippi. The spruce-fir forest here, which is recovering somewhat from devastation by the balsam wooly adelgid, is similar to that around Mt. Pisgah, and harbors all the same birds. Swainson’s Thrushes reach their southern limits here, and Hermit Thrushes have begun to nest recently.
Accommodations at the Pisgah Inn (B,L,D)
Wed., May 8 Museum of North Carolina Minerals / Linville Falls
We check out of Pisgah Inn and again head north along the parkway. We will stop at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, and spend the afternoon exploring areas around Linville. Linville Falls, at the upper end of the Linville Gorge Wilderness is one of eastern America’s great scenic wonders. We will take trails to the viewpoints, and along the way look for Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, and Swainson’s Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and maybe even a Belted Kingfisher or Spotted Sandpiper along the river. If we are lucky, we may encounter a flock of Red Crossbills. We will also offer an optional visit to nearby Linville Caverns for those who enjoy the underground. We arrive in the late afternoon in Blowing Rock, where we will check into the Mountain Aire Inn & Log Cabins, our headquarters for the rest of the tour.
Accommodations at Mountain Aire Inn & Log Cabins (B,L,D)
Thur., May 9 and Fri., May 10 Blue Ridge Area Parks
From Blowing Rock, we will work both north and south along the parkway, and also spend time off the parkway in the local area to seek out particular species. We will visit a number of sites over the two days, but the order we do them will be decided on the basis of weather and other factors at the time.
Doughton Park will be our northernmost destination, where we will find open meadows with Wild Turkeys and Grasshopper Sparrows, and mid-elevation hardwood forests harboring warblers such as Hooded, Chestnut-sided, and maybe even the elusive Swainson’s, American Redstart, Blue-headed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Scarlet Tanager. Ruffed Grouse may turn up anywhere on the shoulder of the parkway on our drive.
Jeffress Park includes a spot where as many as 22 species of warbler have been seen or heard on a single morning. The specific focus here will be two difficult-to-find species, Cerulean and Worm-eating. Also present are Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and 4 species of vireo (Red-eyed, Warbling, Blue-headed, Yellow-throated). Along the scenic Cascades Trail we should find Ovenbirds foraging among jack-in-the-pulpit, and Chestnut-sided Warblers in flame azaleas. Several species of deciduous magnolias should be in full bloom along the parkway here.
Moses Cone Memorial Park features a craft center in the original manor house and Trout Lake, where a short loop hike should turn up Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Red-breasted Nuthatches in the hemlocks, as well as Canada and Black-throated Blue Warblers and Veeries in the low vegetation around the lake.
Valle Crucis Community Park is a lovely little park along the Watauga River that is particularly “birdy” with open habitats that provide easy viewing. We should see 3 Empidonax flycatchers (Acadian, Willow, Least), vireos, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Yellow Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, and very approachable nesting Tree and Rough-winged Swallows.
Other species we will pursue in the Boone area are several that reach their southern limits here such as Bobolink and Vesper Sparrow. We will make a special trip to the Elk Knob area to search for Golden-winged Warblers. Northern Ravens are common along the parkway and Red Crossbills can turn up anywhere in the area.
Accommodations at Mountain Aire Inn & Log Cabins (B,L both days & D on Friday)
Sat., May 11 Departures
Today we leave the mountains and head back to Charlotte for our homeward flights, arriving around noon for flights after 1:00. (B)
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OF THE JOURNEY
Cost of the journey is based on double occupancy - $2290.00 from Charlotte, NC. These costs are based on double occupancy and include: transportation during the journey, all accommodations, and most meals as specified in the itinerary (B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner), professional guide services, park and other entrance fees, and miscellaneous program expenses.
Cost does not include: round-trip airfare to and from Charlotte, items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone, or drinks from the bar; or gratuities for luggage handling or personal services. With fewer than 6 participants, a small-group surcharge (typically $100-300 per participant) may apply. Single supplement is subject to availability and is an additional cost of $465.00.
You are responsible for planning your arrival to and departure from Charlotte, NC. Please arrive by 2 PM on May 4. Departures from Charlotte may be after 1 PM on the afternoon of May 11th.
Naturalist Journeys, LLC is an equal opportunity service provider and committed to the goal of ensuring equal opportunity for all in employment and program delivery.
Red Fox, Pileated Woodpecker, Black Bear, Ruffed Grouse, Red Oak Leaves and Bald Eagle, Tony Beck - to see more of his images, go to: www3.sympatico.ca/beck.tony/; Indigo Bunting and Eastern Bluebird, William McDougal; all other photos by Peg Abbott.
Naturalist Journeys LLC, a top birding and nature tour company, offers specialty small group travel to many of the best nature destinations worldwide. Naturalist Journeys’ expert guides have decades of experience leading guided nature and birding tours as well as travel photography tours, all with a focus on responsible travel and eco-tourism. Naturalist Journeys also offer Utah hiking adventure tours and adventure travel in national parks and wildlife reserves ranging from in-depth Alaska wildlife tours to guided Texas and Florida birding tours. Costa Rica nature and birding tours are among our top-rated as are our Panama nature tours and African wildlife safari tours. Our many repeat clients enjoy dependable and diverse holidays on Galapagos nature tours, Arctic and Antarctica nature cruises, and birding and wildlife tours from Arizona to the Amazon and beyond.