Birding satisfaction in these mountains is very much a matter of season. While fall in the park is lovely for the rampant color changes passing through the forests from top to bottom through October, the best time for a birding adventure is spring. In late March the migrating perching birds like warblers, vireos, and flycatchers begin arriving— some to pass on through and some to nest. By mid-April the early-morning woods are alive with bird song. It helps to have a good ear for identifying (or at least locating) birds by their songs. The morning voices may be the only hint you have that a gem is nearby in the midst of the leaves. Be prepared to spend long moments of neck-craning silence to catch a glimpse of a colorful jewel. (Binoculars are a must. Eight-power or less is advised.)

The peak of “warbler time” is April, and it’s worth the effort to get going into the forest early. Not only are the birds abundant in spring, but the hillsides are exploding with wildflowers and flowering trees!  

As mentioned before, hiking the park’s trails is the best way to appreciate the Smokies’ bird life. One trail that I have found that is less well-known, affording quiet and rewarding birding, is the Fork Ridge Trail, off the Clingman’s Dome Road, stretching off into North Carolina. This trail takes the wanderer through impressive groves of old-growth spruce and stands of fraser fir recovering from an insect pest that took its toll in the last century. Last August, a short walk along this trail produced a few great finds like a Winter Wren, a flock of Red Crossbills, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and notable numbers of Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers.

The Smokies are an incredibly beautiful swath of green to slip into for solitude and reflection. With a little effort, time, and patience, this pursuit can reveal deep rewards in the forms of the birds that shine back to us God’s expansive, unfathomable, creative power. Make your next bird-watching adventure a trip into the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s worth the effort.

Bates Estabrooks, the father of five boys, lives with his dedicated homeschooling wife, Stephanie, and their sons (one still schooling) in the hills of East Tennessee. He has a B.S. in physics and and works in the defense applications of nuclear energy.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: June 14, 2013