Bird watching (“birding”) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be a challenging but very rewarding experience. With more than 230 species of birds recorded in the park, including more than thirty species of New-World (“wood”) warblers, and a bit of effort, there is much to see.

“The Smokies” consist primarily of thickly forested, steep mountainsides and peaks, sliced through by deep valleys and hundreds of miles of chilly, crystal clear streams, broken intermittently by plunging cataracts. Spanning elevations from approximately 900 feet above sea level to 6,643 feet (at Clingman’s Dome; the highest point in the Smokies), and blessed with abundant rainfall throughout the year (average over 80 inches), the Smokies are an exceptional ecological gem. Interestingly, due to the broad ecological diversity found in these mountains, more than thirty species of salamanders have been identified here, unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

The lower elevations consist of the cove hardwood and southern hardwood forest types, representing more than one hundred tree species. Above these in elevation is the northern hardwood forest type (3,000–5,000 feet), and above 5,500 feet, the unique spruce-fir forest type. The spruce-fir forests, reminiscent of northern New England and eastern Canada, consist primarily of red spruce and fraser fir and are peculiar to the uppermost elevations of the Smokies.

Road access into and through the national park is limited, and due to the immense popularity of the park, traffic can be extremely heavy. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. This is particularly true during October, when the resplendent fall colors are at their best. With that said, a birder doesn’t need to get too far off the road on one of the park’s many trails to find solitude and rewarding birding. Be aware, too, that other “interesting” animals frequent the park. Black bears are a common sight, so take appropriate precautions.

Because of the variety of ecosystems, the bird populations and varieties are extensive. The most rewarding pursuits are for wood warblers: the colorful “eye-magnets” that pass through these forests in the spring, with many species nesting here, including Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, and Canada. The secretive Swainson’s and Worm-eating Warblers are also found here in the understory. In addition to the warblers, Northern Raven, Peregrine Falcon, and Northern Saw-whet Owl, among other uncommon birds, are known to nest in the park. A visit to eBird for a little research before a trip to the park can make for a more rewarding bird-watching outing.

Your birding experience in the Smokies will vary with the altitude of the park you choose to meander through. The spruce-fir forests in the upper elevations of the park are near the southern extreme of the breeding ranges of Black-capped Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Blackburnian Warbler, Canada Warbler, Veery, and Winter Wren. Further down the mountains the northern hardwood and cove hardwood forests offer Blue-headed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Black-throated Blue Warbler along with Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Cardinal, Hooded Warbler, and others.  

The middle and lower elevations present the greatest diversity of species, including Eastern Screech-owl, Belted Kingfisher, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Indigo Bunting.

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. www.creationbirding.com

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 http://www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at http://www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: June 14, 2013