Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Encounters with Black Blobs and Other Adventures

Hello again, my lovely readers. I recently returned from a long weekend with my family in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and I thought I'd write a bit about it. I'd never actually been to the Smokies before, despite having visited Tennessee yearly for almost my whole life and driving through Knoxville several times. Now, however, we live about 8 or 9 hours away and we thought we'd give it a shot.

Driving into Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg on Thursday was a neat experience. Pigeon Forge, as it turns out, is pretty much the most redneck tourist attraction in the country, advertising everything from 'Hillbilly Golf' to 'souvenirs, sunglasses, and live sharks' (true story). In other words, it was awesome.
We had almost reached our cabin in Gatlinburg when what should run out in front of our car and scare us to death but a black bear! It was the first one any of us had seen in our lives, and it was enough to boost our excitement for the weekend to come.

On Friday, I woke up early and took advantage of the balcony attached to my bedroom. Upon opening the door, I was greeted by the songs of Eastern Phoebes, Song Sparrows, and Northern Cardinals. The air was chilly, but I stood outside and happily counted birds and admired the view for almost an hour.

A flock of Pine Siskins swooped into the thicket of trees just in front of the balcony, and though the morning light mostly masked their trademark yellow wingbars from view, their buzzy songs gave away their identities. It felt strange to me to see Pine Siskins in trees with leaves on them, and actually, it was strange. According to all the range maps I could find, Pine Siskins do not breed anywhere near the Smoky Mountains. But when I researched the matter further, I found that for a long time scientists suspected that siskins nested in the Smokies, and recently proof was found. However, the nest described in the article I linked to is in Clingman's Dome, which is at a much higher altitude than our cabin. Seeing a flock of around 15 siskins was unusual in that area, and I felt lucky to have that experience.

Here's my pathetic attempt at a photo of a Pine Siskin so you can look at it and feel better if you ever feel like a bad photographer.

After breakfast, we headed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since half of my family is under the age of ten, we had to find a trail that wasn't too strenuous. We settled on Laurel Falls Trail.
The trail wound for 1.3 miles through hardwood forest up the side of a mountain to a beautiful waterfall at the top. Warblers songs floated from the edges of the trail, and I identified Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush. I was pretty excited about the waterthrush, as that species had been a nemesis bird of mine for quite some time and it felt so good to check it off my life list.

When we reached the falls, the rushing water drowned out all birdsong except for one loud, sweet warbling call--the song of the...I had no idea. Some kind of warbler. I stood on the edge of the trail with my toes practically hanging over the side of the mountain straining my eyes for a glimpse of the bird, but no luck. Not knowing was killing me, but we had to go back to the parking lot as my little brothers were getting tired of walking. After we got home, I took advantage of the Cornell Lab's All About Birds website and discovered that the mystery bird was a Swainson's Warbler (lifer #2 for the trip). No wonder it wouldn't show itself!

Laurel Falls

My twelve-year-old brother was quite insistent that we visit Cades Cove to look for deer and the possible bear, so that's where we went next. The road that we drove on was surprisingly rife with cars, and the occasional traffic jam occurred. We quickly found out that where there was a traffic jam and/or a crowd of people with cameras, there was some kind of animal.

Twice it was a bear--or maybe just a blob of black fur half-hidden by branches and the cameras of eager tourists. It was hard to tell.

Another sample from my repertoire of photographic fails.

Apparently, American black bears are much more common in GSM National Park than they used to be. My parents would visit the park often during college, and they never once saw a bear. But 20 years later, we saw 3 bears in 2 days. The Park staff estimates that there are now about 2 bears per square mile.
Much more often than bears, deer were the ones causing the traffic jams. They were all your typical white-tailed deer, but they were considerably less afraid of humans than usual and there were mountains in the background. These factors, of course, made taking a picture a necessity. Thus, traffic jams ensued.

A White-tailed Deer buck.

Sadly, much of the fun ended there. Most of my family members woke up sick on Saturday morning and so we weren't able to do any more hiking. But that didn't stop us from driving up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee.
Clingman's Dome, because it's so high, has an ecosystem very similar to that of the northern boreal forest. The drive from the foot of the mountain to Clingman's Dome has been compared to 'a drive from Georgia to Maine'. The altitude is the reason that the Smokies are the southernmost breeding grounds for many northern species of birds like Black-capped Chickadee, Common Raven, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Pine Siskin.

Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to see any of these birds. But I did get to admire the ecological anomaly that is Clingman's Dome. And I took pictures!

On Sunday none of my family felt like doing more than sitting around and blowing their noses. So we stayed at our cabin and watched Marvel movies.
Monday was our drive home. We made pretty good time for a bunch of half-awake sick people. 
And now we're at home trying to get better and waiting for summer. I hope to 'see' you guys again soon! Thanks for reading.


1 comment:

  1. I just found your blog… pretty cool! I really liked the Florida post.
    That siskin though… it's tail is pretty long, and appears to be lacking in streaking. I'm not positive, but it just looks off for a siskin! Maybe a mockingbird?



Feedback is much appreciated. Thanks for leaving a comment!