Mountain Birding

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring — these are some of the rewards of the simple life.

~John Burroughs

A few short days after the Ohio birding trip, I joined a museum-sponsored trip to our mountains to look for birds. I had gone as an assistant on this trip 4 years ago, but was a participant this time (Melissa was helping out and driving the museum bus). This trip, Mountain Birding, fills every spring, with many people going multiple times over the years. It is greatly enhanced by the presence of one or two of the museum’s ornithologists and their extraordinary knowledge of the birds of our state and their birding skills in the field.

Bobolink pasture

Bobolink meadow (click photos to enlarge)

As on my previous trip, the first stop was a meadow not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Several years ago, a flock of bobolinks was documented using this field. The farmer was approached and a deal struck to have him delay mowing the pasture until the birds had finished nesting. That deal has proven favorable to the birds and they have been a regular fixture here since. As we walked up to view the field below, we could see several males giving chase to one of the duller-colored females.


Male bobolink surveying his domain

The males like to sit atop prominent perches, singing, and on the lookout for females and rival males. Male bobolinks are boldly patterned in black and white with a half-tone straw-colored head during the breeding season. The Cornell web site suggests some observers describe the males as a bird wearing a tuxedo, but backwards. By fall, the males will molt to more closely resemble the females. These birds nest in the tall grasses, much like their cousins, the red-winged blackbirds, that were also abundant here.

Bobolink in flihgt

He takes flight to chase a female

We watched them for well over a half hour as they chased, sang, and hid in the grasses. An Eastern meadowlark with a nearby nest provided another observation challenge during this time, as she brought a large clump of food (a grub perhaps?) to her nestlings.

warbler neck

Warbler neck is a common affliction in our mountains

The next morning we were up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Boone, on a trail around Trout Lake, scanning the trees for warblers. Warbler neck is much more of a hazard in our mountains while warbler watching than it was on our Ohio birding trip. I carried my 500mm lens, but wasn’t expecting much that could compete with the success of the Ohio outing (with a smaller lens). At day’s end, I was pleasantly surprised at a few of the portraits…

Black-thrpoated blue warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

Chestnut-sided warbler singing in NC 1

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

American redtstart female on nest

Female American redstart forming nest

We soon spotted an American redstart building its nest in a rhododendron next to the road. The museum ornithologists recorded the location as there is little known about this species nesting habits in our state. The nest looked to be about 10 feet high in an upright fork of the thick vegetation of a shrub, making a photo very challenging.

Wild geranium

Wild geranium

We moved at a slow pace, taking time to listen and look for birds. That also gave me time to look around and appreciate some of the other beauties along the trails.

mating ladybugs

Mating ladybug beetles

moth in pileated feeding area

A moth looks like a hole in some exposed wood

On a short walk after lunch, we discovered a nest of an Eastern phoebe under a foot bridge (one of their favorite nesting locations is on the supports of bridges and roof beams of outdoor buildings). Walking through a rhododendron thicket proved a nice bit of post-lunch exercise, but not too productive for birds. But, there was a snag that had been riddled by pileated woodpeckers digging for insects. As I looked over the damage, I noticed what looked like an unusual hole in the exposed wood. It turned out to be the dark shape of a moth – one of the bark mimic zale moths I think.

solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

cedar waxwing 1

Cedar waxwing eating aphids

That afternoon, we drove down to the picturesque area known as Valle Crucis, and walked along a trail at their community park. The name of the town is Latin for “Vale of the Cross,” a reference to a valley in the area where three streams converge to form a shape similar to a cross. The park provides a variety of habitats from grasses, to woodland edges, to a marshy pool , all situated along the Watauga River. Highlights included plenty of red-winged blackbirds, tree and barn swallows, a yellow warbler, cedar waxwings, a lone solitary sandpiper (I know, redundant), and nests of a Baltimore oriole and a least flycatcher.

sunset on BR Parkway

Sunset on the Parkway

sunset on BR Parkway pano

A view looking east at sunset

After dinner, we drove back up on the Parkway to enjoy a splendid sunset.

Rich Mountaoin Gap

Rich Mountain Gap

Our final morning proved to be my favorite. This is my third visit to the area around Elk Knob State Park, and it is proving to be a place I want to return to again and again. The peaks here are geologically different than most in the rest of the state, being composed of amphibolite. The unique geology weathers to a more basic soil which gives the region an unusual blend of plant communities. But, the birds quickly grabbed our attention when we got off the bus at Rich Mountain Gap.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

American goldfinches were flitting back and forth across the gravel road, perching in prominent spots for a nice photo op.

Song sparrow with food

Song sparrow taking food to its nestlings

A snog sparrow ferried food to a hidden nest in the grasses not far from the road.

Song sparrow with food close up

Beak-full of bugs for hungry mouths

On one trip, her beak was crammed with what looked like a family of true bug nymphs plucked from a nearby leaf.


Raven fly-by

A group of three ravens winged their way by us, causing everyone to look up to observe their distinctive flight patterns and croaks.

Pine siskin singing

Pine siskin singing

A lone pine siskin made an appearance in a nearby buckeye tree, and was soon joined by a species we all sought…

Golden-winged warbler

The elusive golden-winged warbler

This area around Elk Knob is one of the last strongholds in our state for a tiny beauty, the golden-winged warbler. These diminutive ground-nesters have suffered one of the steepest declines of any songbird in the last 50 years. This has prompted researchers and conservationists to increase efforts to learn more about this species and develop plans for reversing this declining population trend.

Golden-winged warbler singing

Golden-winged warbler singing with a field sparrow apparently listening

This male gave our group plenty of great looks, including some singing, before disappearing into the thickets.

Large-flowered trillium

Large-flowered trillium


A sea of bluets

Our lunch break was at nearby Elk Knob State Park and included time to appreciate some of the beautiful wild flowers in bloom.



We also got great views of a veery and a rose-breasted grosbeak in the picnic area.

Blue-hesded vireo at nest

Blue-headed vireo at its nest

My favorite find at Elk Knob was a nest under construction by a pair of blue-headed vireos at the start of the backpackers trail. We heard one singing, and then followed it as it flew into an overhanging sapling adjacent to the trail head. I quickly discovered it was building a nest, a most unusual-looking one. In between visits by the pair of birds we crept in and got a closer look. The nest included  a substantial amount of discarded tissue paper. Hopefully, it won’t disintegrate in the rains this week.

Blue-hesded vireo

Pair of blue-headed vireos working on their tp nest

Formerly part of a complex of birds known as the solitary vireo, it has since been split into three separate species, with blue-headed vireos being the one found in the East. The group walked on down the trail and I hung around next to a nearby tree trunk to photograph the birds as they went back and forth bringing in new nest material, mostly lichens, a few bark strips, and some unidentifiable fluff. With each visit, the bird would place the item onto the nest, pull and tug to secure it, and often push down with its body to help form the cup. As with most vireos, the nest was suspended from a fork in a branch, and probably attached with spider web silk.

Blue-hesded vireo 2

Sizing me up

After a couple of minutes, one of the birds came close to investigate me, and, after it left, I moved on, not wanting to alarm them. From a distance, I could see them busily continuing their work after I left. Here’s hoping their proximity to the trail causes them no undue disturbance in the coming weeks. It was a great trip, with lots of sightings, good people, and new knowledge. I can see why it is so popular.

8 thoughts on “Mountain Birding

  1. Oh what lovely birds, lovely shots, some just beautiful pictures in their own right, but so many different winged ones I never see here–except the goldfinch, got those! Thanks for so many great sights. And lady bugs–that was how I learned as a child about the birds and bees–and beetles!

  2. Now you’ve (again) gotten over to our part of the state, Mike. We used to cross the ridge down into Trade, TN on the way home. We’ll be staying near Lansing for Sheila’s 50th HS reunion soon, so thanks for more education on what to search out.

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