Amphibolite mountains in wintertime

Rime ice on Three Top Mountain by Ida Phillips

This month’s featured IBA is the Amphibolite Mountains in the northwest corner of North Carolina.  This area of high elevation forests, balds, small farms, and other specialty habitats is a globally significant site of Golden-winged Warblers, a species that is near and dear to my heart (and one you will hear a lot more about this month).  But Golden-wingeds aren't the only species of concern here. With small remnants of spruce forest in Long Hope Valley, high elevation northern hardwood forest spread across more than a dozen major and minor peaks, the Amphibolites have an amazing diversity of species including Vesper Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Canada Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and many others.

The Amphibolites IBA lies between Boone and West Jefferson and includes the high peaks as well as the western slopes (where much of the globally significant population of Golden-winged Warblers occurs).

And just is “amphibolite” anyway?  This odd name refers to the geology of this chain of peaks.  Comprised mainly of Amphibolite Gneiss, this geology creates more basic soils than most of the rest of the Blue Ridge, which tend to have high acid soils.  This more neutral pH creates a lot of interesting micro sites for a wide diversity of plants, making the whole range one of the best places in the state to look for Gray’s Lily.  This plant diversity reaches it  zenith in Long Hope Valley with over 500 species identified and still counting.  This state significant natural area is one of the top five plant diversity hotspots in the southern Appalachians, according to NC Natural Heritage Program staff.

Of course, most of those plants and about 75% of the birds that are found in the Amphibolites are dormant or not there in the winter months.  But the rugged scenery, extreme weather, and interesting winter residents and migrants make it a great place to visit, even in winter.  A regular spot for wintering Golden Eagles, the high balds can also have Snow Bunting, Horned Lark and others (although quite rarely seen).  A nice hike in the snow and ice up to the top of Elk Knob at Elk Knob State Park can yield Dark-eyed Juncos, Common Ravens, Red-tailed Hawk, and hardy mixed flocks of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Hairy Woodpeckers. Elk Knob State Park also hosts a few breeding pairs of Northern Saw-whet Owls, a little atypical, given the lack of conifers on the mountain proper.  Most of these birds are probably near their birthplace over in Long Hope Valley, which hosts several pairs in its spruce forests.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are common in the Amphibolites IBA. Photo by Don Mullaney

So this month we will be featuring the Amphibolites, a mountain range with a strange name but high diversity.

Vesper Sparrows are a common breeder in the grasslands at higher elevations in the Amphibolite mountains.

 -- Curtis Smalling

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