Chapter of the Month

Chapter of the Month: Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society- Important Bird Areas

Audubon North Carolina has 10 amazing chapters across the state who help put a local focus on bird preservation and conservation issues. In this special blog series, we’ll focus on a chapter each month to learn more about their history, what they are working on, and to increase the statewide understanding of special ecosystems and habitats. Each month will include a series of posts about each chapter including a post from our biologists that will share a unique research project that is happening in the chapter’s geographic footprint.

This month, we get to know the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society Read on to learn more about our chapter serving Asheville.

Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society IBAs

Audubon North Carolina’s Important Bird Area (IBA) Program is a global effort to identify and conserve areas that are vital to bird populations and to biodiversity. IBA’s can be classified as sites for breeding, wintering grounds, or stopovers for migrating birds. By working with local chapters, landowners, public agencies, community groups and other nonprofits, Audubon NC aims to activate a broad network of supporters to ensure that all IBA’s are properly managed and conserved.

The Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society (EMAS) leads its conservation effort across a sizeable, diverse portion of western North Carolina, including urban hotspots like Asheville, and rural tourist-friendly getaways such as Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway. As part of the society’s mission to preserve and protect wildlife and natural ecosystems, EMAS is closely involved in the care and maintenance of three Important Bird Areas — Plott Balsam Mountains, Black and Great Craggy Mountains and Bull Creek. These three IBA’s provide essential protection for numerous bird and plant species specific to high elevation habitats.

Plott Balsam Mountains

The Plott Balsam IBA stretches across 120,000 acres of beautiful, mountainous Northern hardwood forests, spruce-fir forest and bogs along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As part of the southern Appalachian Mountains, this Important Bird Area covers several popular, highly trafficked hiking and rafting destinations, as well as several federally protected expanses of wilderness.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

These ecosystems provide excellent homes for high-elevation species such as the Red Crossbill, Black-throated Blue Warbler and Brown Creeper. It is also among the state’s most important sites for Alder Flycatcher, Black-capped Chickadee and Red-breasted Nuthatch. The Northern Saw-whet Owl, a nearly entirely nocturnal species, is also a staple of this habitat. During daylight hours, members of this owl family can be found roosting quietly in dense foliage and at these times, according to the National Audubon Society, the birds have been discovered to be so extraordinarily tame that one may approach or even handle them!

Much of the lower-elevation forests within the Plott Balsam mountain range have endured severe damage from aggressive logging practices. Acid rain, meanwhile, continues to pose a threat to the high-elevation, spruce-fir forests in the region, weakening the trees and making them susceptible to the balsam wooly adelgid, small wingless insects that infest and kill firs. Widespread private development has also proven to be of significant detriment to the flora and fauna species that call the mountains home.

In order to plan fitting conservation tactics for the Plott Balsam Mountains, bird populations are monitored through annual bird counts conducted by Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society volunteers and Carolina Field Birders. Additionally, the National Park Service conducts regular Northern Saw-whet surveys to ensure their continued wellbeing.

Black and Great Craggy Mountains

Encompassing nearly 100,000 acres of high-elevation forests above 4,505 feet, the Black and Great Craggy Mountains in Buncombe and Yancey counties may be the highest IBA of Audubon North Carolina. Sitting just northeast of Asheville, the key feature in this IBA is Mount Mitchell, which, rising 6,690 feet from sea level is the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi River. Six peaks within the Black Mountains have elevations over 6,004 feet. The site is one of the most significant examples of high-elevation forest and natural communities in the southern Appalachians. Portions of the Important Bird Area are within the Pisgah National Forest, Mount Mitchell State Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which affords the lands some degree of official protection from the state and federal governments.

The greatest threat to the abundant spruce-fir forests in this IBA is acid rain. The high acidity of the rain weakens the bark of the trees, thereby making them susceptible to disease and invasive pests. Poor air quality is also likely impacting the trees’ abilities to efficiently utilize essential nutrients. Changes in the forest caused by acid rain and insect infestation have resulted in the outright disappearance of certain bird species, like the Black-throated Green Warbler, from some areas, while it may also possibly cause increases in others, such as the Hermit Thrush, due to the increased food supply. This deluge of Hermit Thrush to the region is a welcome surprise for resident and visitors, as the birds’ call is often considered the most beautiful of any North American bird. But don’t take our word for it, decide for yourself by listening here:!

Hermit Thrush

The Black and Craggy mountain ranges hold a wonderful diversity of wildlife; to date, ninety-one species of nesting birds have been recorded. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Common Raven, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Blue-headed Vireo
all boast significant numbers at this site. This IBA is one of the few places where Hermit Thrushes occur during the breeding season. In recent years, multiple singing Swainson’s Thrushes have also been observed by local birdwatchers.

Bull Creek

Cerulean Warbler

Home to one of North Carolina's most significant populations of Cerulean Warblers, Bull Creek is a 5-mile section of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville that runs from Lane Pinnacle Overlook to Craven Gap. The elevation within this 5,000-acre IBA varies from 3,100 feet along the parkway to about 3,806 feet on the upper slopes of Swan Mountain and Bull Mountain. The area is full of mixed hardwood forests replete with tulip poplar, oak, hickory and locust trees. NC Birding Trail describes this portion of the Parkway as one of the best mid-elevation places to bird-watch near Asheville.

Loss of important habitats to logging, and residential or commercial development is a primary threat and key issue to Bull Creek. Cerulean Warblers are of high concern for conservationists due to its small total population size and significant declines in the past several years. The species has been actively considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society volunteer, Charlotte Goedsche, has been monitoring the local population of Cerulean Warblers since 2000. In 2006, she began using individual recording and analysis to determine territory boundaries. Audubon North Carolina also established point count locations within the Important Bird Area in 2006. This area is included in a portion of a Breeding Bird Survey route and the Buncombe County Christmas Bird Count circle.

Numerous other neotropical species breed here as well, including many priority species, and the site is especially ideal for the dashing Blackburnian Warbler and striking Hooded Warbler.

Become an IBA VIP

Do you know of an area in North Carolina that deserves “Important Bird Area” status? Let us know! The IBA Program is always open to tips on identifying sites essential to the health of NC bird communities. Once identified, we would also love your support in monitoring bird counts within IBAs. Bird watchers of ALL levels are encouraged to participate. For more information on how you can help safeguard North Carolina bird populations for generations to come, please visit:

Audubon North Carolina oversees statewide conservation projects year-round. To donate to this and other efforts protecting birds, click here.

How you can help, right now