Chapter of the Month

Chapter of the Month: Highlands Plateau Audubon- A Golden-winged Spring

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 Highlands Plateau Audubon Society. HPAS board member and conservation committee chair Kyle Pursel accompanied a grant recipient as she researched Golden-winged Warblers in Western North Carolina. Read on to see what they found!

Spring is in the air, evident by the increasing number of bird songs chiming each morning. Here in Western North Carolina, spring means enjoying an abundance of warblers!

One of our more prized species is the Golden-winged Warbler (GWWA).

GWWA by Todd Arcos.

Recently, the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society awarded a grant to Jamie Harrelson, a graduate student at Western Carolina University, to support her research of these beautiful and endangered birds. In early April, I joined Jamie to scope out some potential monitoring sites.

Jamie’s project is working to assess known and potential GWWA nesting sites, and to look at how male aggression relates to population density and habitat quality. Her work will help fill in the information holes for where this species can be found in our area, as well as understanding critical aspects about their behavior and how it relates to their surroundings.

For this trip, we focused on the Rainbow Springs region of the upper Nantahala River. Regardless of whether your pleasure is birds, plants, salamanders, or scenery, a day in the upper Nantahala is a day of wonder and beauty.

There have been scattered records of GWWA sightings throughout this area, and it is a beautiful section of the upper Nantahala, with a largely wild river cutting through peaks ranging well above 4,000 feet. Rainbow Springs is known for having a large number of intact wetlands, with a large serpentine barrens complex, and one of access locations for the Appalachian Trail, the Standing Indian campground.

We started our search in the Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens. This serpentine barrens system is a highly unusual and unique place. Think of this as an oak/pitch-pine savannah in the middle of the more typical and dense Southern Appalachian oak-hickory forests. While much of the Barrens have too many pines, there are patches that look very promising! We saw and heard Eastern Towhees, Carolina Chickadees and Blue-headed Vireos, as well as what appeared to be a black racer.

From there, we moved on to a few wetland sites. Towhees, Chickadees and the songs of Vireos again greeted us. It was still too early in the year, and late in the day, for much else to grace our ears.

Our effort yielded some promising sites and we at HPAS wish Jamie much luck with her study as the warblers begin their return!

GWWA by Todd Arcos.

GWWAs have been declining throughout their range, and are considered to be habitat specialists, preferring to breed in areas where there is a specific mix of grassy fields and hardwood forest edges. Due to their increasing rarity, this species has become a priority conservation target for both Audubon and the state of North Carolina. Visit Audubon NC to learn more about the conservation efforts to understand and protect this mountain beauty.

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

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