Important Bird Areas

A Spring Audubon Outing on the Ranger Falls Trail

North Carolina has 96 Important Bird Areas across the state that support wildlife in very special ways while offering a recreational playground for birds and people alike. In this special blog series, each of Audubon North Carolina’s 10 chapters will take a walk through their IBAs to give readers a glimpse of what can be enjoyed in our own backyards.

Please welcome guest-bloggers from the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society.

The Highlands Plateau has long been known as a unique place for birds.  The southern terminus of the higher elevation parts of the Appalachians, the Highlands Plateau hosts a wide variety of high elevation and northern species that reach their southern limit of distribution here.  In the cool hemlock and white pine stands of the plateau, birds normally found up in the spruce fir forest find their homes here.  Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Red Crossbill all call the Plateau home.  Mixed with them are a variety of wood warblers like Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, and Canada Warblers.  Veery, Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak help round out the list of 90 or so breeding species on the Highlands Plateau.

Blue-headed Vireo. Credit William McReynolds.

It was a cool, but sunny, spring morning, as 11 of our members of the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society joined Dr. Rob Bierregaard and eight of his eager college students for a walk along the Ranger Falls Trail.

It was mid-May, and many exciting birding events were taking place. For example, the neotropical migrants were back on territory, and many of those bird species that overwintered on the Highlands Plateau were already feeding their young. It was no accident that Dr. Bierregarrd chose May 12- 24, 2014 for an intensive course on the “Biology and Conservation of Birds”, because birding in the Southern Appalachians does not get much better than this!

Dr. Rob Bierregaard listening for a vireo. Photo by William McReynolds.

The course was held at the Highlands Biological Station in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Formerly a faculty member of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Dr. Beirregarrd is a renowned ornithologist, teacher, and lecturer. On the day of the walk, however, he was lugging along a large parabolic dish and audio recording device for archiving bird vocalizations at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Trillium. Photo by William McReynolds.

The Ranger Falls Trail, located in the Highlands Plateau Important Bird Area that encompasses the towns of Highlands and Cashiers, is recognized as a North Carolina Birding Trail The trail delivered on its promise of amazing birding, as we could hear and see Hooded Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Robins and, predictably, Chesnut-sided Warblers before even leaving the parking lot of the ranger station. The excitement continued as the hike began, as one of the students suddenly stopped the group to point out the drumming of a Ruffed Grouse. The flora was also a sight to see, as Catesby’s Trilliums, Violets, Pink Lady Slippers and wild strawberries bloomed along the edge of the trail.

There were also a few pleasant surprises along the way. In the cavity nest at the top of an old oak snag, Russ Regnery, the Chapter President, spotted a pair of Red-Breasted Nuthatches that were busy shuttling food to their brood. All of us watched the tender scene and listened to the sounds of local White-breasted Nuthatches that followed.

We also learned about the nuances of bird vocalizations throughout the hike. For example, as the birders listened to the call of an Eastern Towhee, Dr. Bierregaard explained that the first part of its call, known as the “Drink your tea” call, is an attention getting noise that identifies it as a Towhee. The remaining part of the call, the “tea-a-a-a-a,” is more complicated and perhaps identifies the specific bird. This pattern is apparently true of many bird songs and vocalizations.

Pink Lady's Slipper. Photo by William McReynolds.

When birds were not being discussed, the naturalists of the group shared information about lichens, the American Chestnut and the Fraser Magnolia that were encountered along the trail. As we descended further down the Ranger Falls path, the Canada Warbler’s complex call could be heard in the rhododendrons. By the end of the trip, Brown Creepers, Golden-crowed Kinglets, Black-throated Blue Warblers and Black and White Warblers were among the thirty-five species identified. All in all, it was a great outing on a beautiful birding trail in the mountains. The only thing we had left to do was to leave Cliffside Lake, deep in the Callasaja Gorge, and hike our way back to the oranger station parking lot to where we left our vehicles!

A Brown Thrasher. Photo by William McReynolds.

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