Important Bird Areas

A Spring Stroll in the Smokies

Please welcome guest-blogger Esther Blakely. The GSMAS territory includes eight counties that border the Great Smoky Mountains including Haywood, Clay, Jackson, Macon, Graham, Madison, Cherokee and Swain counties in Western North Carolina.   

“Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The park was established in 1934 and encompasses more than 200,000 ha (494,211 acres) of contiguous and relatively undisturbed forest in both states, making it the largest such forest in the eastern United States.” National Audubon Society

Fifty shades of green greeted me on a beautiful day in May in one of the most beautiful parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cataloochee Valley. Because of its remote location, Cataloochee Valley may not be easy to reach, but it is definitely hard to forget. As I began my trek down the Cataloochee Divide trail, birds like Indio Buntings, Chestnut-sided Warblers and Blackburnian Warblers serenaded me with their birdsongs.

 Each step along the divide trail, which is elevated at almost 5,000 feet, brought a different species of wildflower including: Speckled Wood Lily, Yellow Mandarin, Jack in the Pulpit, Vasey’s Trillium and Indian Cucumber.

To conclude my walk, I drove into Cataloochee Valley with a stop at the Cataloochee Overlook. I was witness to vast, stunning views of the national park, but a quick glimpse of a Magnolia Warbler was a special treat.

 The next stop on my journey to Cataloochee Valley was Mull Meadow, where I saw elk, bears, birds and deer! Early that evening, I watched from my car as a herd of 20 elk emerged from the forest.  I also observed two Eastern Phoebes feeding near a small stream and three White-tailed Deer munching on new blackberry bush leaves.

I proceeded farther down the Valley road and had my first bear sighting of the season as a momma black bear and her cub ventured out for an evening stroll too. As the mother was a careful one, she did not allow herself and her cub to get close enough to me for a photo.

As daylight faded, I realized it was time to head over to the mountain.

Although it is a challenge to reach Cataloochee Valley even on a good day, the rewards are great. Common sightings include Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkeys and Barred Owls. Soon, flocks of Cedar Waxwings will arrive and they can be found near the Caldwell House.

I thank you kindly for giving me the opportunity to share this beautiful part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park IBA. Please remember to practice responsible and ethical wildlife viewing practices.

Esther Blakely has a thing for birds, wildlife and wildflowers. Her enthusiasm on these topics is contagious. Her walks in the woods have guests laughing, crying and pondering. They may return from the treks hungry and thirsty, but they become sated with knowledge and lore of the Great Smoky Mountains. Esther is a master naturalist, elk expert and certified interpretative presenter for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the year, you can find her leading hikes and eco-tours in Cataloochee Valley. Her business, Cataloochee Valley Tours, holds an authorizing permit from the National Park Service.

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