A river of Warblers along the Blue Ridge

Published 12:12 am Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Early fall in the North Carolina Mountains is always exciting and gives us an early taste of what is hopefully ahead of us over the next few weeks. The weather is usually unpredictable as the cold fronts pass over us bringing rain, wind and unstable conditions.

On Labor Day a group of us decided to have a dawn biding picnic high atop the Blue Ridge to get a look at early fall migration and get a quick “warbler fix” prior to the onset of fall migration. Most of us were in situ as dawn broke beyond the foothills of Mt. Mitchell. Ridges of a deep indigo blue appeared as the horizon started to appear out of the dawn and clouds strung out to the horizon and as the sun broke through a palate of pinks, reds and oranges swept across the sky. It was spectacular.

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The clouds carpeted the valley below Ridge Junction Overlook, but we were up in the clear. As we sipped our first cup of coffee, the first warblers were streaming through the pass. This gap in the mountains has always been reliable for fall warbler migration and today was no exception. After a brief pause to enjoy fresh blueberry pancakes, fresh fruit and a delicious casserole, we positioned ourselves at the lip of the mountain, trying to catch glimpses of the birds in the early morning light.

The warblers came through the gap in waves. Small groups of birds materialized seemingly out of thin air and either sped by over our heads only to disappear from view, or plunged headlong into the dense green shrubbery at our feet. Call notes gave them away as they passed overhead or fed feverishly in the bushes, and we just quietly stood there waiting for a glimpse of the tiny travelers. Tiny olive-green birds were Tennessee Warblers. They were on their way from the northern boreal forests of Canada and the US to winter south of the border in the Central American mountains. Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Green Warblers were also common, with a high number of immature and adult birds passing through. Blackburnian Warblers, faded from their fire-orange summer colors, paused at the lip and gave us just a glimpse of them before they flew past, and many striking Black-throated Blues uttered quiet chip notes as they fed below us before their trans-Caribbean crossing to Jamaica. Baltimore Orioles were also coming through today and at one stage three males perched atop a spruce tree; their orange and black feathers gleaming in the morning sunshine.

It was a morning to remember and a brief insight into the frenetic life that these birds live. Young birds, fresh out of the nest, were heading south to a place they had never been. Millions of years of hereditary and instinct led them south to their ancestral home in the tropics, and we saw them for just a split second that day high in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Certainly a cause for reflection as we lead our lives, often insulated from the natural world around us, and yes, one more thing. It was certainly well worth getting up at 5 a.m. to see the sun crest one of the Blue Ridge’s many mountain ridges.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 20 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. WWW.birdventures.com

He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at www.asheville.wbu.com