By Kayla Bott
Overlooking North Carolina and Tennessee on the top of Big Bald, the Appalachian Trail winds its way through some of the highest points in both states. Throughout migration season, the bald provides views of hawks and other raptors soaring on thermal air pockets created by the rising temperatures of the day. Down on nearby Little Bald, flurries of warblers and resident birds forage in the early morning and evening, resting during the hot days to take off southward again through the night. When the songbirds depart at twilight, the insects and owls take the stage, creating a whole new universe on the same plateau.
“Grassy balds are considered to be a rare and threatened community type due to their unique characteristics and biological diversity,” says Mark Hopey, director of the nonprofit Southern Appalachian Raptor Research (SARR) and lead bander at Big Bald Banding Station (BBBS). “In North Carolina, Big Bald is a registered Natural Heritage Area of national significance and is ranked as imperiled in our state and globally.”
In the valley between the balds, butterflies and dragonflies team in loose groups around patches of wildflowers dappling the landscape. Threatened plants more typical of northern climates grow freely, including trailing white monkshood (Aconitum reclinatum), three-toothed cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) and Roan Mountain rattlesnake root (Prenanthes roanensis). The rare Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus) and other mammals dart unseen through the dry, wavy grasses, munching on seeds and insects.
As the trail ascends the grassy dome of Little Bald, signs are posted to notify visitors they are approaching a biological study area for banding birds. High, wide, tiered nets are carefully strung on poles in paths between swaths of trees. Volunteers continuously weave through, checking the integrity of the nets and gathering any captured birds to be delivered to the table for examination and banding.
Much of environmental wildlife research requires diligent observation and careful measurement of various data points. The data gathered by banding goes far beyond that taken from sporadic population counts—providing the species, age, weight and condition of each bird. SARR data is taken daily (weather permitting) from the end of August through October and then compiled to assess the overall health and migrational patterns of our yearly visitors. Banding includes songbirds, raptors and the elusive resident Northern Saw-whet Owls (Aegolius acadicus).
“Birds are an integral part of all ecosystems,” says Tedi McManus, SARR board member and director of the Vacation Bird School (VBS) program. “By monitoring bird populations, scientists are able to infer the condition of other species in the ecosystem as well, thereby alerting them to the need to take action when numbers decline.”
BBBS has been monitoring the health of songbirds for nearly 40 years. The project was originally established by residents of the Wolf Laurel community, Cleo and the late Dr. George Mayfield of Columbia, Tennessee. Their enthusiasm for birds and bird-related education provided the foundation for what is now an annual volunteer-staffed project.
“BBBS definitely brings about a greater awareness of birds as indicators for overall habitat health,” says Rebecca Pearson, SARR board member and the Mayfields’ daughter. She grew up interacting with wildlife closely along with her parents and now continues the tradition by bringing her own children to volunteer with BBBS annually. “Participation in the banding program inspires a new generation of citizen scientists and gets people involved with environmentalism on a broader spectrum than just recycling at home.”
The station also serves as an educational resource for area students and visitors of all ages. BBBS welcomes everyone from local school groups to volunteers to passing hikers, making a positive effect on everyone whose path it crosses. This is why the VBS program was founded.
“Children who visit BBBS typically express such excitement when viewing a wild bird up-close and releasing it back into the wild,” says McManus. “We wanted to build on that experience by increasing children’s understanding of local birds, their habitats and the impact we all have on them. Our hope is that by engaging students and volunteers in the study of birds, they will strive to be responsible stewards of the earth.”