April marks a transcendent influx of winged migrants across our diverse mountain habitats. As temperatures rise and insects begin to buzz, warblers, vireos, finches, thrushes and tanagers descend after long journeys across the Atlantic, some from as far as Central and South America. Many of these birds rely heavily on a diet of insects, unlike the residential birds that can be seen throughout the year attending feeders.
“Warblers are often considered the gems of North American birdlife and over 40 species pass through Western North Carolina during the year,” says Simon Thompson, world-traveled bird expert of The Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society and owner of Ventures Birding Tours in Asheville. Beginning in late March and continuing throughout April and May, these annual residents and passing migrants will flaunt vibrant colors and varying vocalizations.
“What is really astounding is that 27 of these mostly neotropical migrants choose to breed in our western counties,” says Thompson. “This is due to the vast tracts of forest that blanket much of the land along with the range in elevations from 1,000 feet in the foothills to over 6,000 feet in the mountains.”
These songbirds migrate at night, avoiding predation from migrating raptors on similar paths. They land in the early morning hours and immediately begin to forage and sing. As spring progresses, males begin to establish territories that will secure the best resources for breeding. During this time they sing loudly and consistently to gain the attention of arriving females and ward off competing males.
“A few places to look for warblers around the Asheville area are Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary, The Blue Ridge Parkway, The Biltmore Estate, French Broad River Greenway, Carrier Park, or anywhere along the French Broad River,” says Thompson. Since the best place to find warblers is anywhere with large, mature trees, they can even be found in neighborhoods like Montford or Kenilworth. They most commonly sing in the hours following sunrise, resting during the hottest parts of the afternoon and singing sporadically throughout the evening until sunset.
One of my personal favorite markers of the dawning of spring is hearing my first Black-and-white Warbler song. Birders usually refer to the main song of this warbler as a “squeaky wheel.” This, along with their plumage and tendency to creep along the main branches of trees, make them easy to find and identify. Other early April warblers to watch out for are Hooded, Worm-eating, American Redstart, Black-throated Green and Ovenbird.
Later in April come the Yellow, Golden-winged, Blackburnian and the declining Cerulean warbler, for which the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society along with Thompson have worked to conserve land from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Colombia’s Magdalena Valley. Visit the parkway and start listening for its “buzzy” song in late April to find this elusive animal.
The best way to familiarize yourself visually and audibly with the large variety of area birds is to spend as much time as possible outside and with local birders. A light pair of binoculars is also a very helpful tool. There are many opportunities to observe and learn more about warblers around Asheville. Regular events and walks are held by our local Audubon Society, Beaver Lake Sanctuary, Foothills Equestrian Nature Center and Ventures Birding Tours, just to name a few.
If you’re looking for a more hands-on approach, experienced tour guide and birder Aaron Steed will lead a Venture’s day trip at Stecoah Gap on Tuesday, April 25. The gap is sure to be teaming with many warblers and other colorful species including Indigo Buntings, American Goldfinches and Scarlet Tanagers.
For more information on upcoming events and where to go birding around Asheville, visit Ventures Birding Tours at birdventures.com/daytrips, Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society at emasnc.org, Foothills Equestrian Nature Center at fence.org/ calendar and The North Carolina Birding Trail Guide at ncbirdingtrail.org.