By Laura & Hal Mahan
We’re all familiar with the expression “snowbirds,” referring to folks who migrate to warmer weather to escape winter’s snow and drudgery. We have our own snowbirds here in the Blue Ridge Mountains—real birds that migrate each year. In fact, the Dark-eyed Junco, a bird that we see here at lower elevations in the winter, is also known as the snowbird. It leaves Asheville in the spring and heads not north but higher up in elevation to its nesting grounds in the mountains.
Most long-distance migrant birds are insect eaters that have evolved a pattern of nesting in northern climates where insects are plentiful during the summertime, providing an ample food supply for their young. As days shorten and temperatures drop in the fall, these birds leave us for warmer climes where the food supply is available. Both the springtime and fall migrations make exciting times for birdwatchers when opportunities occur for observing infrequent species that are just passing through.
Then there are those migrants that travel long distances and stay here all summer. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is one of our favorite summer-only residents, frequenting feeders with sugar-water, and making its tiny nest woven of lichens and spider-webs high in tree branches. It spends winters in Central America, south Florida and the Caribbean. Another favorite of ours is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which joins the hummingbirds far to the south. This relative of the Northern Cardinal gets its name from the beautiful triangle of bright rose-red on its breast, a spectacular sight at our sunflower feeder during the first week of May, soon to disappear into the woods to nest. Its song is one of the most beautiful, reminiscent of the American Robin’s “cheeriay, cheerio,” but much more sweet and melodic.
The most remarkable harbingers of spring, however, are the wood warblers. These small, insectivorous birds originated in Central America, spreading northward during the time periods between glaciers, and then returning south in the winter. The plumage of the males during the breeding season can be spectacular in some species. Birdwatchers delight in learning and re-learning their challenging song patterns each year. As you travel up the Blue Ridge Parkway in the summertime, one of the most common songs you will hear is that of the Chestnut-sided Warbler. Expressed phonetically and rhythmically, it sounds something like, “I come to see Miss Beecher.” Also listen for the Black-throated Green Warbler’s “Trees, trees, whispering trees.”
The pinnacle of warbler-viewing, though, must be the Blackburnian Warbler (see photograph), with its breathtaking bright orange throat, giving it its nickname of “fire throat.” Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, take a trip up the Parkway above 5,000 feet in elevation and look for a spot to park with tall spruce trees. Then listen for the Blackburnian’s very high pitched “zip, zip, zip, zip, titititi, tseeee,” as you scan the very tops of the trees. A good view of a Blackburnian Warbler is the thrill of a lifetime, and sure to turn a casual birdwatcher into a hardcore one!
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.