For the birds

Bird watching has long been a misunderstood hobby that left many of us wondering why anyone would spend their time and money rambling through the hills in search of Blackburnian warblers or rose-breasted grosbeaks when we can see birds all around us, every day of the year. It’s not like they’re hard to find; heck, one bad experience with the pigeons down at Pritchard Park can turn you off of birds for good.

But, as any genuine enthusiast will tell you, there’s nothing quite like the excitement of actually seeing that elusive species you’ve been chasing for years — or any special breed of bird, for that matter. You can hear it in the voices of the folks who get up early and head for the woods, scanning the skies and the trees for that one brief glimpse of their heart’s delight. And, here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rewards of the sport — particularly amid the magnificent autumn foliage — are nothing short of spectacular.

Now, about those myths…

Myth #1: Bird watching is strictly the preserve of the mild-mannered, surpassed only by stamp and butterfly collecting in offering edge-of-your-seat excitement.

Not really: Birding, while rarely a full-contact sport, is rougher than one might expect. Apart from the physical challenges of rough terrain, birding can be particularly tough on shoes, clothes and bare skin.

Not everyone, it seems, understands this. “I’ve had ladies come birding in four-inch heels,” recalls Sally L. Coburn with a laugh, adding, “I don’t think some people have any idea what to wear.” Coburn should know — she owns Everything for the Birds in Asheville, which sells assorted stuff a birder might need, such as binoculars and spotting scopes.

Myth #2: The only birds you’ll see in these parts are the usual ho-hum species that winter in the South.

Not necessarily: Hal Mahan — an adjunct professor of ornithology at UNCA and co-owner of The Compleat Naturalist in Biltmore Village — says, “The Blue Ridge Mountains are very special, because they have relic [bird] populations left over from nearly 10,000 years ago, when the mountains to the north were inundated with glaciers. The Blue Ridge Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world; the glaciers set up a climate here that is almost northern. For instance, at the top of the mountains, there are species of birds that you have to go very far north to see, like the saw-whet owl and the red crossbill.”

There are also birds in western North Carolina that you won’t find anywhere else between here and Maine, Mahan maintains. “The mountains have developed a kind of vegetation that is similar to the vegetation in Maine,” he explains. “Some birds, instead of migrating southward, migrate down the mountain. For instance, on Mount Mitchell, the black-capped chickadee, a northern bird at the top of the mountain, migrates to lower elevations at 3,000 feet.”

Myth #3: The best places to look for birds are the Parkway, the Parkway — and, of course, the Parkway.

Not particularly: Asheville and the surrounding areas are thick with great spots for birding. Yes, the Parkway is one of them — peregrine falcons can be seen at the Devil’s Courthouse, south along the Parkway, says Janene Donovan, president of the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, and also at Whiteside Mountain, near Cashiers. Mount Mitchell and Shining Rock Wilderness are fine for spying dark-eyed juncos and northern saw-whet owls — but there’s an abundance of other great birding places, too.

“Lake Lure and Chimney Rock Park are good,” advises Mahan, adding, “Biltmore Estate is particularly good for bluebirds, and also, the [North Carolina] Arboretum is a marvelous place — [their] Native Garden Trail is the best one for birding.”

Jackson Park in Hendersonville is a prime spot for spring warblers, notes Coburn, as are Lake Julian and Hooper Lane. “The areas around Warren Wilson College are also good,” she adds.

For birding in the city, though, everyone agrees: You simply cannot beat the Beaver Lake Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Beaver Lake, a four-acre lakefront in north Asheville, was purchased by the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society in 1988 for $400,000; throw in $100,000 worth of boardwalk, gazebo and environmental landscaping, and you have one of the region’s premier birding sites. Placed under a permanent conservation easement (which guarantees that it will never be developed), the park is the center of Asheville’s birding activity. Besides the regular bird walks, which begin at 9 a.m. the first Saturday of every month, the facility also hosts many other birding events. During September’s walk, several interesting species were spotted — including gray catbirds, American redstarts, yellow-throated warblers, and even a late-summer holdover, a warbling vireo.

Coburn also suggests that some of the best birding is done in “the farm country” — the backwoods areas where mixed habitats are plentiful. “But you can do quite a bit of field birding from the car,” she says, “and never have to get out.”

Myth #4: OK, so the Blue Ridge Mountains are good for land birds. But water birds? Forget it!

Not exactly: “Two weeks ago, at Lake Powhatan,” enthuses Mahan, “my group saw a purple sandpiper, which is usually only along the coast, this time of year.” Weather patterns, he says, do a lot to determine fall migrations, and can even blow birds off course.

The Beaver Lake Sanctuary is also excellent for water birds, which are just now coming in from the north. A recent count by Audubon “Birdathoners” at Beaver Lake noted 60 different species. Look for pied-billed grebes, American coots, and herons (both great blue and green).

And, later in the year, Coburn adds, “We’ll get some loons.”

Myth #5: Bird books are all alike.

Not entirely: It’s essential that you have the proper field guide. Mahan’s favorite is Roger Tory Peterson’s classic Field Guide to the Birds (Houghton Mifflin, 1998); Coburn’s book of choice, however, is Marcus B. Simpson Jr.’s Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains (University of North Carolina Press, 1992). Donovan, on the other hand, favors Birds of North America, by Robbins, Bruun and Zim (Golden Press, 1983).

To learn more about The Compleat Naturalist, call Hal or Laura Mahan at 274-5430; for more about Everything for the Birds, call Sally L. Coburn at 645-3938; for info on the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, call Janene Donovan at 253-7395. Special thanks to Dayna Feist.

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