“On The Road”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are 38 species of Wood Warblers that can be seen in the eastern portion of the United States, excluding hybrids like the Lawrence’s, Brewster’s and Sutton’s Warblers. And let’s all exclude all of the western species that might stray into our eastern region for whatever reason other than to drive birders crazy. During migration both in the Spring and fall it’s not uncommon to be able to tick off over 20 species in a day, especially at migrant traps such as along the Lake Erie shore. However there are certain species that aren’t that easy to find because either they’re a rare bird to begin with, or because of the habitats they frequent and their habits,which make locating them real difficult. And such was the case this last 4th of July weekend.

For a couple of years now I’ve been standing at 37 species of Wood warblers for my life list. And you’d be correct in thinking that I’m missing something like a Kirtland’s warbler, or Connecticut Warbler, or even a Worm-eating Warbler. And you’d be correct in that assumption. Kirtland’s Warbler are very much a habitat specific species, however if you drove to the Jack Pine stands of northern Michigan in the Spring you’d probably hear them, if not actually see them on their breeding grounds. Now the Connecticut and Worm-eating Warblers are those ground feeding foragers that are mostly found sifting through leaves and other forest debris trying to locate food. These residents of the thick and tangled under-brush are super difficult to find as well. However these birds have already been checked off my “Life List”. So which bird am I talking about? That famous skulker of the southern canebrakes and rhododendron thickets, who’s loud ringing song is probably the only reason they know of it’s existence, the Swainson’s Warbler.

So this last Thursday after I got off work, my youngest son Ethan picked me up in front of work for our 5 hour drive to The Great Smoky Mountains. True, one of the reasons for going was to find this bird, but also to to visit my oldest son David who is working as an Environmental Educator at The Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont for the summer. He’s been wanting us to come for a visit and the 4th of July weekend turned out to be the best for the both of us. And David has a friend named Tiffany who’s one of the resident scientists who’s studying the Louisiana Waterthrush at the Institute. You see Walker Valley, where Tremont is located, has an unusually high concentration of Louisiana Waterthrush, so she’s a natural choice to pick her brain on where to find a Swainson’s Warbler. And she knew exactly where to find them. So hopes were to find this bird early enough in the weekend so I could visit with David and do things other than birding with him. Like hiking! And even with sore knees and a missing portion of my lung, I love to hike.

On the way from Townsend Tennessee where I had rented a beautiful cabin I was to meet up with David at Tremont. I don’t think I can explain in words how beautiful this short drive back to Tremont is. It’s kind of remote, and off the beaten path, where River Otters are seen regularly in the stream that cascades besides the road as you drive in.

David tells me that the trail head we need to find is for Schoolhouse Gap Trail. It’s accessed by following the road that takes you back to Cades Cove. And if you’ve ever been to the Smokies before, you’ve probably heard of Cades Cove. And on a typical holiday weekend you’d expect the usual traffic jams as drivers look at deer and a occasional Black Bear, but we headed out early enough to avoid all that mess.


Being so early when we arrived we had the whole, rather large parking lot to ourselves. I found out later that the reason it’s so large is that the trail doubles as a bridle trail. It needs to accommodate the horse trailers and the larger trucks that pull them. So the trail is rather wide, enough for 3 people to walk abreast, and not too rocky as most of the other trails are.

I love how surreal a forest is in the morning. Quiet, damp, close, with only the sounds of running water and an occasional Hooded Warbler calls from high up.

IMG_0671Rhododendrons were in full bloom in these low valleys

IMG_0670I can’t remember the last time I was here when the Rhododendrons were in bloom. So I took lots of pictures of them for my own use, not to bore you with them.

IMG_0666This is the kind of thick vegetation we had to content with as we searched for our target bird.

For days I’ve been listening to recording of Swainson’s Warblers, burning it’s song into my memory. Not just any song though, Swainson’s Warbler song that were recorded in the Appalachian Mountains, since they vary from on part of the country to the nest. Further south the call can be slightly different from these, which is the northern range for them.

We walk a short distance, then stop and listen. We repeat this process over and over again till….. We hear one sing.


We’re standing in a small clearing along the trail when we hear the bird sing off to our right, way back into the woods.

It sings again. This time closer. We hear a second one sing, but more distant.

The first one is closer when it sings again. We listen intently as we try to figure out where it’s coming from. We’re in a slight valley with a small, but impenetrable gully that ran perpendicular to the trail.

I see movement out of the corner of my eye and as I’m bringing my bins to my eyes, a small bird flies across the trail to out left into the thick Rhododendron thicket. Then it starts to sing again in a different location. We follow it again. Only to have it move down the gully to another location where it starts to sing again.

We play this cat and mouse game for a long time. Not satisfied with just a bird singing, I needed a visual other than that brief fly  across the trail.

It sings again, this time real close. Just on the other side of this thick stand of Rhododendrons that line the trail. I move off trail about 10 feet to get a clear view of the gully that the warbler is calling from.

IMG_0662This is the view I had to deal with. Trying to locate a 5″ bird that’s  drab greenish brown in color. Simple right?

I keep scanning with the naked eye looking for any kind of movement. He’s here, right in front of me singing his heart out and I can’t find him.

Seconds seem like an eternity as I keep scanning. I instinctively bring my bins to my eyes and focus on a small dead tree about 20 feet away.

There’s the bird on a branch with it’s back towards me.  I motion to David to come over quietly. I relocate the bird and reach for my camera. I turn it on and zoom onto the spot where the bird is. The damn camera is trying to focus, but it’s too slow. And by the time it does focus the bird is gone down the gully again, singing in another location.

I saw it, which is a great satisfaction. But to have it sitting so close and not seeing it for what seemed like an eternity, and then not being able to get a picture is frustrating. And to top it off David never saw it either.

So we made the decision to leave and head back to the cabin. I truly wished that I had photographed the bird, but sometimes we have to try again. I plan on returning to this location again, so maybe next time.


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