Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee 4/25-27/14

All photos are Marshall Faintich

Alice and I spent a long weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Alice competed in another duplicate bridge tournament, and I explored the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had done a lot of research, and had great expectations to see some great birds and constrained hope of seeing an elusive Swainson's Warbler. The race of this warbler that is mountainous prefers running water and mountain laurel, and there have been reports of Swainson's Warblers in previous years along the Schoolhouse Gap Trail there.

Well, I suppose if you had a place to stay a good distance from the heart of Gatlinburg, it might be nice, but the center of Gatlinburg was filled with extreme "honkey-tonk," price-gouging, no free public parking, and dense crowds of tourists. We stayed at a nice B&B a couple of miles from there, and close to the road to the national park that by-passed Gatlinburg. But the national park was also a human zoo.

It was sunny in the morning the first full day we were there (Friday), but the national park was crowded like Skyline Drive during the peak October fall foliage. And then it was off and on rain the rest of the day. I drove the length of one of the park roads that ended at Cades Cove, where a one lane, one way road went around the cove in a nine mile long loop. The speed limit there was 20 mph with pull-offs almost every 100 feet, but most of the cars were going 5 to 10 mph, and a few cars even blocked the road for several minutes, even next to a pull-off, to look at the scenery. It was a painful hour-long journey around the loop.

Saturday and Sunday were hot and sunny, but there was a 2x to 3x increase in the number of tourists in the park. Every named pull-off or trail had 50 to 100 cars and motorcycles parked there. Most of the birds did not want to have much to do with all the tourists, and birding was sparse all three days. I only managed to log 38 species in three days, and two of them were audio only. I didn't have to drive 350 miles each way to see the same birds we have here on the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, and with much less human activity.


View from Clingmans Dome

Three quarters of the avian species I saw there were fairly common woodland birds.


Indigo Bunting


Wild Turkey


Red-eyed Vireo


Blue-headed Vireo


Broad-winged Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk


Carolina Wren


Dark-eyed Junco


Hairy Woodpecker

I logged nine warbler species. Most of them were either high up in trees or far away, but a few came close for a few photos.


Yellow-throated Warbler


Yellow-throated Warbler


Black-throated Blue Warbler


Black-throated Green Warbler


Black-throated Green Warbler


Black & White Warbler


Northern Parula


Hooded Warbler


Hooded Warbler


Hooded Warbler


Worm-eating Warbler

The highlight of the trip for me was the last bird I photographed there. I was deep in the woods on the nature trail by the Sugerlands Visitor Center when a Louisiana Waterthrush (warbler) landed on a branch at eye level and started to sing.


Louisiana Waterthrush


Louisiana Waterthrush


Louisiana Waterthrush

It then flew towards me and over my head. I could hear it singing, but could not locate it. And then I looked up - it was right above my head! I took a few steps backwards, and got some nice close-up photos.


Louisiana Waterthrush


Louisiana Waterthrush


Louisiana Waterthrush

I heard the song of a Cerulean Warbler higher up near Alum Cave Trail, but could not see it. I made two trips to look for the Swainson's Warbler along Schoolhouse Gap Trail. There was a small creek that ran along the trail, and dense mountain laurel on both sides of the trail that was close to 10 feet tall. A couple of hundred yards in from the road near a small clearing on one side of the trail, I heard what I think was a Swainson's Warbler that was singing beyond the mountain laurel along the creek. There was no way to see through the dense foliage, and no matter how much I tried to coax the bird into view, I was unsuccessful. I did record its song, and the following audio file is 16 seconds long with the song at the beginning and again at the end of the file. I tried to filter out as much of the creek noise as I could. It doesn't sound exactly like the Swainson's song on my Sibley app, but it is close. If anyone can verify that it is the Swainson's song, or some other species, I would appreciate hearing from you.


Click here to download and play the recorded Swainson's Warbler (?) song

Trip list:

American Crow
American Goldfinch
American Robin
Black-and-white Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blue Jay
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-headed Vireo
Broad-winged Hawk
Canada Goose
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Wren
Cerulean Warbler
Chimney Swift
Chipping Sparrow
Common Raven
Dark-eyed Junco
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Towhee
European Starling
Hairy Woodpecker
Hooded Warbler
House Sparrow
Indigo Bunting
Louisiana Waterthrush
Northern Cardinal
Northern Parula
Pileated Woodpecker
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-tailed Hawk
Scarlet Tanager
Song Sparrow
Tufted Titmouse
Turkey Vulture
Wild Turkey
Worm-eating Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler



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