Birding on the Plateau

Birding on the Plateau is a year-round activity, but things kick up a notch throughout spring as migratory birds make their way back to the mountains. Highlands Audubon Society Vice President Brent Martin said this is the time when birds are out, active, and singing.

“Spring is the best for seeing bird diversity,” said Martin. “Neo-tropical migrants begin arriving in late March and early April from Central and South America and the woods are suddenly filled with birds of all sorts that have not been in the mountains since the previous fall.”

Eastern Bluebird at The Village Green in Cashiers.

With current stay at home orders in place and social distancing in effect, people are venturing out into the woods as a safe and legal way to get outdoor recreation and exercise.

Eastern Towee on the Highlands Plateau Greenway trail.

President of the Highlands Audubon Society, Brock Hutchins, said September and October are also good times to see birds making their way south. In terms of where to look, he said any open National Forest areas along trails and roads are good for birding, especially at higher elevations.

A Hairy Woodpecker at The Village Green.

Local hotspots include all of public Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust properties (especially Brushy Face and Kelsey Trail), Highlands Biological Station’s Botanical Garden, Highlands-Plateau Greenway trails, and The Village Green.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Forest Service has closed most of the more popular trails throughout the Plateau due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in my opinion the fewer people on the trail the better when it comes to birding. Also, birds seem the most active in the morning. Pick a spot and wait quietly. Most of the birds you scared off walking up the trail will come back to whatever they were doing and accept that you’re a part of their scene.

A female American Gold Finch on HCLT’s Kelsey Trail.

For more advanced birders, good birds to look for on the Plateau in the spring are warblers, such as Hooded Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Black Throated Green Warblers, Chestnut Sided Warblers, Yellow Throated Warblers, also Scarlet Tanagers and Red-breasted Grosbeaks who breed on the Plateau.

You may have never seen, or even heard of any of the aforementioned birds, and that’s ok. Hutchins said it takes commitment to get heavily into birding.

A White-Breasted Nuthatch at the Highlands Botanical Garden.

“Everyone likes looking at birds, but birding is a more specialized activity where you seek out different species, learn their songs and study their habits,” said Hutchins. “This requires quite an effort and time to reach an advanced level of skill. Even if you include casual birders, I would not say birding is popular compared to other activities such as golf or shopping.”

Northern Cardinal on HCLT’s Kelsey Trail.

However, there is hope for the casual weekend-warrior birder.

The HCLT recently released a Bird Bingo card as part of the Backyard Explorers program. These are birds that can be seen throughout the Plateau and are gorgeous.

HCLT’s Birding Bingo card, part of the Backyard Explorers program. Download it HERE.

HCLT advises its Backyard Explorers to look for several things when identifying a bird; including sound, silhouette, plumage, habitat, and behaviors. There are several apps available to identify birds, Hutchins and Martin both use iBird Pro.

A pair of Bluejays defy social distancing guidelines at Highlands Botanical Garden.

Hutchins said HPAS often partners with HCLT on birding trips, and with other conservation organizations on the Plateau to encourage education and participation.

A Tufted Titmouse at The Village Green.

“The mission of the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society is to provide opportunities to enjoy and learn about birds and other wildlife and to promote conservation and restoration of the habitats that support them,” he said.

Carolina Chickadee at the Highlands Botanical Garden.

Martin said birding is fun to get into and sticks with you for life.

Song Sparrow on the Highlands Plateau Greenway.

“Once a person begins to get into birds, they will be birders wherever they are,” said Martin. “You’ll always be birding and making observations. Developing an appreciation for birds and their conservation opens up a world that is endlessly fascinating and interesting.”

Dark-Eyed Junco on the Highlands Plateau Greenway.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker at The Village Green. Also pictured at the top of the article.

A female Cardinal at the Highlands Botanical Garden.

To download a Bird Bingo card from HCLT’s Backyard Explorers program click HERE.

For more information on the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society click HERE.

Other free birding resources include The Cornell lab of Ornithology click HERE, and the National Audubon Society click HERE.

Article by Brian O’Shea
Photos by Maggie Burd and Brian O’Shea
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