Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Smokies are a premier wildlife viewing area. Early in the morning and late in the evening are best viewing times. Evening programs and nature walks are offered at most developed campgrounds from mid-June through August. Spring and fall activities are limited. Check schedules at a visitor center or ranger station.
Birding in the Smokies
More than 230 species use the park, and over 110 species breed within park boundaries. A one-day count throughout the park and vicinity in winter will net more than 50 species even in a bad year. More than 20 warblers are considered to breed within the park, and nearly 30 members of the finch family have been reported here. Geese and ducks number nearly 20 species, but are not often seen. Craggy mountain heights provide ideal habitat for ravens, some hawks, and occasional migrating peregrine falcons. Eagles and falcons are only occasionally seen, but the mere possibility is exciting.
Birds are most active early in the morning, starting about 45 minutes before sunrise. Good birding spots include the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Cades Cove, and Oconaluftee. Some common species include juncos, mourning doves, chimney swifts, eastern phoebes, barn swallows, blue jays, indigo buntings, cardinals, towhees, sparrows, chickadees, and warblers. Birds of prey include turkey vultures, hawks, and eagles.
If you are interested in finding a particular bird or good birding places, or would like a free copy of the bird checklist, check with a ranger at one of the visitor centers.
A total of 65 mammals live in the park. Some, such as the coyote and bobcat are reclusive, while deer are very common and obvious. Besides deer, people most often see red and gray squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, raccoons, opossums, red and gray foxes, skunks, and bats.
Deer are common throughout the park. An exotic, the wild European boar, causes widespread damage. Like other intrusive exotic species, the park seeks means to control the boar population. Mammals native to the area, but no longer living here include bison, elk, gray wolves, and fishers. Reintroduction efforts brought back the red wolf and river otter.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The park has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and has an international reputation for its variety and number of salamanders. The Smokies' 27 species of salamanders make it the salamander capital of the world. Notable species include Jordans Salamander, one subspecies of which is found only in the Smokies, and the Hellbender, which can grow up to a whopping two and a half feet long. Other amphibians such as frogs and toads thrive in the Great Smokies.
Reptiles include snakes, turtles, and lizards. The only two poisonous species are the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead. Neither have a lethal poison, and death from a snake bite in the Smokies is extremely rare. Other common reptiles include the eastern box turtle, common snapping turtle, and southeastern five-lined skink.
The Smoky Mountains are famous for their black bear population. Bear sightings usually begin in early March, but weather conditions can delay sightings. Newborns and mothers remain denned until May. Cubs remain with their mothers for a year and a half.
It is illegal to feed or harass any park wildlife. Fines range up to $5,000 and six months in prison. Besides being illegal, human foods (and packaging) can kill a bear. They die from asphyxiation or digestive track blockages. A human-fed bear has a lifespan of only eight years.
Park officials warn visitors that tamed bears lose their natural fear of people, and that violent bears must be destroyed. Also, bears that become overly aggressive are moved into the backcountry, which is open to hunting. Tame bears make easy targets for hunters.
Although there is no one best place to see bears in the park, Cades Cove and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are among the best spots to look. Bears are most active early in the morning and late in the evening.
On the small chance of encountering an aggressive black bear, the best action is make a lot of noise (a whistle works well), and slowly retreat. Only when between a mother and her cubs, or when dealing with a hungry, human-fed bear are encounters dangerous. Bears are excellent climbers, so climbing a tree is ineffective. Playing dead does not work either, since dead animals are part of the black bears' diet. However, few dangerous bear situations occur.
The endangered red wolf (Canis rufus) once roamed throughout the Southeast. However, the last known wolf of any species in the vicinity of the park was killed in 1905. The park was selected as a potential restoration site for the endangered red wolf (Canis rufus) because it is one of the few areas in the southeast large enough and wild enough to support a breeding population of red wolves.
The reintroduction program began in early 1991 with two red wolf pairs that were brought to acclimation pens in the park. After experimental releases, the wolves were monitored by park service officials and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists. The wolves produced several litters of pups over the years, but all the animals struggled with various dangers, some natural, some man-made. For example, some wolves died from drinking automobile anti-freeze. Another succumbed to unripe persimmons. Some were injured in fights with other wolves, dogs, coyotes, or bears. One wolf was found dead of a bullet wound. Others died of disease.
The wolves won the favor of park officials when a group killed a wild boar, which is considered a nuisance in the park (wild boar are not native to the region.) But if the wolves' natural instinct to kill the boar made park rangers smile, they frowned when the wolves attacked a large number of calves in the herd of cows that grazes on park land by permit. Park officials then erected a fence to protect the calves until they were big enough to no longer be vulnerable to wolf attacks.
By early 1998, biologists were monitoring seven collared wolvesall adultswith the fate of three other adults and 25 pups born in the wild in 1994-97. Based on the lack of sightings and unsuccessful efforts to trap these wild-born offspring, project managers suspect that most, if not all, of them may be dead.
National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists are currently reevaluating the park in terms of its attractiveness as red wolf habitat. Project managers are working with researchers at the University of Tennessee to develop a habitat modeling procedure to help identify other areas within the Southeast in which wolf releases might successfully be initiated. Once this modeling is complete, the NPS and USFWS will jointly decide the future of the wolf program in the Smokies.
Wildflowers and Fall Colors
More than 4,000 species of plants grow in the park. With abundant warm sunshine and frequent rainfall, it is no surprise that about 200 species of showy wildflowers bloom in the Smokies. They begin in March and last until about November. Spring comes to mind when most of us think about flowers, but practically the entire year has something to offer. Spring seems to burst with flowers as they take advantage of good conditions for a short period between the cold of winter and the shade of summer, when full foliage blocks sunlight from the forest floor.
Bloom dates depend on the weather and can vary from year to year. Here are recommended dates to guide you: Dogwood and redbud, mid- to late-April; spring flowers, late March to mid-May; mountain laurel and flame azalea, May and June; Catawba rhododendron, mid-June; and rosebay rhododendron, June and July.
Springtime flowers are trilliums, phacelia, violets, lady's slippers, jack-in-the-pulpits, and showy orchis. There are familiar exotic (non-native) species too, such as the dandelion. (In the Smokies, exotics are generally flowers of field and not of forest.) Goldenrod, ironweed, and asters bloom in late September to early October. In August you may see wild clematis, yellow-fringed orchis, bee-balm, cardinal flower, monkshood, and blue gentian.
Many flowers grow along park roadsides. Other good locations to see them are along quiet walkways and on designated nature trails throughout the park.
Fall colors generally peak between October 15 and 25. The presence of hardwood species usually associated with more northerly climes makes the autumn leaves here all the more spectacular. Up and down the mountain the brilliant reds of maples, the golden yellow of beech, and the deeper hues of oaks and more southerly species blend spectacularly. Fall color is the result of the breakdown of green chlorophyll in deciduous leaves. Yellow and brown pigments present but suppressed all summer now become prominent. Red colors are produced when sugars are trapped in the sap of the leaves.
This can be great camping weather if you don't mind chilly nights, and a generally pleasant time of year in the Smokies. Keep in mind that the traffic is particularly heavy in the park during the fall foliage season, especially on weekends.
A leaflet "Forests and Wildflowers" is available from any park visitor center for a small fee.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication