Where to go birding without the crowds in our busiest national park (with an update at the bottom).
In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, over a half million acres visited by more than 11 million folks, you can still bird in relative solitude. I’ve been birding on the Tennessee side of GSM for over thirty years; and Cades Cove is at the top of my easily accessible, ‘private’ habitats.
This area, located in the southeastern Tennessee side, is one of the few open spaces in the park. Most visitors arrive by car and take the one-way, 11-mile Loop Road. It circles the open valley with panoramic mountain views and stopping points at historic buildings. While you will certainly enjoy the ride, it will quickly become annoyingly apparent that most of the cars behind you are in a hurry. I’ve yet to decipher why you’d rush through the Cove, but it did prompt me to turn onto side roads (of the gravel variety); and leave the car altogether at other spots.
Come enjoy some terrific birding areas, absent the hurried ‘tourists’!
Cades Cove. Photo by © Angela Minor
Hyatt Lane. Approximately one-quarter of the way into the Loop Road, you’ll see Hyatt Lane on your left. There may or may not be a sign (so grab a map for a small donation at the entrance). This ‘road’ is dirt and gravel, bisects the cove right through this open valley, and is quite narrow. It’s a two-way passage; but if you meet an oncoming vehicle, turn in your mirrors and hold your breath.
There are several wide spots in the road to pass and/or park should you see other cars. We’re headed for the halfway mark at Feezell Branch. It’s an almost all-weather creek with excellent cover vegetation and flowing water. (I have seen it dry after recent extreme droughts.) This is where I saw my first Louisiana Waterthrush and Swainson’s Warbler. You may have to stalk the single parking spot at this location; but the habitat makes it worth the effort to hover or walk. (There are a small number of official parking places at the other end of Hyatt Lane at the Dan Lawson Place.)
Louisiana Waterthrush. Photo by © William H. Majoros
Swainson’s Warbler. Photo courtesy of USFWS
Chances are quite good to see Eastern Bluebirds along the fences; Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, and Cooper’s Hawks in the air; Bald and Golden Eagles (in the fall) although these are quite rare; Northern Harriers (in winter), and perhaps a Short-eared Owl (also winter).
Eastern Bluebird. Photo by © Mike Blevins
Red-shouldered Hawk. Photo by © Mike Blevins
Cooper’s Hawk. Photo by © Mike Blevins
Bald Eagle. Photo by © Mike Blevins
Northern Harrier. Photo by © Mike Blevins
Visitor Center. Conveniently located halfway around the Loop Road (facilities are here), the area around the center, cable mill, and historic buildings is good for woodland birds. Think dozens of wood Warblers. Walk past the old homeplace and hang a left across the mountain stream. There’s a wedge of land between two branches of the stream that’s perfect for sitting and watching. I’ve found that the hottest summer days are deliciously cool and breezy at this spot. And, there are a number of species including Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed (increasingly difficult to find here), and Pileated Woodpeckers. There are a good number of snags for nesting, so bring the long lens.
Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by © Mike Blevins
Forge Creek Road. When you’re leaving the Visitor Center parking lot, look to the immediate right. That’s your next gravel road adventure. It runs through a field, so watch for Wild Turkey (the bird, not the whiskey); cross a creek (I’ve seen black bear here); and wander into the mountains. Hang to the left for the larger parking area and a trailhead for some hiking.
Be on the lookout for Ovenbird, American Redstart, Northern Parula, and more Warblers.
Wild Turkey. Photo by © Jamie Hargis
Black Bear cub. Photo © Angela Minor
Northern Parula. Photo by © Mike Blevins
If vehicle travel is not your thing, the Loop Road is bike-and-hike-only at 10AM, every Wednesday and Saturday, early May through late September. There are also riding stables at the Cove.
This is an appetizer list. There are more ‘secret’ locations to cover in future articles. Until then, happy birding in the Smokies.
(Featured image Cades Cove [and me]. Photo by © Jamie Hargis.)
UPDATE: Thanks to the many birding friends who’ve shared their expertise on Cades Cove birding! Here are some thoughts from birder extraordinaire Keith Watson (founder of the Southern Appalachian Bird Conservancy) on this location: 1) “Although seeing a Swainson’s Warbler on Hyatt Lane is possible, its not likely outside of migration, very unlikely habitat for breeders, they like dense forested hillsides and thickets along streams in closed canopy forests.” 2) “I would add Short-eared Owl however for winter time in Cades Cove off Hyatt Lane, they are becoming fairly regular.” And he gave us these hotspots to discover in the future: 3) “I’d say Sparks Lane, Burchfield Woods and Cemetery (different spots), and sewage lagoons.”