Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains
by Marilyn Westphal
With 18 peaks over 6,300 feet in elevation, The Black Mountains is the highest mountain range east of the Mississippi, and Mount Mitchell is the highest mountain in the east. Five other peaks in the range are in the top ten highest peaks in the east. The Black Mountains range has a climate and ecology more like that of Canada than that of North Carolina. Bird species found in this “Canadian Zone” are also more typical of those found far to the north. Breeding species include such typically northern birds as Ruffed Grouse, Saw-whet Owl, Common Raven, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Canada Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin. Other species found in this area during the breeding season include Broad-winged Hawk, Wild Turkey, American Woodcock, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and many others. Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Magnolia Warbler are also reported on occasion. Birding during fall migration, especially in September and early October, can also be very rewarding. Best spots for watching birds migrating through the Black Mountains in fall are Ridge Junction overlook and Balsam Gap overlook.
Locating Key Species
- Ruffed Grouse
- Present throughout the area, but some of the best places to listen for them drumming in April and early May are the Big Butt trail off Balsam Gap (mile marker 360), and the Blue Ridge Parkway between mile marker 352 and Mount Mitchell.
- Saw-whet Owl
- May be heard calling mostly from late March to late May along the Blue Ridge Parkway and along the entrance road to Mount Mitchell State Park. Balsam Gap is often a reliable location.
- Hermit Thrush
- The first breeding season Hermit Thrush found at Mount Mitchell was in 1983. Since then the species has become common throughout the higher elevations of the Black Mountains and can now be found on almost any trail above the 5,000-foot elevation. Note, in spring and summer 2007 the first breeding season Swainson's Thrushes in North Carolina were found in the Black Mountains. This population is under study.
- Red Crossbill
- Fairly common some years and scarce others. Red Crossbills are usually found in flocks of 5 to 50 and occasionally more. They are more common in years when there is a good spruce cone crop. Flocks are most often seen near the Mount Mitchell Ranger Station, at Ridge Junction overlook (mile marker 355 on the BRP), at the trailhead and on the Bald Knob Ridge trail (mile marker 355), and at Balsam Gap (mile marker 360). When the birds are breeding they are more often found as singles or pairs throughout the spruce/fir area. Birds are most often seen in the tops of spruce trees, but will occasionally be seen on the ground drinking from puddles or picking up grit and minerals from the road or sides of the road.
- Pine Siskin
- Most often seen in small flocks as flyovers or sitting in or near the tops of trees. They are irregular and may be seen anywhere in the area, but are fairly reliably seen at Balsam Gap and along the Big Butt trail (mile marker 360 on the BRP).
- Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Dark-eyed Junco are fairly common to common throughout the area. Canada Warblers arrive in late April or early May, but all others arrive in March or early to mid-April. Brown Creeper and Dark-eyed Junco are present year-round.
History of the Area
Mount Mitchell State Park was created in 1915 as the first state park in North Carolina. Before 1900 Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains were covered with virgin red spruce and fraser fir forest, but the forest was almost completely cleared in about 10 years in the early 1900's as a result of timber harvesting and consequent wildfires. Although much of the spruce/fir eventually grew back, most, if not all, of the mature fraser fir iin more recent years has died as a result of infestation of the balsam woolly adelgid and acid deposition. Although most species returned to the area once the trees grew back after the massive clear-cutting, the Black-capped Chickadee reported present prior to 1900 has been extirpated.
Directions and Accessibility
This area can be reached by entering the Blue Ridge Parkway at any access area and continuing to mile markers 353 to 362. It is about 20 miles north of Asheville. The area is only accessible when the Blue Ridge Parkway is open. This is usually between late March and early December. There is no stopping along the parkway in this area from mile marker 355 to 362 (Asheville watershed zone)except at official overlooks. Best birding trails in the area include the Big Butt trail (also excellent for wildflowers)at Balsam Gap overlook (moderate to strenuous), the Mountains-to-Sea trail , which runs parallel to the parkway (moderate), the Bald Knob Ridge trail at mile marker 355 (easy to moderate), the Buncombe Horse Range trail (easy from NC 128-Mt Mitchell entrance Rd - to Camp Alice, then moderate to strenuous), the Old Mitchell trail from the Mount Mitchell Ranger Station to Mount Mitchell (moderate to strenuous), and the Commissary trail from Mount Mitchell Ranger Station to Camp Alice (easy). Most of these trails are heavily forested, but the Commissary trail is very open and provides good vistas as well as good birding.