Don and I didn’t go to the Appalachians for the wildlife. Well, I did, as you’ll see later. But our main interest was in exploring habitats vastly different from what we are used to in our little corner of the Piedmont. Appalachian mountains, coves, boreal forests, balds – we wanted to experience it all.
It’s not that critters weren’t on our radar; it’s just that we were trying to cover too much ground to spend a lot of time in one place looking for birds and such. What wildlife we saw would have to find us.
And it did. A Pileated Woodpecker on the banks of the Little River, a Black and White Warbler near Laurel Falls, a Cooper’s Hawk on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hummingbirds on the feeders of our cabin porch. There were lots of Wild Turkeys and lots of Turkey Vultures. A few gray squirrels. Several very tame deer at Cade’s Cove. Nothing we hadn’t seen before, but all enjoyable to watch. Especially the Pileated.
We did see three species new to us, and none of them were birds. All were exciting. And all were found by somebody else first, and we just followed the crowds.
On the Laurel Falls Trail, it was the children who led the way. We came upon a father and some kids staring intently at the rocky cliff rising above us. “Look!” they said “it’s a salamander!” Sure enough, basking in the warm sun was a six-inch striped long-tailed salamander.
We saw three of these critters, and for two months I thought they were salamanders. No warning bells went off in my thick skull. Despite the fact that the animal we saw didn’t look like any of the salamanders in the Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies book. Despite the fact that this little guy had scales. Despite the fact he was basking in the sun, which no amphibian in its right mind would ever do. No, despite all these obvious signs, I stubbornly persisted in believing that I had found one of the Smokies’ famous salamanders.
And I call myself an amateur naturalist? This was amateur hour at its finest.
Finally, upon reviewing the photographic evidence I saw what I should have known in April. This was no amphibious salamander, but a lizard, a reptile. In fact, it’s one of the skinks that call the Smokies home. The scales are one clue; reptiles have them, amphibians don’t. But it’s the behavior and the habitat that should have tipped me off. Salamanders are moist skinned critters, and stick to shady, damp places, like under rocks at the edges of streams. Skinks, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded, and like to sunbathe to help regulate their body temperature.
Properly identified at the time or not, these were cute little animals. We saw two that first day on the Laurel Falls Trails, both found by kids.
I found our third skink myself at the base of a farm building in Cades Cove.
There were no such identification issues with our next new species. I knew these magnificent animals frequented this particular area of the park, had almost been expecting them, but did not dare to hope. Yet at the end of a very long day, there they were. They stood out, big and dark in the light green grass of the open field.
Elk used to roam the Smokies and the southern Appalachians, but they were eliminated from the area by the mid-1800s. In 2001 the National Park Service began a program to restore elk to the park. Here’s proof it’s been successful!
One of the places the elk like to hang out is Oconaluftee, at the eastern end of Newfound Gap Road, which is where we came upon them that late afternoon. I quickly pulled the car onto a side road and Don and I joined the small crowd of visitors and NPS volunteers watching the elk do basically nothing.
Eleven elk all lying down, placidly munching on grass. What entertainment! One got up and walked across the field, which stirred the crowd into a tizzy.
While Don and I went to the Smokies for the mountains and varied habitats, I was secretly hoping for bears. The American black bear is my all-time favorite animal – let’s be honest, it’s the cute factor. I’ve never seen one before, though. There are an estimated 1800 black bears in the Smokies. That’s two bears a square mile, so my odds of seeing one must have been good, yes?
No. Bears are shy creatures who avoid contact with humans at all costs, unless there’s food involved.
Early in our tour of Cades Cove, Don asked a local what our odds of seeing a bear were. “About 1%”, he replied.
Five minutes later we had our first bear.
Bears in the Smokies frequently cause “bear jams”, carloads of tourists on the side of the road looking at bears. So when we came upon a lot of parked cars and lots of people standing around, all supervised by a ranger, we knew what was going on. Don, being the gentleman that he is, jumped out of the car to see before I could get properly parked.
Our bear was about 200 yards away, and disappearing into the trees by the time I could get my camera on him. I only got a few shots, all blurry.
It wasn’t long before I got another chance. This time, a bigger crowd was watching not one but three bears about 300 yards away. A mother and two yearling cubs. We got a longer look, and I tried hard to get good shots, but once again distance led to fuzzy photos. Usually I wouldn’t show photos this bad – and believe it or not, this is my sharpest shot.
Don and I had one other encounter with a black bear, and it happened too fast for either of us to get a photo. We were driving home from the Smokies on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mt. Mitchell. It was pouring rain, and the fog masked everything but the trees lining the road.
Suddenly a bear appeared from the woods on the right, maybe 10 yards away, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods on the other side. We only had time to point and start shouting “Bear! Bear! BEAR!” before it was gone. Not more than 5 seconds, but by far the best look we got at a black bear on the trip.
That quick but exciting view of a black bear was an apt metaphor for the wildlife Don and I saw on our two week Appalachian excursion. Every brief sighting was thrilling, but in the Smokies the wildlife was…