This least sandpiper found in a puddle in Bryson City may have been an omen for the count. Ed Kelley photo

This least sandpiper found in a puddle in Bryson City may have been an omen for the count. Ed Kelley photo

What could be more fun than a weekend of fellowship and great birding? Maybe setting a new record for total number of species recorded during the annual Great Smoky Mountains Birding Expedition?

This year was the 29th installment of the Great Smoky Mountains Birding Expedition, a Western North Carolina tradition initiated in 1984 by author, naturalist George Ellison, Asheville birder, Rick Pyeritz M.D. who, at the time (1984) had a practice in Bryson City and is now medical director/university physician at University of North Carolina Asheville and Dr. Fred Alsop, field guide author and ornithologist at East Tennessee State University.

I don’t remember the date of the first GSMBE I participated in, it was in the early 2000s. It was such a great trip that I became one of the faithful. But then in 2004 I was awarded a bird-point contract with the USDA Forest Service and my spring-birding calendar was filled. I did, however, save one Saturday in 2004 when I heard that Dr. Alsop was going to join the group for GSMBE’s 20th Anniversary. I believe that Saturday ended with 104 species. The Sunday morning wrap-up (that I did not attend) produced 6 more species to set the record at 110 species.

The first thing I did this spring when it became evident that I wouldn’t be awarded any FS contracts, was put my name on the list for the GSMBE. I was thrilled when friend, photographer and birding enthusiast Ed Kelley and I arrived at the Ellison’s studio and office Saturday morning (5/10) to find out that Dr. Alsop and his wife Jo Ann would be in attendance. Birding with good birders is the best way to hone your skills and Dr. Alsop and Rick Pyeritz are two of the best I know.

The route for the annual GSMBE is basically the same as it was in 1984 with, perhaps the addition of Tulula Bog, which was created in the late 1990s. The logistics are, as I understand them (and I may not) – the group birds around Bryson City Saturday morning, heading to Collins Creek picnic area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for lunch, then up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Heintooga Road, then back down to Kituwah along Highway 19 to finish up Saturday. The Sunday half-day begins at the Nantahala Outdoors Center and proceeds to the Nantahala put-in and on to Tulula bog.

It’s a good diverse mountain route that provides the opportunity for common urban-suburban birds (rock pigeon, starling, house sparrow, mocking bird, etc.) that you need to pad your list. But Bryson City with the river flowing through and the proximity to the mountains always adds much more – like cliff swallow, purple martin and all the rest of the swallows one would expect to find here, yellow warbler, orchard and/or Baltimore orioles and more.

The picnic at Collins Creek gives us a chance to add wood warblers, like blackburnian, hooded, ovenbird and others. Then we race to the top of Heintooga hoping for golden-crowned kinglets, Canada warblers, brown creepers, veerys, ravens and other high-elevation species. After Heintooga its back down – to Kituwah (formerly Ferguson fields) and a shot at lower elevation migrants like blue grosbeak, yellow-breasted chat, eastern kingbird, etc.

The next day it’s on to Nantahala and Tulula Bog and a shot at any wood warblers we may have missed plus Swainson’s warblers and maybe Kentucky and sometimes golden-winged and prairie warblers.

Tune in next weekend for an abridged blow by blow of the outing!