We will be looking for blackburnian warblers at Collins Creek Picnic Area - creative commons photo

We will be looking for blackburnian warblers at Collins Creek Picnic Area – creative commons photo

One of the greatest shows on Earth is about to take center stage. Spring ephemerals will begin clawing through the gray-brown leaf litter within the month. Some of the earliest wildflowers to open will include spring beauty, various violets, hairy buttercup, hepatica, trailing arbutus, bloodroot and trout lily.

The Southern Appalachians offer a rich tapestry of floral diversity. Once the northern hemisphere bows back towards the sun and the earth begins to warm the parade of flowering plants will begin and last until next autumn’s killing frosts. The opening act of this seasonal progression is a tough one to follow.

The spring ephemerals are in a rush. They will flower, fruit and begin to senesce all before the canopy of the eastern deciduous forests leaf-out. This means that there will be hundreds of species of wildflowers all seeking the warmth of the early spring sun. The whites of bloodroot, white fringed phacelia, squirrel corn, Dutchman’s breeches, foam flower and others will mingle with the yellows of buttercup, bellwort, trout lily, and yellow trillium to name a few. Reds will be represented by columbine, the red form of wake-robin, cross vine and the reddish-brown wood betony. Blues and purples include dwarf-crested iris, bluets, purple phacelia, various violets, dwarf larkspur, wild geranium and others.

One of the best front row seats for this spectacular spring show is the Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and partners like, University of Tennessee, City of Gatlinburg, Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies, Arrowmont School of Arts, Gatlinburg Garden Club, Southern Appalachian Botanical Society and more. This year will mark the 66th annual pilgrimage. The dates are April 19-23 and you can begin now registering for hikes and/or programs.

To register online, learn more about this year’s pilgrimage and/or download a brochure go to http://www.springwildflowerpilgrimage.org/. There will be 144 programs and/or hikes offered during this year’s Pilgrimage. While the majority of these programs pays homage to the spectacular park-wide display of spring ephemerals there will be many other hikes and programs as well, like – Edible Mushroom Walk, Native People’s Use of Nature’s Garden, Nature Journaling, Bird Sketching, Black Bear and Hog Walk, owl prowls, The Ecology and Evolution of North American Fireflies and many, many more.

I will be leading an all-day birding program on Wednesday 4/20 – “Birding at Oconaluftee and Collins Creek,” where we will look for sparrows and other open-area birds like eastern bluebird, American goldfinch and others around the historic farm at Oconaluftee – then carpool up to Collins Creek Picnic Area where we hope to find wood warblers like hooded, blackburnian, black-throated green and other Neotropical migrants.

I will also be co-leading a couple of trips with Fred Holtzclaw. Fred is a biology teacher at the Webb School in Knoxville and has been leading birding, wildflower and ecology hikes for the Pilgrimage since 1978. Fred is a treat to hike with, I sometimes get so wrapped up in what Fred is sharing that I forget to look/listen for birds. On Thursday 4/21, we will be leading an all-day motorcade from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Cades Cove – I think this was my favorite program last year.

The Pilgrimage is a wonderful experience and like I said – a front row seat for one of the Greatest Shows on Earth.