Birding the Appalachian Trail
The most common question that I get while out on the Appalachian Trail, is, “What’s that thing attached to the outside of your pack??”
I have a mini parabolic microphone setup strapped to my pack. I use it to capture high quality audio recordings of bird songs, but fellow hikers have made all kinds of outlandish guesses about what it might be used for (one hiker hypothesized that it was a popcorn popper, another thought it might be a meat smoker).
So when I started my thru-hike attempt a few months ago, the trail name “Birdman” quickly stuck to me. In addition to the parabola, I’m also carrying a small monocular, which I use for bird watching along the trail. When fellow hikers learn that I’m a bird enthusiast, I’m often peppered with questions about birds that they’ve recently seen.
Although I haven’t worked as a bird biologist for a number of years, my love of birds has never diminished. The first two documentary films that I produced were focused on bird conservation issues – one on the California condor (Scavenger Hunt), and the other on bluebird conservation and citizen science (Bluebird Man). I’m not an avid birder – I don’t keep lists of the birds that I see, and I’ve never submitted my observations to ebird (an online citizen science database of bird sightings). But I love being immersed in bird song.
On trail, I awake each morning when the first bird sings. Those first few hours of hiking in the morning, when the birds are all singing, is my favorite part of the day. As I walk, I focus in on the birds, imagining each species in my mind as I hear their distinctive songs. Every once in a while I’ll hear a song that I can’t quite place. These rogue songs usually have a familiar sound, but my brain can’t quite place them in the correct species category. When this happens, I stop and take a moment to observe my surroundings more closely. Sometimes I’ll unclip my monocular from my hip belt and stare up into the tree canopy to try and get a glimpse of the unknown bird. Often, I’ll also pull out my phone and start an audio recording within the Merlin app. This app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology uses an algorithm to identify bird species by song, and is an incredible tool for bird watchers.
Once I’m satisfied that I know what bird species is singing, I’ll continue my hike. Occasionally, I’ll get my parabola out and capture a higher quality recording for use in the podcast series that I’m producing about the AT, Common Land. For a while, I was sharing lists of birds that I heard each day in the AT log books at every shelter, but as I began to hear and see more and more species, this became quite time consuming.
When I started hiking in late March, many of the most common migratory birds of Southern Appalachia hadn’t yet arrived on their breeding grounds. The dawn chorus was still quite loud, but there were many common species that I wasn’t hearing. After a week or so on the trail, I noticed that each day I was identifying one or two species that I hadn’t previously heard. This added excitement to my daily birding routine, knowing that I was hearing these species sing very close to the moment of their arrival.
Some species were present and singing right from the beginning (I started hiking in Georgia on March 28th), including the ever-present Black-throated Green Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, and Eastern Towhee. Very soon I started hearing the simple song of the Black-throated Blue Warbler, as well as the Black and White Warbler. Soon, there were new arrivals each and every day – common species like the Hooded Warbler, Ovenbird, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Parula, American Redstart and Wood Thrush joined the dawn chorus each and every day.
I also started occasionally hearing the songs of less common birds like the Worm-eating Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Canada Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Veery, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Brown Thrasher. Soon I started to hear some of these less common birds on a near daily basis, and I began to identify specific habitat types where I’d be more likely to encounter certain species.
When fellow hikers find out that I’m a birder, I’m often asked about my favorite bird. This is a tricky question, but I’ll do my best to answer with a list of some of my favorites that I’ve seen and/or heard on trail.
The Black Vulture:
I’m a big fan of vultures, an affinity that comes from the four years that I spent working with California condors (North America’s largest flying land bird, a vulture with a 10-foot wingspan). Although there aren’t any condors out here in the Appalachian mountains, I have seen a lot of vultures. Turkey Vultures are everywhere out here, and I love seeing them despite how common they are. These vultures find carcasses using their sense of smell, and they’re easy to identify based on their large wingspan and soaring flight. I’ve also been lucky enough to see a handful of Black vultures along the trail. The Black vulture’s silvery wingtips and more stable soaring flight make it distinctive, but they often roost in groups alongside Turkey vultures. I saw Black vultures roosting right alongside the trail when I hiked through Virginia’s triple crown area near Roanoke.
The Wood Thrush:
The ethereal song of the Wood Thrush is synonymous with mature deciduous forests across the eastern US. The complex fluting song of this bird really showcases the amazing vocal capabilities of songbirds. There are parts of the song in which the bird is singing two notes simultaneously and harmonizing with itself. Although this is one of the most common birds that I hear and see along the Appalachian Trail, it is also a species of concern, and it’s population has been on a downward trajectory for the past several decades. It’s estimated that the population has declined by 59% since 1970.
The thrushes are known for their impressive vocal abilities, but the Veery’s song is less celebrated that that of other thrushes like the Wood Thrush and Swanson’s Thrush. I however, think their song is equally beautiful, and more distinct, than any other thrush species. It’s a difficult song to describe, but I think it sounds a bit like old video game music.
The Blackburnian Warbler:
This small warbler stands out due to its bright orange throat and black patches around the eyes. It’s thrilling to see this fiery orange bird against the backdrop of the green tunnel. Their song is simple but quite distinctive – the last few notes almost always drift into an extremely thin, high-pitched whistle. They are most common in the Northeast, but their range extends down the spine of the Appalachians into the Southeast, and the population is actually increasing.
This common bird is related to the Mockingbird, and has a similar ability to mimic sounds from its surroundings. But instead of repeating each phrase of its song two or three times like the Mockingbird, the Catbird repeats each phrase only once. The result is a jumbled song that sounds like a frenetic mix of unrelated sounds. The Catbird’s distinctive “meow” call sometimes stands alone, and is often added to the end of a long jumbled song. Catbirds are often seen in human altered habitats, and I’ve seen a few individuals that were scavenging for crumbs at a campsite. But despite how common they are, and their dull gray appearance, I love the frenetic energy of their song, and their ability to mimic sounds from other birds, and from humans, is fascinating.
This black and red warbler species has a distinctive look, although it’s song is fairly nondescript. I have a soft spot for these little birds because I spent five months capturing and banding them on their wintering grounds in Jamaica. This was back in 2007, but every time I see or hear a redstart I’m reminded of the time I spent tracking them down in the Caribbean. Redstarts are one of the first songbirds to be studied comprehensively on both its breeding grounds and its winter habitat. For me, seeing them is a reminder of the amazing journey that migratory songbirds undertake each and every year.
I have yet to see a Golden-winged Warbler on trail, but I’m hopeful that I’ll still have an opportunity to see one! This songbird is declining precipitously and gets a lot of attention from conservation groups. I walked through fields in Virginia and Tennessee that have been protected with this species in mind, but wasn’t lucky enough to see one. This is another species that I spent time working with as a field biologist, and I’ll soon be passing through the area where I spent time trapping, banding, and taking blood samples from Golden-winged Warblers – Harriman State Park in New York. Here, I plan on spending a bit of time searching my old haunts looking for Golden-wings.
One of the most common birds along the AT, I commonly saw Juncos “begging” for crumbs from thru-hikers throughout the Southern part of the trail. These populations of Juncos that live along the trail have learned that shelters and campsites are a good source of food and they’ve adapted their behavior to take advantage. I’ve found two Dark-eyed Junco nests right along the edge of the trail, so close that they’re just inches from where hikers regularly tromp past in their giant boots.
You don’t need to be an expert at bird identification to be a birder. Bird watching is an increasingly popular and accessible pastime, and a long (or short) hike provides the perfect opportunity to start paying closer attention to birds.
I love having my 7 oz monocular with me to give me a closer look at the birds that I’m observing, and when I’m on a shorter hike I’ve always got my binoculars on hand. Optics are the single most important piece of birding equipment, but they certainly aren’t necessary to get started watching birds. You’ll also want a good birding identification guide or app, and the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is fantastic, and free. I like to also have a more traditional bird field guide with me at all times – I use the electronic version of the Sibley guide on my phone – but again, this certainly isn’t necessary to get started.
A lot of birders are focused on finding the most uncommon species of birds. It can be exhilarating to spot a rare bird, and I’ve seen a few on my AT hike thus far (Cerulean Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and I’m hoping to see Golden-winged Warbler and Bicknell’s Thrush further north!). But it can be just as fun to observe interesting behavior exhibited by common bird species. While hiking through Virginia I watched two male Black-and-white Warblers (an extremely common species) engage in an epic air battle. The two birds flew directly at each other, collided in mid-air several times, then fell to the ground while still intertwined in battle. Once they were on the ground, one of the birds got absolutely pummeled by the other. After several minutes, the victor took off, leaving the loser on the ground in a daze.
Birding means something a bit different to every birder. It can be as simple as paying closer attention to the birds in your backyard, or as intensive as keeping an exhaustive list of every bird and the exact location where each one was seen. Just like a thru-hike – it’s supposed to be fun!
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.