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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Site Description and Habitats
Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles (521,490 acres) divided almost equally between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, and is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. The uninterrupted chain of mountains range to 6,643 feet and for 36 miles the crest of the range remains more than 5,000 feet above sea level, including 16 peaks over 6,000 feet. Precipitation levels are among the highest on the North American continent, with annual averages of 85 inches in parts of the park. Higher elevations average 69 inches of snow annually. The Park is within easy driving distance of two-thirds of the U.S. population and is the most heavily visited National Park, with nearly 10 million annual visitors.

The extraordinary biodiversity of the Great Smokies is world-renowned, as reflected in its designation as an International Biosphere Reserve. Every major eastern forest type can be found within the Park's boundaries. The park's 1,637 vascular plant species include over 130 species of trees, and 60-70 distinct vegetative communities. At lower elevations, forest of Tulip Poplar dominate large areas that historically were farmed. In sheltered rich coves (typically with northerly aspects), Yellow Buckeye, Sugar Maple, White Basswood, and Tulip Popular dominate the overstory. In coves with steeper v-shaped drainages, Silver Bell and hemlock dominate the canopy and rhododendron often forms a thick, impenetrable understory. Drier slopes (south and west facing) are dominated by Chestnut Oak with a mountain laurel understory. Dry ridges typically have a large component of pine (Pitch, Shortleaf, Virginia, and Table Mountain) and dry site oaks (Chestnut, Scarlet, and Black). At higher elevations, the northern hardwood forest is prevalent, which is composed of Sugar Maple, Yellow Buckeye, Yellow Birch, and American Beech. At the highest elevations, Red Spruce forests (above 5,200 feet) and Red Spruce-Fraser Fir forests (above 6,000 feet) dominate. Scattered throughout the Park are unique communities such as grassy balds, heath balds, beech gaps, caves, vernal pools, and small wetlands, which are significant because they support unique biota, are generally small in aerial extent, and have a limited distribution in the southern Appalachians.

Over 245,000 acres of land in Tennessee is open to hiking, road biking, birding, camping, and other forms of recreation. The variety of elevations and habitats leads to an incredible diversity of wildlife. Over 800 miles of hiking trails are available, including over 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Cades Cove and Clingman's Dome are popular tourist attractions and worth visiting. Clingman's Dome is the highest point in Tennessee and second highest in the eastern United States at 6643 feet.

Bird species of interest

Spring and Fall Migration:
Nearly all warblers, vireos, thrushes and flycatchers can be found. Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Cape May (mostly spring, but uncommon in fall), Palm and Yellow Warbler, Ovenbird, Northern and Louisiana Waterthrush, and Common Yellowthroat, Philadelphia Vireo, plus the breeding species noted in the summer section below. Swainson's and Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Veery, plus Least Flycatcher, and other empids can be found. A variety of sparrows including Lincoln's and Vesper occur regularly.

Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Worm-eating, Hooded,Yellow-throated, and Kentucky Warblers, Blue-headed, Yellow-throated, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. At higher elevations, Winter Wren, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, and Canada Warblers are possible, while Swainson's Warbler is at lower elevations in rhododendron thickets and along creeks. Louisiana Waterthrushes are common along the creeks. Ovenbird, Northern Parula, and American Redstarts can also be common.

Olive-sided Flycatcher may still nest in the National Park, although there have been no confirmed summer records or territorial birds for many years. Henslow's Sparrows were present in Cades Cove in summer 2009 and may be present in summer.

Northern Harrier (in Cades Cove), Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglet, Fox, Savannah, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrow among other sparrows, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and small numbers of a variety of waterfowl species can be found on the ponds and the sewage pond. Golden Eagle is likely present and common, but not detected. We suggest finding a good vantage point to see a large valley or a place in Cades Cove and scan upwards across the mountain peaks for a couple hours in Dec-Feb to increase chances of finding one.

Black-capped Chickadee, Red Crossbills, Common Raven, and Northern Saw-whet Owl are local year round specialties. Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored subspecies), Red-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrow, Barred Owl, Wild Turkey, Cooper's Hawk, Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebe, and Cedar Waxwing.

Rarities Seen at this Site:
Short-eared Owl (in Cades Cove in winter), Band-rumped Storm-Petrel(found dead after hurricanes), Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Swallow-tailed Kite

Species list via eBird Hotspot Explorer - Clingman's Dome (Tennessee)

Species list via eBird Hotspot Explorer - Newfound Gap

Species list via eBird Hotspot Explorer - Cades Cove

NOTE: There are numerous hotspots for individual trails and roads throughout the Smokies, so please check eBird and enter records accordingly.

Submit your data to
eBird here

Other wildlife viewing opportunities

Black Bears are common, along with White-tailed Deer.

Detailed directions for birding

We suggest birders stop at the Cades Cove or Sugarland's Visitor's Centers and obtain park maps.

The best places to visit include:
  1. Cades Cove (on west side) is a driving loop around a large grassland/early successional area with numerous trails into the woods. There is also a sewage pond that attracts waterfowl in winter and random shorebirds. Wherever you can access on foot, do it! Scan the mountain tops for Common Ravens (year round) or Golden Eagles (winter). Short-eared Owls have been found at dusk in winter in the grasslands, while Northern Harriers are out during the day.
  2. Newfound Gap is on the state line and is an excellent place for Black-capped Chickadees. Drive up the road from the gap to Clingman's Dome and hope for clear skies and an amazing view. Common Ravens can be seen here as well.
  3. Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte is a lovely wooded trail along a creek and eventually goes uphill for a few miles to Mt. LeConte. Peregrine Falcons usually nest on the cliff face here and is the only regular nesting site in the state. This is a VERY popular trail. This trail is great for Louisiana Waterthrush and Black-throated Blue Warblers in spring and summer.
  4. Little River Gorge Rd and Fighting Creek Gap Rd connects Townsend and Gatlinburg through the National Park. There are fabulous views and trails all along the roads here. Explore!
Lat-Long (GPS) coordinates
Cades Cove Visitors Center: 35.6082, -83.82549
Sugarland's Visitor's Center: 35.6855, -83.5359
Newfound Gap (Clingman's Dome is just up the mountain from here): 35.61136, -83.425247
Alum Cave Trailhead (to Mt. LeConte): 35.629653, -83.451506

Fees and Hours
None. Open year round, but the higher elevations and some trails are closed in winter due to snow and ice.

Wildlife, especially Black Bears, can be dangerous. NEVER approach bears or other wildlife.

There are restrooms at the visitor's centers. Camping is available in designated campgrounds.