Cerulean Warbler. Wiki photo by mdf
The Royal Blue Unit of the North Cumberlands Wildlife Management Area is not named in honor of the cerulean warbler but it's appropriate to think so. It's one of the few places the sky-blue passerines still nest in North America. One of the very few.
The cerulean is the fastest declining neotropical migrant songbird, with its overall population dropping quicker than any other warbler species in this country. Its population in 2006 was less than one-fifth of what it was 40 years before.
Monday, I accompanied Tiffany Beachy and Lee Bryant to Royal Blue, specifically to several plots she monitored from 2005 to '07, as part of her cerulean warbler field research under the tutelage of Dr. David Buehler with the University of Tennessee.
Beachy, the Citizen Science Coordinator at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, is currently monitoring Louisiana waterthrush in Walker Valley as part of a citizen science project. She's a superb birder with an ear for nuance, the way a mother hears the sighs and moans of her infant in the crib two rooms away. Today, her field work on the cerulean is over but she still likes to keep in touch with the Royal Blue. You do not spend three years of your life with a living thing and not develop a strong bond.
After Beachy, UT doctoral candidate Than Boves continued research in Royal Blue and elsewhere. For information on his work, go to Boves.
Despite the scars from logging and coal mining, the Cumberlands are beautiful the way a rumpled unmade bed is beautiful and cozy. And the most beautiful things in the rolling mountains are the lively, colorful pixies: the redstarts, the ceruleans and the hoodeds, to name a few.
On Monday, getting to the preferred habitat of the enigmatic canopy-loving warbler was an adventure in itself. The old logging roads in the tract are only roads in name only. They're more like bumpy, rutted washouts eroded from years of rain and big wheels, with exposed rocks as large as mama sows laying in mud. And just as obstinate. We bounced up slope in a beast of a truck of our own. It's the only way unless you are prepared to walk all the way to the crest.
Large-flowered bellwort, blue cohosh plus yellow, white and red flowered trillium were just beginning to open their blossoms along the way.
With the zany yellow-green of spring of the valley left behind, we soon found that the ridge tops still looked more like winter. Bare branched.
She was pleased to find three male ceruleans claiming various portions of one special ridge in Plot 3 as their territory. The female ceruleans will have to make choices of their own as soon as they return.
Oh, the wonder of it all!
For more about the cerulean warbler, look for my upcoming new UT Press book:
Ephemeral by Nature.
Primo territory already claimed by one male cerulean
on top of ridge before leaves appear
Watching a cerulean warbler from rock outcropping
Old logging road that is only a road in the most general
bumpy, rutty sense of the word.
Lee Bryant and Tiffany Beachy