In May and June, if you park your car along Newfound Gap Road at the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead and begin to climb the steep southern flank of Mt. LeConte, you pass through an old northern hardwood forest that features buckeye, beech and birch, towering giants still. If you listen closely above the roar of Walker Camp Prong that flows into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, you’ll hear an avian chorus that features the chit-chatty red-eyed vireos, flute-like wood thrushes, the hollow swirling song of veery and the high buzzy thin notes of blackburnian and black-throated blue warblers, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zee. All add a lithe sweetness to the damp vernal air.
The understory here is thick, often sodden, with rosebay rhododendron, blooming dog-hobble, primordial looking ferns and moss. It’s lush with life; in the spring it’s wet and fecund.
Still you climb, past Arch Rock, past the rock hugging heath balds, past Alum Cave Bluffs and the screaming peregrine falcons, kak, kak, kak, that dominant the rocky spur, the Eye of the Needle, that points west to the cove hardwoods far below and Sugarland Mountain beyond.
Yet, still you climb higher, passing through the zone of Eastern hemlocks and above 5,000 feet you’ll find a taste of the Canadian woodlands pushed south by the last Ice Age. You are now in remnants of spruce-fir forests long since left clinging to the tops of the Smokies like castaways on isolated isles.
Here in the high country it gets quiet, almost spookily so. Yes, occasionally you hear the deep-voiced gurgling croak of a raven as it flies overhead and if your ears are so attuned they grasp the high-pitched whistled three-notes of the black-capped chickadee, hey, sweet-ee and the barely audible kinglets, tsee, tsee, tsee. But, beyond this, if you are lucky, you soon hear one of the longest, most melodious songs, as spiritual and zealous as any Gregorian chant ever quavered by any Benedictine monk. Yet the songs are not solemn or mournful, their joyousness is unmistakable. It’s life affirming and sweet. Dr. Fred Alsop calls it a “musical series of bubbling warbles and trills that may last five seconds or more.” You are in what Alsop calls “the dark haunts of the spruce-fir forests,” the high domain and lofty cathedral of the winter wren...
For the rest of my article about the winter wrens of the Smokies, check out the current issue of Smokies Life magazine.
Thanks to editor Steve Kemp, Lisa Hortsman and all the rest!