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Smoky Mountains Christmas Bird Count - My Hiking Adventure
Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Whiteoak Sinks
Always looking for an opportunity to "commune" with nature and birds in particular, I signed up for my local 2010 Christmas Bird Count. The Audubon Society sponsors the "CBC" and challenges people to join a count and note each bird in a particular area for a whole day. Each 15-mile circle or area has a compiler who is in charge of the data. There is a $5.00 fee for each adult participating and monies go to processing costs. 2010 celebrates the 111th Christmas Bird Count that originally began as a shooting competition between teams. This wildlife census provides data on the health and status of different bird populations and is published in American Birds each year. Thousands of volunteers with a love of birds can make a difference by participating.
Since I live near the Smokies, I agreed to participate with the Cades Cove group and was assigned the Whiteoak Sinks trail. I got my materials in the mail and realized that this trail is unmarked! While I love the Smokies, hiking even "on trail" is an experience for me. The count was scheduled for December 26. My husband arranged to be off work so he could accompany me, but wouldn't you know it? We were predicted to be snowed in on that date so the count was changed to December 31. My cohort had to change to my 14-year-old son - who was really less than enthused about the upcoming trip.
We gathered copious amounts of hiking gear and set off Friday morning. It was clear and cold but we were ready. We were glad for our hiking boots on the wide, snow-covered trail. The first mile went well and we found the turn-off for our unmarked trail easily. This trail was more like a footpath but we just followed the footprints in the snow. The area was beautiful. However, no birds.
Taking a snack break mid-morning, we noted a small flock of Canada geese honking and flying overhead. On two other separate occasions, I heard a crow. Little did we know that these would be our only bird encounters for the day.
We trudged on. My son was wonderful. When I tired, he carried my pack along with his own. He didn't complain when we stopped for (very) frequent breaks.
When we came to a fork in the path and the footprints went in both directions, we decided to take the left. Luckily we knew we were going in the right direction when we saw one of the caves in the area. Several signs warned hikers not to enter the cave because of white-nose bat syndrome, a disease affecting bats around the United States.
We took the path to the right and not long after, found a second cave. We stopped here for lunch. Up until this point we had been quite warm with the exertion of hiking. When we stopped, the cold caught up with us and we were freezing! Our hand warmers wouldn't warm fast enough. After a too-short break, we went on. At another fork in the trail, we paused again and consulted the compass. Another left fork it was.
As the snow was melting, the footprints ahead were dwindling. When they stopped just on the other side of the stream we had already crossed several times, I became concerned. Were we still going in the right direction? Were we really lost? The answer came in the form of voices coming behind us. We waited for the two men approaching. Yes, they answered when I asked if they knew the way. Thank Heavens.
They led us across the stream, through the brush, back over the stream, through more brush, back over the stream and finally onto a wider trail. My legs were jelly, my face was beet-red and I was exhausted. They left us resting as they continued on their way.
I was so grateful these hiker angels appeared for us. After a LONG recuperation, we (or rather me) stumbled through the 2.2 miles remaining.
As far as the bird count goes, I was really disappointed. I had visions of reporting all kinds of species. On the other hand, I actually hiked for 6.5 miles - more than I have ever hiked in my life. And - the time spent with my teenager was priceless.
For information on future Christmas Bird Counts, contact the Audubon Society at www.audubon.org. Coming in February is the Great Backyard Bird Count. I think this will be more my speed.
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