Blue Ridge Country May/June 2021 - 34

ABOVE: High-elevation grasslands are important habitats for many species of birds.
RIGHT: Black bears used to be almost exclusively in the southwest Virginia section of the parkway; now, they're much more widespread.

laborate, so it was all pretty disjointed.
Fast-forward to the mid-'90s. The forests-much of which had been replanted
when the park was formed and various adjacent lands were protected in the
1930s-were starting to mature. Plants
and animals that'd been pushed out by
logging and deforestation were returning.
Meanwhile, NPS was acquiring lots of new
land from retiring farmers. Four other biologists and I were hired to come in and
basically usher in a new era at the park.
They wanted to be able to do things
like target threatened species like peregrine falcons, or rare habitats like southern Appalachian high-elevation bogs, and
figure out how to increase their distribution. That started with us getting out there
and scouring the park, figuring out what
was here, where it was, and in what abundance. Once compiled, that information
revolutionized how land was managed
in the park and ultimately led to major
changes and successes.
Can you tell us about some of the biggest changes and successes you've
seen so far?
One of the most obvious is black bears.
When I started, I'd see one or two a year,
tops-and those were almost exclusively
in southwest Virginia. Now, because of
reforestation and adapted management
approaches, their numbers have increased
dramatically. I deal with them on an almost daily basis.

34

BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

Similarly, it wasn't long ago that raptors like bald eagles, golden eagles and peregrine falcons had all but disappeared. All
three are once again nesting in the park.
In fact, we're currently using trail-cameras
to try and pinpoint areas where golden
eagles are feeding, with an ultimate goal
of bolstering their numbers.
Then, in far southwest Virginia and
North Carolina, you have elk that've
spilled over from reintroduction efforts
in the Smokies. The species was hunted
to extinction in North Carolina by the
late-1700s. Now there's a herd of about
200 roaming around. Seeing them grazing
in a high, grassy meadow around sunset?
Man, that's incredible.
Something that's less obvious is habitat
restoration, particularly for birds. We've
done a lot of work in that department.
During spring migration, there could be
upward of 250 species in the park at any
given moment. I've personally documented more than 112 in the Rocky Knob
Recreation Area alone (Milepost 167)-
including [prized sightings like] hooded,
golden-winged and prothonotary warblers, golden-crowned kinglet, blue-gray
gnatcatcher, red-eyed vireo and yellowbilled cuckoo.
I'm particularly proud of efforts around
high-elevation grassland birds. The past
decades have revealed most of these species are experiencing serious population
declines. Accordingly, we've been doing
things like restoring habitats and altering

mowing schedules to boost breeding activity. And it's working. We've been seeing
a lot more of the rarer birds like bobolinks,
eastern meadowlark and Savannah sparrows, to name a few.
You say there's never been a better
time to visit the Parkway. Why?
When I first started, I saw this job as a
springboard for getting a position out
West. But the more time I spent along the
ridgeline, the more I fell in love. It didn't
take long to realize I wanted to stick
around. Most people know that the parkway is the nation's longest linear park,
but few understand what that means in
terms of ecological diversity. There are
countless overlooks, for sure. But being
able to explore so many different habitats
in one park? That's utterly unique.
I've been here almost 30 years and,
honestly, I feel I'm always discovering
something new. There are just so many
great, hidden spots to explore. For instance, last summer, I did a bunch of
hiking in the Smart View Recreation Area
near mile-marker 154. It has this amazing old-growth forest full of huge, gnarly
oaks, which also happens to offer fantastic birding opportunities-most notably,
a breeding population of cerulean warbler. You can hike around in there, see
beautiful birds, then picnic in a meadow
with 2,500-foot views of the piedmont.
To me, it doesn't get much better than
that.


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Blue Ridge Country May/June 2021

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