Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Birding the Red River Gorge (Kentucky)

One of the great things about birding is that it works everywhere. Sure, some places are better than others, but if you have a blindfolded baboon throw a dart at a globe, it’ll hot a spot that you can bird. No matter how artificial, stinky, or downright ugly, there is probably a bird there at some time or another.

Still, when I have time to relax and get out of town, I like to have something other than city parks, landfills, and wastewater plants on my agenda. Birding is always fun, but in a truly beautiful natural setting, it can be a downright spiritual experience.
Better than a landfill, but with fewer gulls. (Clifty Wilderness, Daniel Boonme National Forest)
That’s why Sarah and I found ourselves headed seven hours south of home when we had a spare weekend in early June this past summer. Our destination was the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky.
The gorge falls within the Daniel Boone National Forest. The Forest Service has preserved 29,000 acres of the forest as the Red River GorgeGeological Area, and almost half of that area is a designated wilderness – the Clifty Wilderness. Nearby is Natural Bridge State Resort Park, a property of the state of Kentucky.
Red River Gorge
The gorge is many things to many people of different hobbies and pursuits. The sandstone cliffs are popular with climbers, the trails are a favorite of backpackers. There used to be a hang-gliding competition off of one of the prominent rocks. Botanists know the gorge as the only place on earth to support the White-haired Goldenrod (Solidago albopilosa).

We, on the other hand ,went to bird and enjoy some nature in general. The Red River Gorge is a melting pot of multiple biomes. For birds, it’s far enough south to be rich with southern warbler species like Hoodeds and Worm-eaters. At the same time, the coniferous forests of the rugged terrain are a southern oputpost for northern species. Red-breasted nuthatches have even nested in the gorge. The cliffs make for some fascinating microclimatic effects. Without changing elevation, you can walk from a rich mixed-deciduous southeastern forest to what feels like a sub-boreal relic of the northwoods - and then back to the magnolia and tuliptrees – all in a quarter mile.
Eastern Towhee in the Red River Gorge
There’s an endless network of trails in the gorge, but with limited time to kill, there are three I’d recommend.

Rock Bridge Loop (Clifty Wilderness)

This is a relatively easy mile-and-a-half long trail that offers a great introduction to the Clifty Wilderness. The botanical diversity is stunning, with Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) providing a lush, jungle-like feel. Bigleaf Magnolia is at the northern extreme of its range here. The understory is dominated by laurels and Rhododendron.
These Eastern Tiger Swallowtails aren't birds, but they sure are stunning in a flock! We found them lapping at muddy moss near Rock Bridge.
In June, all of these large-leaved trees make warblering – or birding of any kind – rather challenging. Stop along the road to the trailhead and listen for the signature Red River Gorge warblers. Kentucky, Hooded, and Worm-eating are all here, along with Black-throated Green and Black-and-White. The Rhododendron thickets along the actual trail are supposed to house a Swainson’s Warbler or two, but we failed to hear any. Carolina Chickadees and Worm-eating Warblers were the only birds I think we actually laid eyes upon on this trail. Kentucky in June forces you to get better at ear-birding really fast.

Auxier Ridge Trail (Red River Gorge Geolocical Area)

One of the most scenic walks in the gorge is the walk out on Auxier Ridge. It’s a 5-mile loop, but you can make it a shorter out-and-back of just two or three miles. The ridge is narrow and the trail runs at or near the top for most of the way out. At one point, it becomes only a few feet wide with precipitous drops on either side – a little more exposure than a typical eastern trail. The habitat up here is scrubby with some pines here and there. A wildfire ravaged 1,650 acres of the ridge in the fall of 2010, leaving some still visible scars, but the vegetation is recovering quickly. The open areas are great for raptor watching.
Eastern Fence lizards are more closely related to birds than butterflies are - and they're quite common in the gorge.
Indigo Buntings will be bouncing around in the scrub while Chickadees and Black-throated Green Warblers forage through the pines. But the unofficial mascot of this trail is the Prairie Warbler. Prairies are perhaps one of the most poorly named birds. They don’t like prairie habitat at all. Scrubby, successional habitat is their preferred nesting habitat. When things get too lush, they move on out. This makes them unlikely to utilize specific nesting areas for many consecutive years, but the poor soil, brutal wind, and recent burns on Auxier Ridge will likely make the area attractive to Prairies for more than a few breeding seasons. If you pass through in May or early June, you’ll probably get to see some Prairie Warbler combat. The males are particularly un-fond of each other.
Prairie Warbler, Auxier Ridge, Red River Gorge
He got attacked by a rival male four seconds after I took this shot of him singing. (Prairie Warbler)

Battleship Rock Trail (Natural Bridge State Resort Park)

This trail goes steeply up to the base of Battleship Rock, and then on to Natural Bridge. It’s less than a mile long, but steep in areas, including many steps. The lush forest is similar to others in the area. This is supposedly another great spot to hear Swainson’s Warblers, but we failed again to capture that elusive call. Wood Thrushes provided a serenade at the bottom, replaced by Carolina Wrens halfway up, and Worm-eating Warblers near the top. Hooded Warblers were singing everywhere and all the time.
At the base of Battleship Rock we watched a Worm-eater gathering fallen leaves and carrying them high above our heads to a small vegetated ledge on the cliff face. It’s not often you get to see a ground-nester carrying nesting material to a spot 40 feet above your head.
Worm-eating Warbler 

Climbing up to the top of Natural Bridge, we got to see a pair of Pine Warblers feeding their fledglings. A pair of Prairie Warblers were taking advantage of this one refuge of scrubby vegetation in a sea of lush forest. We ended our bird list for the trail with a Barred Owl calling across the gorge below us as we stood atop the bridge.
There are 7 Hooded Warblers, 5 Worm-eating Warblers, 3 Carolina Wrens, 2 Wood Thrushes and probably one Swainson's Warbler in this picture. Nope, I don't see them either.
Pits in a sandstone cliff. Carolina Wrens popped out of several of these holes when we approached.
The Red River Gorge certainly isn’t the birdiest spot on earth, and there’s no bird there that can’t be found elsewhere (sometimes with more ease), but the area is stunningly beautiful and the birds that are there are good birds. The region is not heavily birded either. I’d go so far as to say it quite underbirded. At the very least, it’s not well represented at eBird. If you find yourself around Lexington, Kentucky with a day to spare, take a drive out to the Red River Gorge and see what you can see…or as is more often the case, hear. 
So beautiful the birds are just a bonus...or is the beauty a bonus and the birds are the thing? (View from top of Natural Bridge in the state park.)

1 comment:

  1. It does seem to be a very interesting area with challenging birding!