By Darryl Payne
Posted on March 16, 2016
One of the most thrilling experiences of a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a wildlife sighting. The park is among the largest wildlife sanctuaries in the United States, and is home to 65 species of animals, including bears, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, chipmunks, wild boars, woodchucks, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, opossums and more. A good field guide will help you determine the natural habitats of the animals you most want to see, and will help you identify animals and birds you've never seen before.
Every day in the park is different, and every hike is a chance to slow down and get a glimpse of the grandeur of Nature. Some creatures, like the 700-pound elk, aren't too hard to spot when they're near. Get up early, take your binoculars or spotting scope, and scan the trees near open fields to catch a glimpse of these behemoths. Other species, like the tiny and endangered Indiana brown bat or the quirky water shrew, require you to keep your eyes and ears open.
Of course, the iconic symbol of the Smokies is the American black bear. The park is home to more than 1,500 bears. Black bears are small- to medium-sized bears who thrive in the park and they can weigh up to 600 pounds. Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Trail and Laurel Falls trails are popular bear-watching hotspots, but with an average of two bears per square mile, you are just as likely to see a bear on any hike - just get out early, watch the edges of tree lines, and listen carefully. When you spot large animals such as bears and elk, safety requires that you keep your distance and use binoculars.
When hiking around lakes, watch for beavers and river otters, two species that are now thriving in the park. River otters are playful and are great fun to watch. Scan the water's edge for otter dens and watch quietly - maybe you'll catch a glimpse of one of these delightful, slippery creatures. Also watch the water for loons, tiny pied-billed and horned grebes, seven types of heron, black ducks, wood ducks, pintails, and even white pelicans.
Speaking of birds, plenty of species thrive in the Great Smoky Mountains. The park varies so widely in elevation that it creates a diverse habitat for over 120 species of birds. It is also a critical migration stop for other species, so stay alert. If you're hiking the spruce forests at higher elevations, watch for golden-crowned kinglets, northern saw-whet owls, winter wrens, and Canada warblers. If you're hiking lower elevations, watch for small, red downy woodpeckers, noisy belted kingfishers and eastern screech owls, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, and vibrant blue indigo buntings. In the fields, you're likely to spot brightly colored American kestrels, eastern bluebirds, and orchard orioles.
Conservation is a passion for those who work in and visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While you may no longer be able to see fox squirrels, red wolves, or the Carolina parakeet, you can spot threatened or endangered species that are making a grand comeback. Look overhead to spot the fuzzy, mouse-eared Indiana bat or the acrobatic Carolina northern flying squirrel. Birders who want bragging rights should stay alert for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Despite its name, this medium-sized woodpecker doesn't always have a red patch on the crown. Instead, both male and female are white with black wings, black-and-white wing bars, and a distinctive black cap. Budding entomologists hiking high elevations may spot the tiny and endangered spruce-fir moss spider. Find these small spiders by watching for their unique tub-shaped webs, which they use for shelter.
Other species on federal government watch lists that are worth looking for are the eastern small-footed bat - easily identified by its diminutive size and distinctive black face mask, and the American water shrew, a large (for a shrew: about 6.5 inches) black-and-brown mammal with peculiar water-walking habits. Though this shrew appears to be able to walk on water, it's actually floating courtesy of air bubbles trapped in its thick fur.
If you'd like to see more exotic types of animals while you're in the area, visit the RainForest Adventures Discovery Zoo in Sevierville. This zoo features over 600 live animals, including lemurs, porcupines, kinkajous, African servals, coatimundis, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, mongoose and more. The zoo also has an interesting collection of reptiles, amphibians, and insects.
A vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains is always exciting, and wildlife spotting is one of the best ways to enjoy your trip and renew your connection with Nature. Get up early, walk quietly, listen carefully, and remember to look up into the trees. You may just enjoy the wildlife sighting of a lifetime and earn a great story to tell around the fire that night.
About Darryl Payne
Darryl Payne is a native of East Tennessee in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. He is a web developer with a passion for building great websites. As a local, he can offer a unique perspective on where to stay and things to do while on vacation in the Smokies. To read his latest recommendations, please click the Google+ follow button.