Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I made a whirlwind trip to America's most heavily visited national park last weekend. It was long overdue. Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border, and hosts some nine million (million!) visitors a year. It's a bit of circus traffic-wise at times, but the park is within an easy drive of much of the eastern U.S. and given the beauty of the place, it's no mystery why so many people would want to come here.

But if you are interested in flora and fauna, it is easy to get off the beaten paths and find much of interest. The Smokies encompass 814 square miles and that's a lot of space. But, to bring out its fabulous biodiversity, it is instructive to compare the Smokies with my home state, Ohio, which at 41,222 square miles is nearly 51 times larger than Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There has been a well-publicized All Taxa Biological Inventory going on in the Smokies for thirteen years; an effort to catalog as many species of living things as possible. To date, this study has found nearly 18,000 species, but researchers think that is just the tip of the iceberg, and perhaps five times that number of organisms remain to be found. A few examples of the Smokies' fantastic diversity:

Spiders - 533 (Ohio has 650)
Beetles - 2,518 (Ohio? not sure but likely not that many more)
Butterflies and moths - 1,871 (Ohio has around 2,500)
Plants - 1,685 (Ohio has about 1,850 natives; ca. 3,000 if you toss in non-natives)
Amphibians - 43 (Ohio has 38)
Birds - 247 (421 have been documented in Ohio)
Fishes - 76 (134 for Ohio)
Mammals - 65 (54 for Ohio)
Reptiles - 40 (44 for Ohio)

The Smokies is full of gorgeous scenery, at every turn. It is a place of indescribable beauty, and even if one had no interest in the finer points of biology, a trip here will be most fulfilling. For a great many people, the Smokies has probably been their first true experience of a large, wild landscape.

But there are large-scale problems, all of them man-induced. Click the photo o expand it, and look at all of those dead trees on the distant mountainside. They are Eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, victims of the woolly adelgid, an insect inadvertently imported from Asia. The amount of mortality caused by this invasive pest is staggering. At higher elevations, as around the summit of Clingman's Dome, another species of non-native insect has laid waste to the Fraser's fir, Abies fraseri.

Another big impact comes courtesy of our cars, trucks, and factories. Air pollution, at least on bad days, has reduced visibility from the high peaks by as much as 80% from what it was five or six decades ago. The smog also casts a pall on the overall landscape, muting colors and dimming vistas with haze. Airborn chemicals also harm vegetation, especially acid rain.

But much of the park still looks great and harbors habitats chockfull of life. This is great rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum, which was near peak bloom during my visit. This showy evergreen shrub creates lush tangles along stream courses, and contributes heavily to the ambience of the mountain coves.

There are about eight other species of Rhododendron in the Smokies, but few can hold a candle to this high elevation shrub. It is Catawba rosebay, R. catawbiense, a real ooh and aah plant by any standard. This shrub was nestled amongst red spruce, Picea rubens, high up on Clingman's Dome. This particular mountain boasts one of the highest elevations in the Smokies, pushing to 6,643 feet. At this spot, there were many boreal breeding birds, including Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Black-throated Blue and Canada warblers, Dark-eyed Junco, Purple Finch, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.

The flowers of Catawba rosebay are especially striking, the brilliant pink clusters glowing from the shadows and drawing the eye of all who see them.

I was quite interested in less conspicuous plants, such as this southern mountain cranberry, Vaccinium erythrocarpum. A rather small shrub, the cranberry forms thickets that blend with the other vegetation, until one notices the striking flowers dangling below the leaves.

If you find this one in Ohio, you've made a great discovery. It is mountain wood-sorrel, Oxalis montana. While this showy little wildflower is endangered in Ohio, it's all over the Smokies and not hard to find.

More to follow...


Jan Kennedy said...

Wow, I wish I were there (minus the pollution). Will you be leading any trips in the Smokies?

=mew= said...

love your blog. must get to the smokies one of these springs...

Jim McCormac said...

Glad you like the blog, =mew=, and thanks for letting me know!

No trip-leading plans, Jan, but I'd like too, sometime!