From backwoods trails to paved scenic byways there are excellent vantage points from which to see everything from Sandhill Cranes, Blue Herons, and other lowland birds to the colorful Warblers that skirt the mountaintops of the high country in the Cherokee National Forest. For those who crave the solitude of the deep forest, there are hiking trails galore. Explorers who prefer the comforts of an automobile will find scenic overlooks where they can sit in the car and spot warblers, woodpeckers, and an occasional eagle.
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Cherokee National Forest – The Cherokee National Forest is home to 262 known bird species! The best time to spot a wide variety of birds is, of course, during the spring migration, which reaches its peak in mid April. Black-capped Chickadees, Ravens, Woodpeckers,and Warblers are in plentiful supply then.
Tips: During late spring and early summer, warblers are in their breeding plumage — their boldest, most vivid colors — and males are actively singing to proclaim their territory. Great places to spot warblers are the Cherohala Skyway, the Chilhowee Overlooks on the Ocoee Scenic Byway, and the Hood Mountain (Big Bend) Overlook on the Hiwassee River
Cherohala Skyway – This National Scenic Byway climbs to over 5,000 feet in elevation as it connects Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC. Winding across high peaks in the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests, birders will find numerous overlooks for parking and viewing as well as trails to hike on for a closer look.
Viewing Information: On the trails that lead off the Skyway, hikers can observe such northern birds as Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Winter Wrens. Other species to watch for are the Broad-winged Hawk, Common Raven, Wood Thrush, Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting and Eastern Towhee.
Tips: At Whigg Meadow and Mud Gap, birdwatchers can relish in the beauty of a scenic grassy meadow overlooking the mountains from an elevation of 5,000 feet. The 1.5-mile hike to Whigg is moderately difficult but for the avid birdwatcher, sighting a Northern Sawwhet Owl is probably worth the effort in late April or early May.
Hood Mountain (Big Bend) Overlook – Located on FS 108, a paved road that follows the Hiwassee River, upriver from Reliance, TN. Good spot to see Eagles and Warblers.
Viewing Information: The drive alongside the Hiwassee River from the Hood Mountain Overlook to the end of the paved road at the Apalachia Powerhouse is known for Blue Heron, Kingfishers, and more.
Tips: Eagles have been spotted along this route for the past several years.
Chilhowee Overlooks (Ocoee Scenic Byway) – Located on FS 77, near Benton, TN. FS 77 is a paved road that is part of the Ocoee Scenic Byway. The overlooks and surrounding forest provide good places to spot Warblers and other species that are found in high places. Located near Chilhowee Lake (Lake McCamy) and campground, this Cherokee National Forest recreational area offers more than good birding and beautiful views — it is also a good place to camp, hike, swim, and bike.
Viewing Information: During spring and fall migration and summer breeding season, watch and listen for migratory birds like Scarlet Tanagers and Blackthroated Green Warblers. During the winter months, listen for residents like Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Pine Warblers, and Carolina Chickadees.
Chota Peninsula on Tellico Lake – Site of the early capital of the Cherokee Indian Nation, Chota Peninsula today provides ideal conditions for wintering waterfowl, including geese, mallards, widgeons, loons and horned grebes. Spring and fall are good times to spot osprey, double-crested cormorants and black tern. Ringed billed gulls are common in the winter. Year round, view white-tailed deer, wild turkey and muskrat.
Viewing Information: Tanasi Memorial and Chota Memorial provide convenient scenic views of the lake and bottomlands. Refuge area closed mid October through mid February. Use caution during small game hunting seasons.
Tips: Secretive rails, sedge and marsh wrens inhabit the wet areas.
Blythe Ferry Unit of Hiwassee Refuge – Mudflats, croplands and ponds near the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers offer outstanding views of large numbers of waterfowl, but the real wildlife spectacle here is migrating Sandhill Cranes. From November through late March, up to 7,000 of these regal, slate gray birds rest and feed on the refuge, the only sizeable gathering of cranes between Florida and their northern nesting grounds. Twenty waterfowl species may also be observed here in winter; most abundant are mallards and black ducks and Canada Geese.
Viewing Information: During the site’s open months, travel on foot along gravel roads and pastures toward Chickamauga Lake. Look for cranes feeding and resting on Hiwassee Island, in cornfields or in flight. Please observe cranes from a distance. An observation tower is here for year round viewing. Area open only to hunters during limited small and big game seasons; inquire with TWRA for dates.
Tips: High probability of viewing cranes and waterfowl throughout the winter. Bald eagles and northern harriers also visit in winter.