Appalachian Adventures: Birdwatching at the Wilson Creek reserve area

One benefit of a Lees-McRae education is access to outdoor adventures mere minutes from campus. Follow recent graduate Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21 as he spends his final summer in Banner Elk exploring the High Country.   

Night had already fallen. I was with James Cadolino, a senior Wildlife Biology student, at an unmarked location inside the Wilson Creek reserve area. I was sitting on the trunk of Cadolino’s car while he knelt on the gravel road, playing whippoorwill calls on a speaker.  

We had driven towards Wilson Creek at this late hour to survey the whippoorwills in the area. This species typically thrives in the rich coves of western North Carolina. However, after several minutes of waiting, we could not hear the iconic “whip-poor-will” call, which resembles a car alarm. 

Suddenly, a tiny gray figure flew out from the dense hardwood forest. It hovered between Cadolino and me before diving into the forest once again.  

“Was it…” I muttered, unable to finish my question as I tried to catch my breath. 

“Yes,” said Cadolino. “That was a whippoorwill.” 

Cadolino is a member of the Lees-McRae student chapter of the Audubon Society. During the academic semester, I frequently found Cadolino returning from a hike with the Nikon camera he uses to photograph the countless bird species in the area near Banner Elk.  

In the mountains around Lees-McRae, you can spot an almost endless list of migratory and native bird species. Hundreds of birdwatchers visit the Blue Ridge Mountains each year to observe the bright-red robins, the elegant golden-winged warblers, the loud, red-breasted nuthatches, and numerous other species. 

Some weeks ago, I had asked Cadolino to allow me to join him in one of his birding expeditions. This trip was going to be my first time birdwatching. Moreover, it was the first time I ever heard about whippoorwills.  

“How do you spell that?” I had to ask Cadolino, while we were heading towards our expedition. 

For his senior capstone research project, Cadolino decided to survey whippoorwills inside the Wilson Creek reserve area to assess their numbers. Overall, the number of whippoorwills has been decreasing in recent decades due to habitat destruction and food depletion due to the use of pesticides.  

This past Monday, Cadolino invited me to participate in his second field trip to collect data at the Wilson Creek reserve area. We met around 7:45 p.m. in front of the Shelton Learning Commons and drove in Cadolino’s red Subaru toward Linville. To reach the Wilson Creek reserve area, we turned onto Roseboro Road and drove up toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. After intersecting the Blue Ridge Parkway, Roseboro Road turns into gravel and descends into the Wilson Creek reserve area. 

An untamed hardwood forest extends on both sides of the gravel road. On that Monday evening, we were the only people around. The song of diurnal birds flying back to their nests before twilight resonated in the forest as we drove down Roseboro Road. 

On our way toward the Wilson Creek reserve area, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about whippoorwills from Cadolino. Whippoorwills are insectivore nocturnal birds. Their breeding range extends over the eastern part of the United States, from the U.S.-Canada border to Georgia. They are ground-nesting birds, preferring to live under rhododendron and dense coves. The lush hardwood forest inside the Wilson Creek reserve area, which is rich in moths and other insects, is a perfect habitat for whippoorwills.   

In local folklore legends, whippoorwills have been given supernatural powers because of their nocturnal nature and their rather sinister appearance. Cadolino can testify to the veracity of such legends. On his first trip to survey whippoorwills at the Wilson Creek reserve area, a whippoorwill landed next to him. Cadolino immediately grabbed his camera and tried to take a picture of the bird. However, both his camera and headlamp began to fail and did not turn on until the whippoorwill flew away.  

“I am not superstitious, but that had never happened to me,” said Cadolino. 

We drove down Roseboro Road for about 10 minutes and pulled over on the side of the road. It was after 8:30 p.m. The sound of birds flying to their nests had dissipated, and a deep silence took its place. We could hear the whispering sound of Wilson Creek immersed somewhere in the thick vegetation. As daylight began to fade away, hundreds of fireflies emerged on the side of the road, like a meteor shower. 

While we awaited the night to come, Cadolino prepared his speaker and arranged his equipment to conduct the survey. He recorded the GPS coordinates of the site and took notes on the surrounding vegetation. For his research, Cadolino had to conduct a series of two two-minute “listen-only” surveys, followed by two playback surveys using the whippoorwill recording and two more two-minute “listen-only” surveys.  

“How do you know that you are not recording the same bird twice?” I asked Cadolino after he explained the survey protocol to me. 

“Just listen carefully,” said Cadolino.  

Finally, the night had fallen upon us. With his survey sheet in hand, Cadolino started his timer to begin the survey. I was sitting on the trunk of Cadolino’s car while he stood in the middle of the road, looking around.  

For the first four minutes, we could not hear any whippoorwills around us. Cadolino knelt to play the whippoorwill calls for the second part of the experiment. He played the calls twice as the protocol instructed, but we could not hear any response.  

We remained in silence for one more minute, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly, one whippoorwill, like a ghost, emerged from the surrounding forest. The bird hovered between Cadolino and me for some seconds and disappeared once again into the woods.  

I could feel my heart beating in my chest. It was a mixed feeling of shock and excitement.  

We finished the last part of the survey and prepared to leave. As we were packing, a white SUV driving down Roseboro Road stopped next to us. The driver, a woman in her fifties named Roberta who lived some miles down the road, asked us if we were stranded. We explained to her that we were surveying whippoorwills in the area. 

“I know them,” replied Roberta. “I can hear them from my house all night. They’re really weird looking.” 

After our encounter with Roberta, we began driving up Roseboro Road. We stopped at the site where Cadolino had conducted his first survey, hoping to find more whippoorwills here.  

As we pulled over, we could hear several whippoorwills around almost immediately. We stepped outside of the car and set up the speaker once again. Cadolino played his whippoorwill recording to call their attention. Instantly, three of them appeared from the dark forest. They flew above us and landed in branches on different sides.  

We pointed our flashlights at them to have a better look. In the gloom of the Appalachian night, the whippoorwills resembled ghostly visions. Their feathers were as dark as the night while their bright red eyes were shining directly towards us. 

“They are actually weird looking,” I said jokingly. 

Cadolino did not miss the opportunity to take a picture of the whippoorwills. I kept shining at one of the birds while Cadolino rushed to grab his Nikon camera from the back of his car. He pointed his camera steadily and took a couple of shots.  

It was already past 10:30 p.m. when we left the Wilson Creek reserve area. I was not expecting to have such a close encounter with a whippoorwill in my first birdwatching expedition. My excitement was immeasurable. The whole way back to Banner Elk, I had a full-lipped smile on my face. 

The catalog of outdoor experiences near the Banner Elk area is not limited to hiking and camping. Visitors, students, and locals can delight in spotting and identifying the almost endless list of bird species that inhabit the forests and grasslands of Southern Appalachia.  

For Cadolino, his passion for birdwatching and photography has allowed him to connect with the mountains around him more deeply. This year, some of his pictures were selected for the 2022 Blue Ridge Calendar Contest.  

As Cadolino approaches his last semester at Lees-McRae, he plans to continue to explore the mountains in the look for more native bird species to photograph with his Nikon camera. Birdwatching has given Cadolino and the other members of the Lees-McRae student chapter of the Audubon Society a different way to live by the college’s motto—In the Mountains, Of the Mountains, For the Mountains. 

By Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21July 19, 2021