The Case of the Golden-winged Warbler

In summer, the Golden-winged Warbler flits among the thorny blackberry bushes and spiky yellow goldenrod up here, on top of the highest points in the Appalachians. These rounded, stone-strewn humps are the “Highlands of Roan” and as their name suggests, they very much resemble the misty highlands of Scotland—mostly bald compared to the surrounding hillsides of mature forest and carpeted with long grass the color of ponies.

Very few people care about the Golden-Winged warbler, and even fewer make it up this high in the Appalachians—above 5,000 feet. Here on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Appalachian Trail passes by the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi (Mount Mitchell), and if any of those intrepid hikers were ever to stop to catch their breath awhile, they might see a flash of golden yellow hopping up from the ground. The birds move so quickly, some might mistake it for a flash of sunlight or some kind of imaginary hovering reflection, but the birds are quite real—they exist, but for how much longer?

According to Chris Coxen, field ecologist of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC), the Golden-winged Warbler is currently experiencing the fastest decline of any songbird species in America. When he tells me this, my heart falls and I am sad. It’s the saddest news I’ve heard in a long time. I was just recovering from the two-weeks-long closure of our national parks, and then, on the first day they let me (legally) enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I was confronted with a shimmering taxidermied Passenger Pigeon, once abundant down here and now completely extinct. Which reminds me of another colorful bird from North Carolina—the Carolina parakeet, also long gone.

It is human nature to separate history from right now, but right now, in the bald mountaintops of North Carolina, there is a little bird that is disappearing—flitting away from right now and into the distant pass and the glass case of the taxidermist.

The Golden-winged Warbler is disappearing because its natural habitat is being swept away, one mountaintop at a time. Lacking high altitude breeding grounds and due to warming temperatures, they interbreed with the similar-but-separate species, the Blue-winged Warbler, leading to a demise of their gene pool. In the end, this little-known bird could simply evaporate, like dewdrops on the grass at dawn.

But all of us hear very sad stories every day—people die in wars, disasters happen, dogs get hit by cars—so that the destiny of one yellow-tinged tweety songbird might not seem to be the earth-shattering priority that it actually is.

In Asheville, North Carolina, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy  responded to the impending crisis faced by the warbler by mustering volunteers to save their home, one-acre at a time. This is not some rag-tag brigade of hippies chained up in the trees and chanting against some corporation. No, these are mothers and schoolteachers and authors and lawyers who simply care enough to act—and they act by buying up the songbird habitat and then setting it aside for conservation. It is not an easy process—I heard remarkable stories of last-minute deals and failed housing developments, generous donors and passionate volunteers, all of whom work towards the hoped-for outcome of this, a newly-purchased parcel of mountains, set aside for a bird’s home.

This past weekend, I was honored to work in the highlands of roan, alongside those who care enough to show up on a Saturday morning to make things better for a bird that many of us have never seen. After spending a few hours improving the warblers’ habitat, we set about cleaning up the trails on the property, trimming, cutting and sweeping so that in the future, birdwatchers and hikers and enjoy this landscape to the fullest. In the course of an afternoon, I swung a swing blade and decapitated a few hundred saplings that sprung up from the middle of the path. I wasn’t sure I was actually “helping” but after our crew passed through, our progress was clear—the path was evident and now (hopefully), walkers would stay on the trail and away from the ground-nesting warbler.

Perhaps this is just a little thing. A few months back, all of you voted to send me to Grand Teton National Park, where I kicked off this trip by helping to improve wildlife migration routes. Saving pronghorn and bison and elk seems so much larger and more pertinent. I have since traveled across our national parks in 7 different states and come to a much fuller recognition of the crucial issues faced by wildlife in the world today.

But what I have learned is I feel like there’s a war going on—a war of values, in which corporations, institutions, families, and individual volunteers are all vying for land, each with their own ideal of how the land should be used. Thankfully, for this one mountain right here and now, the decision has been made, and with the help of the National Parks Conservation Association and Nature Valley’s Preserve the Parks initiative, they were able to return these acres to the little bird who lived here first.

Before leaving North Carolina, I ate breakfast at the Waffle House, where I was greeted by a white-haired woman in her eighties, “Maxine”, who led me to my table and kindly talked my Yankee self through the menu. A born-and-bred Asheville native, she’s a bit of a rare bird herself, and as we chatted, she told me the story of her house on the mountain, once all alone in the woods but now surrounded by such giant vacation homes that forced her own property taxes “through the roof.” Though she retired from her accounting job 18 years ago, she now spends her Sundays greeting folks at the Waffle House.

As I twirled my forked waffled in a puddle of syrup, I heard a tap on the window. There, inches away from my plate, stood a little brown sparrow, banging his little triangle beak against the glass. He was hungry and wanted my waffle something terrible.

This is no the world I want to live in—a world where ancient mountain forests are turned into gaudy housing developments, where nice retired ladies are forced to work on Sunday and where we trade in the rich biodiversity of the bird world for a mess of monochromatic hand-fed sparrows.

No, this just won’t do—we can’t let it happen. We’ve already lost the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet from these parts, which is why the Golden-winged Warbler matters a lot to me, and why I spent my Saturday, along with twenty other volunteers, high on a mountaintop, doing the very best job I could to ensure the Highlands of Roan remain exactly as they are.

Article produced by National Geographic Traveler.