illustration courtesy Biodiversity heritage library

The fluting notes of a wood thrush serenade your one-pot dinner. A barred owl hoots “who cooks for you” in the night. A loon’s wail coils around your heart on a Maine lake. Wherever you are on the Appalachian Trail, birds offer sweet companionship. Yet, as hiker numbers soar, bird populations tumble.

More than half of North America species are experiencing major declines. We have a few billion less birds than 40 years ago. In one drastic example, the golden-winged warbler nests in multiple places along the A.T., including the Roan Highlands, where its numbers have plummeted by a staggering 98 percent. Within this sobering news, the A.T. shines with the promise of protection and ecological restoration. For instance, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) habitat work on behalf of the golden-winged warbler is leading to an uptick in nesting birds, while serving hikers with more expansive views. The ATC also partners with other groups to conserve the warbler’s critical winter home in Columbia and Venezuela. This work across international boundaries will help to ensure the survival of this species.

Peter Marra is the director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, devoted to the study, conservation, and championing of one of the great wonders of our planet — the migration of birds. He’s also an A.T. hiker who has trekked segments in all 14 states.“The Appalachian Trail and associated habitats provide a wonderful natural thoroughfare north to south that’s like an I-95 for birds,” he says. For millions of our beleaguered birds, the Trail corridor from Georgia to Maine forms their skyway, shelter, and home. The heart-pounding rise and fall of Trail elevations results in a sweep of habitats and birds adapted to them. Those homes include intact forests that are essential for the future of nesting birds in trouble, including the wood thrush, cerulean warbler, and eastern whip-poor-will.

Above: Golden-winged warbler on Max Patch – North Carolina. By Andrew Riley; Below: Loons on Lake Umbagog – New Hampshire. By John Slonina
Can the A.T. Save Birds in Peril?

In today’s unraveling natural world, the A.T.’s significance is paramount. Strategic land acquisitions to the East’s wild conservation backbone add to a protected landscape. Size, quality, and diversity of bird habitat matter — the bigger and wilder the better, especially in a time of crisis. “We are witnessing the collapse of the North America avifauna,” Marra says. “We are not looking at an individual single cause — like DDT —of the past that we could get rid of to save species. We are now seeing multiple and interacting effects that are driving declines.” The depletion of birds is personal to Marra, who recalls a favorite phenomenon where he grew up in Connecticut in the 1970s. “I used to see long ribbons of nighthawks migrating in the fall over the mountains, but not anymore.” Common nighthawks chase the day’s end, giving a definitive high peeeeent call as they zoom after their insect prey, making the slender-winged birds vulnerable to pesticides. Their numbers have fallen by 61 percent. Still, they remain valiant ultramarathoners, flying from as far away as northern Canada to Argentina.

For nighthawks and many other migratory birds, the A.T. serves as the perfect flyway. Like most thru-hikers, birds head north with the spring. Unlike all but the most intrepid thru-hikers, they turn around to head back the other way after the summer nesting season. Repeating this cycle year after year, they ride the skyway, aided by the winds that drive up the mountains. For night-flying songbirds, the building-free corridor and its dark skies keep them safer from collisions that take a terrible toll elsewhere. Up to a billion birds die annually in collisions with glass windows alone. Every stretch of the Trail is significant to the future of migratory and resident birds, including these key geographic regions: Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness, Pennsylvania’s Kittatinny Ridge, and North Carolina and Tennessee’s Roan Highlands.

For millions of birds, the Trail corridor from Georgia to Maine forms their skyway, shelter, and home.

For millions of birds, the Trail corridor from Georgia to Maine forms their skyway, shelter, and home.
How to Help Birds On and off the Trail

Be a citizen scientist. Join E-Bird and start a list:

Volunteer with Trail Clubs, the ATC, and conservation groups.

Spread the joy of birds to other hikers. Teach a child how to identify birds.

Plant native trees, bushes, and flowers that host native caterpillars which, in turn, feed songbirds.

Buy bird-friendly coffee to conserve birds in winter ranges. Avoid palm oil — plantations destroy tropical habitat.

Keep cats indoors. Domestic cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds annually, and are the number one cause of direct mortality.

Above: A rare Bicknell’s thrush. By Ian Davies / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Below: Black-throated blue warblers nest and migrate directly along the A.T. corridor. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Maine — Katahdin’s Best Kept Secret

From Monson, Maine to Katahdin — the famed northern terminus of the A.T. — hikers of the 100-Mile Wilderness immerse in denizens of the far north, from loons to spruce grouse, gray jays, and ravens. On the high slopes of Katahdin itself nests one of the rarest birds of the A.T. The Bicknell’s thrush is an extreme specialist, living on the brink of extinction. This operatic songster nests in stunted balsam firs and bushes near the tops of peaks only in New England and Canada, then flies to the Dominican Republic for winter. Baxter State Park, a 209,644-acre wilderness haven that includes Katahdin, is a stronghold. Protecting mountaintops from new ski areas, towers, and turbines is critical to saving the Bicknell’s thrush. Scientists estimate a breeding population of only 110,000 in its limited range. All wildlife that lives at the highest elevations face grave troubles from a rapidly warming climate. When their habitat becomes unlivable, they have nowhere to go.

“Bicknell’s thrushes are very hard to identify and find, so you have to be at the top of a mountain at dawn and hear their song,” says Nick Lund of Maine Audubon, who once climbed Saddleback Mountain (well south of Monson) in the pitch dark, shivering, and then was rewarded with its lovely chords at first light. Lund takes pride in his work for Maine Audubon, which has been protecting birds and habitat since 1843. He says Mainers delight in the access the Trail provides to birds impossible to see from roadsides. He believes everyone who ventures on the Trail will never be lonely when they dip into avian life. “On the Trail, you have time to think deeply about things and it’s a perfect time to become a birder,” he says. “You are in nature all day long where you can become familiar with the birds around you.”

Every stretch of the Trail is significant to the future of migratory and resident birds.

Every stretch of the Trail is significant to the future of migratory and resident birds.

Conserving Pennsylvania’s Kittatinny Ridge — Top to Bottom

Whether a birder or not yet, the fall hawk and eagle migrations of the A.T. are stunning, especially along the 125 miles from Delaware Water Gap into Cumberland County that follow Kittatinny Ridge — the premier migration range of the eastern U.S. “We record between 18- 20,000 raptors just at Hawk Mountain and between 60- 70,000 other birds, from ravens to warblers each year,” says Laurie Goodrich, director of long-term monitoring at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania’s world-renowned public viewpoint that’s linked to the A.T. by its Skyline Trail. The best hawk watching is in the fall, when birds soar south on updrafts created by air currents rising up the ridge. Returning north in spring, most hawks disperse across a wider landscape to ride ascending columns of warm air, called thermals. However, when the wind is steady from the south, they will funnel above Kittatinny Ridge.

Rosalie the Hawk

Among those long-distance flyers are several bearing telemetry backpacks. Rosalie is one of 12 tagged female broad-winged hawks. Her nesting territory encompasses both the A.T. and Hawk Mountain lands. In mid-September of 2018, this bird champion of the A.T. flew south from Pennsylvania to arrive 82 days later in the forested Bahuaja-Sonene National Park of southern Peru. On the way, she took rest stops in the Appalachians, flying downslope where forests meet wetlands or meadows and where the hunting for rodents, lizards, and snakes is best.

From top: Rosalie at Hawk Mountain after being fitted with a transmitter. By Zach Bordner; Red-shouldered hawk. By Bill Moses

“We need to maintain the ecological integrity of the ridges by protecting the bases too,” says Goodrich. Favorable winds alone are not enough. All birds must find shelter and high-calorie foods along the way. Reaching Veracruz, Mexico, Rosalie converged with a river of the small, compact hawks with distinctive banded tails — more than a million broad-wings in a season. It was here that Goodrich witnessed an unforgettable scene. “In 2016, we had four females tagged. I was watching when the broad wings were coming through and it was really exciting knowing this bird we tagged up in the Poconos was right over our heads.” Caught in 2016 at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary itself, Rosalie’s transmitter will soon wear out. This spring, Goodrich hopes to capture a hawk in Maine, potentially a new champion to follow its journey along the entire length of the A.T., shedding light on more key places to protect.

Cerulean Warbler Haven

Kittatinny Ridge is also critical for a much smaller bird, the cerulean warbler. This dashing blue slip of a songster nests high in the forest canopy, then migrates to the Andes Mountains — facing deforestation threats in both places. Fortunately, people are stepping up internationally to reverse the downward spiral of a 70 percent decline in 40 years. The Kittatinny Ridge Coalition, led by the ATC and Audubon, works to protect big woodlands for the cerulean warbler and a host of other interior nesting birds, including broad-winged hawks.

Roan Highlands — Rewilding for Birds

To save birds, protection of habitat is paramount, and so is ecological restoration. The ATC’s resource management coordinator for ATC’s southern region, Matt Drury, based in Asheville, North Carolina, looks to nature for guidance. One focus is the open vistas of the Roan Highland balds, relicts from the ice age with rare wildflowers and birds like the golden-winged warbler. The balds were once kept open by wild grazing animals, but their local extinction from the area along with a warming climate have contributed to the shrinking of the balds on the Roan. Today, Drury, conservation partners, and volunteers carefully use mowers, weed whackers, and other equipment to help preserve these balds and the species that depend on them. “In the pursuit of preserving the iconic vistas these balds provide, I try to make every area as ecologically functional as possible,” Drury says. While preserving views, this work also leaves a soft, feathered, and diverse forest edge. With help from partners, he closed an old steep trail by planting native brambles that deter hikers and invite golden-winged warblers to nest — and they did. The ATC strives for a mosaic of habitats that will serve other birds, including the eastern whip-poor-will, olive-sided flycatcher, loggerhead shrike, hermit thrush, American redstart, and ruffed grouse.

Wood thrush.
Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Drury also turns his restoration eye to the even-age, dense forests that have come back since the “great cut”— massive clearcutting in the 1920s. He seeks to replicate the mix of ages and natural openings of the old growth spruce forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spruce forests shelter northern saw-whet owls, red crossbills, and brown creepers — to name a few. “To protect biodiversity, sometimes we can’t just draw a line around things,” says Drury.

A.T. Bird Migration Feats
Tennessee Warbler Ultra-flyer
2,800 miles in 52 days
One plucky bird flew from Lesser Slave Lake in Northern Alberta (where it was banded) to the Big Bald Banding station on the A.T. in North Carolina in just 52 days, a distance of 2,800 miles, and an average flight of 50 miles per day — except the flights are at night.
Cherokee the Golden Eagle
3,400 mile round trip
Fitted with a radio collar at Unaka Mountain (on the Tennessee and North Carolina border) in 2015, this colossal eagle (13.6 pounds) winters there and then wings north up the A.T. and into Quebec to northern Labrador and Newfoundland to nest — a 1,700-mile one-way trip. She returns in the fall, joining many golden eagles that winter in the southern Appalachians.
Endangered Kirtland’s Warbler
1,700 miles in 16 days
Riding prevailing winds, this endangered bird flies from the Jack pine forests of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario to the Bahamas — crossing over the southern Appalachian Mountains. When a young, unbanded Kirtland’s Warbler showed up in a mist net at Big Bald Banding Station in fall of 2017, researchers were thrilled at this remarkable first for the station.

To join volunteer banders at Big Bald Banding Station visit:


A Tapestry of Birds and People

There may be no better place than out hiking with birds to consider their value to us. Stand on a rocky outcrop. Feel the winds that buoy the gliding eagle overhead. Drink in bird song. Know that our lives and those of birds are intimately connected. “Birds are part of the tapestry of life that surrounds the earth,” says the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra. “They are the threads that make up the tapestry. Humans are just another thread. As we lose the threads, the tapestry disintegrates. We have an obligation to maintain the integrity of the tapestry on the earth not just for our own sake, but for our children.” If the Appalachian Trail is a long, intricately-woven tapestry, then the thousands of people who volunteer to maintain, protect, and conserve it are the re-weavers — repairing the frays, the tatters, and guarding all that is whole. “I want our children and their children to walk along the Appalachian Trail and also hear a wood thrush when surrounded by forest,” Marra continues, “or look up in a tree to see a broad-winged hawk perched there on its way to its wintering grounds in South America.”

Author’s Note

My father Dave Richie noted birds and wildflowers in his A.T. hiking journals in the 1980s and ‘90s, and yes, he did listen to wood thrushes serenading his one-pot dinners. Here’s one entry of many that inspired my writing of this article: “Was awakened by a whip-poor-will right in front of the shelter at 5:30 am while it was still dark. Could just barely see his red eyes gleaming luminous when he flew.” (6/1/86—about 10 miles south of Damascus, Virginia)

For more information about birds and the A.T. visit:

For more information about hawk migration visit: