By Rebekah Wilson
The majesty of Roan Mountain is so great that an organization formed specifically to preserve and protect it now holds naturalists rally every season, including winter, to celebrate one of Carter County’s most valuable natural resources.
This year’s rally will celebrate the stark winter serenity of the Roan while also looking ahead to some ongoing summer projects that are ongoing on the slopes of the local mountain.
The Friends of Roan Mountain will host its sixth annual Winter Naturalists Rally Saturday, Feb. 16, beginning at 9:15 a.m. at the Roan Mountain State Park Conference Center.
The year’s one-day event will feature the winter rally’s first-ever winter birdwatching hike to the habitats of the almost-endangered golden-winged warblers, as well as three other hikes.
Organizers hope to use the rally and the hikes to promote support for efforts to protect rare plants and birds.
“Knowing what is there is the first step towards protecting what is there,” said Marty Silver, a park ranger-naturalist for 34 years with Warriors’ Path State Park in Kingsport.
The rally will begin with a presentation by Nora Schubert on the rare fauna on Roan Mountain, including the golden-winged warbler. This small bird is declining in numbers, most likely as a result of habitat loss and competition/interbreeding with the very closely related blue-winged warbler.
Schubert is Roan’s expert ecologist and also works with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. She has done biological research since 1993 and is well versed on the wildlife and ecosystems present on the Roan.
Jamey Donaldson, biological consultant and professional botanist, will give an update on the Baa-tany Goat Project and the effort to preserve the Roan’s rare flora. He will also speak on Roan’s green alder.
“Roan has the only green alder south of Pennsylvania,” he said. “Green alder grows across most of Canada and as far north as the southern part of Greenland.” Richard Knight, Marty Silver, Jerry Greer and Jamey Donaldson will lead four hikes after lunch. Hikers will meet left of the entrance to the park’s cabins on the lower field. Hikes will last approximately two-and-a-half hours and will all begin at 1 p.m. They will take place regardless of weather conditions.
Knight will lead the birdwatching hike in Hampton Creek Cove. This area is made up of pastures, forests and trout brooks. According to the Department of Environment and conservation, these trout streams are some of the most productive in East Tennessee. It is also a popular birding location because of the rarity of the golden-winged warbler and the large population of other bird species.
Though the golden-winged warblers are still vacationing much farther south, Hall said hikers will see the habitat that these birds use during the nesting season, as well as a variety of birds that call the Roan home. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the population of golden-winged warblers is at risk for listing under the Endangered Species Act because the habitat that the species needs to reproduce is declining.
Silver will guide an animal tracking hike near the Doe River. This hike will be partly handicapped-accessible depending on the possibility of snow on the trail. Silver said the trail passes through several interesting woodland and streamside habitats.
“Our goal for the hike is to seek out and learn to read a variety of wildlife signs including tracks and trails as well as dens, scats, etc.,” he said.
Greer will lead a photography hike through the woods west of Twin Springs.
Donaldson will take hikers to Alder Bald. He said that participants will get an update on the rare Gray’s lily and learn about other globally-rare plant communities such as the Beech Gap Forest, Fraser Fir Forest, Rhododendron Bald, Grassy Bald and Alder Bald.
“We hope to get as far as Jane Bald where we can see the Alder Bald invaded by blackberry as well as Alder Bald being restored by goats,” Donaldson said.
The goats will spend a sixth summer on Roan in 2013. Donaldson said that although the blackberries have not completely disappeared, they have clearly decreased, thanks to foraging by the goats. The invasive blackberries have been replaced by native grasses, sedges and desirable native wildflowers.
Lisa Huff, stewardship ecologist for the Tennessee Natural Areas Program, will speak during lunch about invasive species at Carver’s Gap.
She said that smooth bedstraw, garlic mustard, spotted knapweed and cow-parsley are among some of the most threatening species at Carver’s Gap and on Roan.
Sandwiches, cookies and brownies will be provided by City Market of Elizabethton at noon before hikes begin. Pre-paid registration is required for lunch.
The registration form for lunch and for the event is due Feb. 12 and can be found at http://friendsofroanmtn.org/Winter%20Registration%202-16-2013.pdf.
The event is free for Friends of Roan Mountain and $5 for adults. Lunch is $7.50 for adults and $4.50 for children.
Annual FORM membership fees are $15 for an individual, $20 for a family and $10 for a student. For more information on the rally or FORM, email Rally Director David Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org.