The woods, meadows and skies of the Plateau are teeming with glorious birds. Their chorus of songs begins in the hour just before dawn and continues until dusk, with occasional arias from nightingales performed in the middle of the night. Since its earliest days, Highlands has portrayed itself as a getaway from the stresses of modern life. That message extends all the way to the avian world, with the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau being designated an Important Bird Area by The Audubon Society which means it’s a habitat vital to the survival of several species of birds.
The elevation, which rises to 4,600 feet, creates an ecosystem that is more like southern Canada than what you’d expect in the Southeastern United States. This habitat is home to unique species of animals, plants and birds that are not found at lower elevations. Over 160 species of birds use the Highlands area regularly for breeding, wintering or spring and fall migration. Birds such as the Redbreasted Nuthatch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Golden-crowned Kinglet regularly nest and breed in Highlands and are not usually found breeding just 20 miles to the South.
The Highlands Plateau Audubon Society has programs and field trips where you can learn about the birds of Highlands and where to find them. The first place to start birding in Highlands is the Highlands Nature Center, Botanical Garden and Sunset Rock Trail. Common species found in this area are the Blue-headed Vireo, Redbreasted Nuthatch, Black-throated Blue Warbler and the Canada Warbler. For the more adventuresome, walk to the top of the trail at Whiteside Mountain where in the spring, Peregrine Falcons nest on the steep rock face. Finally, drive Rich Gap Road to look and listen for a rich variety of species including the Scarlet Tanager, Worm- eating Warbler and Ovenbird. At the beginning of Rich Gap Road in Horse Cove don’t miss the Padgett Poplar Tree Trail and the third largest Tulip Poplar tree in the United States. This is a good place to see the Blackthroated Green Warbler.