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Big Bald (Mountain)

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Cherokee NF (north) [IBA]


Cherokee NF (web site)


Roan MtUnaka MtFall Banding Totals 1998-2004
Big Bald

Photo by G. Rad Mayfield III

A view from Big Bald on Big Bald Mountain.

Note:  Big Bald (Mountain) is within the Cherokee National Forest and is part of the IBA site, Southern Blue Ridge.

Location: Southeast of Erwin to the eastern border with North Carolina, Unicoi County, Tennessee.
Physiographic Province:  PIF 23 (Southern Blue Ridge); BCR 28 (Appalachian Mountains)
Tennessee IBA Site Map - Big Bald (Mountain)
Geographical Coordinates: 
Big Bald Creek--Lat. 3601141N  Long. 0823032W
    Big Bald Summit--Lat. 355923N  Long. 0822923W
Elevation Range: 5,000' - 5,516'
    2,316' Big Bald Creek
    5,495' Big Bald Summit
    5,516' Big Bald
Size: 200-300 acres (Big Bald)
USGS 7.5’ quads: Bald Creek, Flag Pond

Description: Big Bald is situated on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina on the Appalachian Trail. The habitat is a large tract of grassy bald, northern hardwoods, spruce-fir, and heath bald areas. The top 300 feet or so of elevation are completely devoid of trees and the surrounding areas contain good sources of fresh drinking water for migrants. There are species of animals and plants that are unique to habitats present here.

IBA Criteria: 3, 4c, 4f,  5

Big Bald

Photo by G. Rad Mayfield III

A view of a bald on Big Bald Mountain.

Ornithological Importance:  Big Bald is a significant corridor for migrating birds, especially neotropicals. Tens of thousands use this area during migration periods and some for breeding. Birds breeding on the balds include Gray Catbird, Eastern Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, and American Goldfinch. Point counts in 1998 (12 points) and 1999 (32 points), totaled in the 2-year period, 40 species of 289 individuals. The most commonly observed species included Blue-headed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, Veery, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco, and Indigo Bunting. At least five Tennessee listed species are detected.
        Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, is the second most common fall raptor encountered during the fall hawk watching period with 266 birds in 2004 and 125 birds in 2005. This represents 11.1% of the total raptors observed during this 2-year period. The species is seen in the area all summer, but no nesting has been documented (Rad Mayfield).
        Peregrine Falcon, a Tennessee Endangered species, is a regular fall migrant. Thirteen individuals were detected during the hawk watches in each of 2004 and 2005. Two were banded in 2003 and one in 2004. The species is seen in summer, but not often. There are no suitable nest sites on the mountain proper though they hunt here (Rad Mayfield).
        Common Raven, a Tennessee Threatened species, is present year-round (1978-2005) and seen whenever you are on the mountain. It occurs over the Big Bald (5,500'+) and further down to around 2,500' (?) (Rad Mayfield). Three birds were detected on point counts in the 2-year point count period, 1998-1999.
        Golden-winged Warbler, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, was banded during fall migration 6 out of 8 years in the period 1998-2005 of 12 individuals. None were banded in 2003 and 2004. The species does not nest on Big Bald but does so further down the mountain to the southwest of the Appalachian Trail at around 4,200' on the north side of Street Gap in Tennessee. (Rad Mayfield).
    Note 1. Northern Saw-whet Owl, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, regular use of the grassy balds has only recently been recognized. Twelve birds were banded September 30-October 29, 2005, all juveniles based on feather criteria. The first three, captured together, were very young birds with pin feathers. Another bird, possibly an adult, was calling nearby while these three juveniles were banded. No nest has been documented on Big Bald (Mark Hopey, Kathryn Gunther).
    Note 2.
Grassy balds are limited in Tennessee and attract an array of birds that favor these open high elevation areas. The Big Bald is maintained as grass/shrub by the Cherokee National Forest for the Appalachian Trail and contains cinquefoil, a tundra plant. This high elevation "open country" habitat is favored by Northern Harrier, a Tennessee In Need of Management species; American Kestrel; Northern Bobwhite; Northern "Yellow-shafted" Flicker; Northern Saw-whet Owl, a Tennessee in Need of Management species; Eastern Towhee; Song Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco (numerous); Indigo Bunting; and American Goldfinch (Rad Mayfield).
    Note 3. Systematic fall hawk watching began in the fall of 2003, but casual watching has been conducted since the inception of the banding program in 1978. During the 2-year period, 2004-2005, an average of 1,782 raptors of 12 species were observed. Counts in 2004 were conducted for 13 days between September 18-30 and in 2005 for 32 days between September 9-October 15. The table below summaries the species and totals in 2004-2005. The Broad-winged Hawk accounted for 58.2% of the total. The top five species were Broad-winged Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Cooper's Hawk, and Merlin. The hawk watch location is referred to as Big Bald.


Key to species:  BV - Black Vulture, TV - Turkey Vulture, OS - Osprey, BE - Bald Eagle,
NH - Northern Harrier, SS - Sharp-shinned Hawk, CH - Cooper's Hawk, BW - Broad-winged Hawk,
RT - Red-tailed Hawk, AM - American Kestrel, ML - Merlin, PF - Peregrine Falcon,  UNID - Unidentified

    Note 4. A substantial number of neotropical birds use the Big Bald as passage during the migration periods. With an average of 1,489 birds banded in the 8-year period 1998-2005 of which 92.1% were neotropical, the number is substantial. Large flocks of birds are seen, like Chimney Swifts, Barn Swallows, Blue Jays, American Robins, and warblers. These flocks can last hours or even all day. The warbler flocks can consist of at least a dozen or so species at a time and 200+ individuals. Sometimes a large portion of a flock of 40-60 warblers is caught at one time in one mist net (Rad Mayfield). The number of Tennessee Warblers that pass through the area in the fall is exceptional. The 8-year banding average is 735 individuals with highs of 1,656 birds (2002) and 1,240 birds (2003). This pattern of using these mountain tops as migration passages is also documented at Whiggs Meadow in Monroe County (Cherokee National Forest (south) and Roan Mountain.
    Note 5. Fall banding has been conducted on Big Bald 1978-2005. Hawthorne scrubby areas and beech forest make up the majority of the habitat of net lanes. The National Forest Service maintains the grassy bald habitat by bush hogging. In the period 1998-2005, 80 species of 11,908 individuals were banded of which 56 species (70%) of 10,968 individuals (92.1%) were neotropical. Twenty-four species of 940 birds (7.9%) were non-neotropical. See Fall Banding Totals 1998-2004 for a summary of the top 20 neotropical species banded during this 8-year period.
    In 2003, a raptor banding project was begun. Raptor totals were reported with passerine banding totals for 2003-2004 seasons. Beginning in 2005, raptor and passerine banding were reported separately (B. Anderson and R. Mayfield respectively) except for the incidental Sharp-shinned Hawk caught in the passerine mist nests. There was a total of 7 species of raptors banded of 98 individuals, the Sharp-shinned Hawk being the most numerous with 41 birds. The table below summaries the fall 2005 raptor banding.


Key to species:  SS - Sharp-shinned Hawk, CH - Cooper's Hawk,
RT - Red-tailed Hawk, AM - American Kestrel,ML - Merlin,
PF - Peregrine Falcon,  NOSW - Northern Saw-whet Owl

        Of the 24 non-neotropical banded species, the Dark-eyed Junco and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, were the two most common species detected. The Dark-eyed Junco was fourth overall in the number banded with 598 individuals in the 8-year period with a high of 204 individuals (2005). The Ruby-crowned Kinglet was tenth overall in the number banded with 158 birds in the 8-year period with a high of 70 birds (2004). Both species were banded in all eight years. Together they represented 80.4% of the total non-neotropical birds banded in the 8-year period.

Site Criteria



Avg. No Season

Max. No. Season

Years of Data


1Northern Saw-whet Owl (See Note 1 above.)Year-round?  20057a, 7b


Habitat: Grassy Balds (See Note 2 above.)





4, 6


Raptors (See Note 3 above.)





6, 7a, 7b


Land Birds: Neotropical migrants (See Note 4 above.)





4, 6, 7a, 7b


Monitoring: Big Bald fall banding (See Note 5 above.)




6, 7a, 7b

Season1   B = Breeding, W = Wintering, SM = Spring Migration, FM = Fall Migration
Source 2  1-Atlas Breeding Birds of Tennessee 2-Breeding Bird Surveys 3-Christmas Bird Counts,
4-Point Counts 5-Refuge Counts 6-Personal observations (Rad Mayfield) 7-Other (a-Mark Hopey, b-Kathryn Gunter)

Ownership:  United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service
  Joe McGuinness, Watauga Ranger District, 4400 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi, TN 37692, 423-735-1500.

Conservation Concerns: Serious concern is air pollution. Potential concern is water pollution, residential development, recreational development/overuse, and succession.

Management Program:  None.

Submitted by:  Rad Mayfield, III, 635 Hatcher Road, Ellenboro, NC 28040, 828-453-9110, rad@rutherford.k12.nc.us

Additional Contributors:  Dr. George R. Mayfield, Jr.and Cleo Mayfield; Mark Hopey, Kathryn Gunther, Lynn Brandon and friends; and Joe McGuinness and the Cherokee National Forest. At the banding site many other helpers, too numerous to name, contribute hawk sightings, time at the banding table, expertise on certain species, etc. They know who they are and I am grateful to them all.

Approved under the umbrella IBA site Southern Blue Ridge:  February 2006--Yes 7  No 0

This page was last updated on 02/20/06.