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Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee

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More PhotosMap - Royal Blue WMAFrozen Head SP and Natural AreaFrozen Head Directions/Bird Finding
Cumberland Mountains

Photo by Melinda Welton

The landscape of the Cumberland Mountains is caught in the clouds.

Location:  In portions of the counties of Campbell, Scott, Anderson, and Morgan, including Frozenhead State Park and Natural Area, Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area, Sundquist Wildlife Management Area, and private lands, Tennessee.
Physiographic Area:  PIP 21 (Northern Cumberland Plateau); BCR 28 (Appalachian Mountains)
Tennessee IBA Site Map - Cumberland Mountains.bmp (80006 bytes)
Geographical Coordinates: 
    Frozen Head State Park--Lat. 360735N Long. 0842760W
    Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area--Lat. 362535N  Long. 0841760W 
Elevation Range:  1,300' - 3,324'
    2,595' Frozen Head State Park
    2,129' Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area
Size:  141,000 acres
USGS 7.5' quads:  More than nine maps cover the Cumberland Mountains.

Description:  The Cumberland Mountains extend from northern Tennessee to West Virginia. They lie in a heavily forested region representing one of the largest blocks of primarily hardwood forest in Tennessee. The landscape is nearly 93% forested and includes three significant publicly owned tracts--Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area, Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area, and Sundquist Wildlife Management Area. Within the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, mixed mesophytic forest covers moist slopes. The watersheds of the New River and Emory River transect this area providing additional riparian habitats for birds. The area also contains one of the densest beaver populations in eastern Tennessee, providing local concentrations of forested wetland habitats.
    Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area (12,570 acres [8,620 acres Class I natural area and 3,950 acres Class II natural area which is everything below 1600' elevation contour and that includes the state park]), near Wartburg, Morgan County, is an excellent example of what presettlement conditions might have been hundreds of years ago. The mountains here are some of the highest in Tennessee west of the Great Smoky Mountains, with 14 mountain peaks eclipsing 3,000 feet, the highest being Frozen Head Mountain at 3,324 feet. The name "Frozen Head" drives from the peaks that are often capped with snow or ice in winter. The lowest elevation is at the Flat Rock access at 1,340 feet. The deep hollows and valleys here provide vast rich mesophytic forest habitat that includes species of hemlock, White Pine, Tulip Poplar, Sugar and Red maples, many species of oaks and hickories, Yellowwood, Yellow Birch, ash species, Walnut, Blackgum, beech, Sourwood, Basswood, magnolias, and Black Cherry. At mid and upper slope levels, a mesic oak forest takes over with White Oak the dominant tree along with Tulip Poplar among others. At higher elevations and on dry slopes and ridges, Scarlet and Chestnut oaks and Shortleaf Pine become more common. There are almost 60 miles of trails.
   Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area (50,000 acres), Campbell and Scott counties, and the Sundquist Wildlife Management Area (73,000 acres), Anderson, Campbell, and Scott counties, are 35 miles north of Knoxville. The habitat of these mountain forested areas is similar to the Frozen Head area, but has been mined and logged years ago, providing more open and edge habitat. Hundreds of miles of roads exist within their boundaries because of this.  

IBA Criteria:  2, 3, 4f

Cerulean Warbler (male)

Photo by Richard Connors

A male Cerulean Warbler in all its glory sings from a tulip tree.  Its song can be confused with a Northern Parula and be heard for long periods of time, as much as an hour continuously, and then silence for lengthy periods.

Ornithological Importance:  The bird-life of the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee is particularly rich. While current and past surface mining and even-aged forest management have compromised the quality of the forest in some areas in the Cumberland Mountains, it still provides extensive habitat for the entire suite of forest interior species that are identified by Partners in Flight as priority species because of declining population trends.
    Note 1. It is estimated that 80% of the global population of Cerulean Warblers, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, nest in the BCR 28 (Appalachian Mountains).  The Tennessee portion of the mountains harbor as much as 15 to 20% of this population. Point count routes in mid-aged to mature hardwood forests recorded the species on over 50% of points during sampling from 1995-1997. During the Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project from 1997-2000, more Cerulean Warblers were reported from the Royal Blue WMA than at any of the other 73 sites surveyed. Nowhere else in the specie's range do breeding densities exceed those found in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee with 6 to 10 breeding pairs per 10 acres recorded (Nicholson 2004, Buehler et al. 2005). The Cerulean Warbler habitat model (Buehler et al. 2005) predicts that 39% of the Cumberland Mountains is potential breeding habitat for as many as 44,000 breeding pairs. A Cerulean Warbler Survey in Frozen Head State Natural Area has been conducted 1993-2005. Cerulean Warbler data from a 10-mile (16-kilometer) walking transect in the natural area reveal a decline of 60% from 1994 to 2004 (from 106 registered in 1994 to 43 registered in 2004). The reduction in numbers has been fairly steady over the decade in question; the reduction is most noticeable at lower elevations (1,500-2,500 feet) and less noticeable at higher elevations (2,500-3,300 feet). There was a modest increase to 55 birds in 2005
(Stephen J. Stedman).
    Note 2. The Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee harbor one of the most important concentrations of Golden-winged Warblers, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, in the southeastern United States. In 2001, surveys in the counties of Anderson, Campbell and Scott for the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project totaled 69 Golden-winged Warblers. Golden-winged Warblers occupy a variety of early successional habitats within the mountains but are primarily associated with abandoned and reclaimed strip mines. (Total estimated number of pairs based on Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project survey [Melinda Welton].)
    Note 3. The avifauna of the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee includes disjunct nesting populations of species typically associated with higher elevation forests of the Southern Blue Ridge. This species suite includes Veery, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Early June Surveys in Frozen Head State Natural Area, 1994-2005, detect these species.
    Note 4. The most common species detected on point count routes conducted in the Cumberland Mountains from 1996-2000 included Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Indigo Bunting, species expected to be associated with a heavily forested landscape.

Site Criteria



Avg. No Season

Max. No. Season

Years of Data



Cerulean Warbler (NOM)  (See Note 1 above.)



43,000 pairs (estimate)


7a, 7b


Golden-winged Warbler (NOM)  (See Note 2 above.)



400 pairs (estimate)



3Habitat:  Assemblage of species in distinctive habitat type (See Note 3 above.)B  1994-20057d
4fLand Birds:  Neo-tropical woodland species (See Note 4 above.)B  1996-20004
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 7-Other (a-Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project;
b-Welton, M. J., unpublished data; c-Welton, M. J. 2003; d-Steven J. Stedman.)

Ownership:  Ownership in this region is complex. Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area is wholly owned by the State of Tennessee. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency owns the surface rights to both Royal Blue WMA and Sundquist WMA but not the mineral rights. Nor does the state own the timber rights to Sundquist WMA. The rest of the Cumberland Mountains are in private hands.
   Contact:  For Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area--974 Flat Fork Road, Wartburg, TN 37887 (423) 346-3318 (office), 423-346-6629 (fax); For Frozen Head Natural Area--Division of Natural Heritage, 401 Church Street, 14th Floor, L&C Tower, 401 Church Street, Nashville, TN 37243-0447, 615-532-0431. For Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area and Sundquist Wildlife Management Area--Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Region IV, 3030 Wildlife Way, Morristown, TN 37814, 423-587-7037, 800-332-0900 (toll free in Tennessee).

Conservation Concerns:  The area is a fairly intact, forested landscape made-up of large public lands and forest industry land holdings. The presence of the forest and coal industries in the area has helped maintain the large tract sizes in single ownership. However, Interstate 75 cuts through the center of the IBA and the sprawling city of Knoxville, Tennessee is less than a 45-minute drive south. Development pressure is beginning to appear within some portions of the area and the sectioning and sale of forest industry lands would bring a great deal more.
    A chip mill built in the mid-1990’s exists in the center of the area. The impacts of timber harvesting for this chip mill, on local bird populations, is unknown. Another serious threat to species requiring mature forests is the potential increase of coal mining in the region. Coal mining techniques used in the region include deep, contour, and mountaintop mining. Mountaintop mining is known to cause significant habitat modification and destruction, to both the terrestrial and aquatic habitats, by removing the tops of mountains and filling in streams. The use of this technique has, to date, been limited in the area.

Management Program:  None.

Submitted by:  Melinda Welton, 5241 Old Harding Road, Franklin, TN 37064, 615-799-8095 (home), 615-210-8095 (cell), weltonmj@earthlink,net

Additional Contributors:  Troy Ettel, Stephen J. Stedman.

Buehler, D. A., M. J. Welton, T. A. Beachy. 2005. Predicting Cerulean Warbler Habitat and Populations in the Cumberland Mountains of      Tennessee. In press. Journal of Wildlife Management.
Nicholson, C. P. 1987. Notes on high elevation breeding birds of Frozen Head State Natural Area, Tennessee. Migrant 58:39-43.
Nicholson, C. P. 1998. Territorial Winter Wrens in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. Migrant 69:6-7.
Nicholson, C. P. 2004.  Ecology of the Cerulean Warbler in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. PhD Dissertation, University of      Tennessee Knoxville.
Welton, M. J. 2003. Status and Distribution of the Golden-winged Warbler in Tennessee. Migrant 74:61-82.

Approved as an IBA site:  December 2005--Yes 7  No 0

This page was last updated on 02/19/06.