The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Into the Royal Blue: Public and private lands crucial for cerulean warbler preservation

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Cerulean Art

Ephemeral birds of lasting beauty dependent on Tennessee forest

Think azure. A male cerulean warbler is sky blue. And to see one, you have to climb to the tops of certain Appalachian ridges and look toward the wild blue. To see one is to see a bit of heaven in an eight-gram bird.

East Tennessee’s Royal Blue Unit is not named in honor of the cerulean warbler but it's appropriate to think so. The land parcel is part of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and is one of the few places — very few places — the sky-blue passerines still nest in North America. It is estimated that 80 percent of the remaining population nests in the Appalachians. 

The cerulean is the fastest declining migratory songbird in North America, said ornithologist David Aborn, an assistant professor of biology, geology and environmental science at UT Chattanooga. The Breeding Bird Survey estimates that cerulean warbler population declined by 70 percent between 1966 and 2008.

“The species is not in danger of imminent extinction, but is rare enough to warrant concern, and its future is not assured,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported in 2020.

Currently a management goal of “no net loss” is in place. “Management programs can be instituted at the present time that do not require major changes in land-use practices, but do consider silviculture appropriate to producing habitat for the species,” the report concluded.

The American Bird Conservancy and ProAves Colombia purchased 500 acres of rural land identified as wintering sites for the migratory bird. The Cerulean Warbler Reserve is the first in Latin America set aside for a migrant bird. It’s a start. But the beautiful bird faces many challenges here and abroad. 

Research on cerulean warbler populations have been underway for at least a decade.

In 2013, I tagged along with Tiffany Beachy and Lee Bryant to Royal Blue, specifically to four 20-hectare plots Beachy had monitored from 2005 to '07, as part of her cerulean warbler field research under the tutelage of Dr. David Buehler with the University of Tennessee. The plots were located on ridgetops and mid-slopes above 1,476 feet in elevation.

At the time I was working on my third book for UT Press, “Ephemeral by Nature,” and knew that the ceruleans were the epitome of ephemerality. Beachy was the citizen science coordinator at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. She's a superb birder with an ear for acoustical nuance, the way a mother hears the sighs and moans of her infant in the crib two rooms away. Her field work on the cerulean has ended but she still likes to keep in touch with the Royal Blue. You don't spend three years of your life with your mind wrapped around another living thing and not develop a strong bond.

Beachy’s thesis research had several objectives but a principal one was to assess what, if any, human activities had affected the abundance and occurrence of ceruleans at Royal Blue and, comparatively, at Sundquist Wildlife Management Area nearby. Despite the scars from logging and coal mining, the Cumberlands are beautiful the way a rumpled unmade bed is beautiful and cozy. And the most wonderous things in the rolling mountains are the lively, colorful avian pixies: the redstarts, the ceruleans and the Blackburnians, to name a few.

North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area sprawls across 140,000 acres in the Cumberland Mountains in Scott, Campbell, Anderson, and Morgan counties principally just west of the Tennessee Valley. The Royal Blue unit is located within the WMA off I-75 at the end of Stinking Creek Road north of Caryville.

Getting to the preferred habitat of the enigmatic canopy-loving warbler was an adventure in itself. The old logging roads in the tract are roads in name only. They're more like bumpy, rutted washouts eroded from years of rain and big wheels, with exposed rocks bigger than mama sows in mud and just as obstinate. We bounced up the ridge in a beast of a truck. It's the only way to get there unless you walk all the way to the crest.

Large-flowered bellwort, blue cohosh, and yellow, white and red flowered trillium were beginning to open their blossoms along the way. With the zany yellow-green of spring in the valley left behind, we soon found that the bare-branched ridge tops were more like winter. But some of her ceruleans were already back. 

"Yes! You are so beautiful!" Beachy exclaimed when she heard a male sing. It’s a high-pitched buzzy song that ascends to a trill, and It was the first she'd heard in months. That’s the thing with warblers: Most do not warble, but instead buzz like singing insects.

The more experienced, fast males had already returned to claim the best territories. She was pleased to find three male ceruleans claiming various portions of one special ridge in a plot she had labeled several years earlier. The female ceruleans will have to make choices of their own as soon as they return and each will choose the available male with the best territory, and the most most attractive sky blue plumage.

Is the declining cerulean ready for the Endangered Species List? More information must be collected before the bird can be added to the list of more than 1,600 plants and animals. For example, the historic population of the cerulean is not known. It's always easier to count mallards than small songbirds nesting high in the trees on remote ridges.

What is known is that historic range has been greatly reduced. As in most species in decline, habitat loss is the No.1 problem. They and other neotropical migrant species are losing both nesting sites in North America and their wintering grounds in Central or South America.

Unfortunately in Appalachia, the ceruleans prefer many of the same ridges that were strip mined for coal. Researchers at UT concluded in 2006 that, at the time, 23 percent of remaining cerulean habitat could be lost in the Cumberlands to surface mining. In 2009, the EPA withheld 79 mountaintop-mining permits because the runoff they would have created would have affected the local water quality. This was a boon for ceruleans.

So, is there need for concern? Yes. But as Emily Dickinson penned, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

(Thank you, Tiffany)

Stephen Lyn Bales is a natural historian and the author of three UT Press books: "Natural Histories," "Ephemeral by Nature," and "Ghost Birds." He’s also a monthly speaker (currently via Zoom) for the UT Arboretum Society. He can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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