Who doesn’t love an otter? I am sure that we have all spent time at the zoo watching these delightful creatures cavorting in the water. There almost human reactions and interactions make them a joy to watch and the easy way they move from land to water is completely captivating. And though they are hard to find in the wild, if you happen to see them you will be amazed to see that they play and splash in the water in the wild the same way that they do in an artificial habitat.
Behavior and Diet
The North American River Otter is the otter that you will find in the Smokies. They range throughout the lower elevation of the park and inhabit those areas around the various creeks and rivers. The river otter lives in a family unit consisting of the mother and her offspring, until the offspring become mature. The adult male river otter also lives in social groups of other males and there have been sightings of some of these groups numbering more than 15 in the wild.
It is this social structure that produces the playfulness that you see in the river otter. Their play as young – learning how to swim and hunt – is carried over into adulthood and is evident in the wallows that they make as they slide down into the water to swim and splash with each other. The wallow is the easiest way to find a group of otters. If you are roaming through the mountains and you see a wallowed down area near the river bank that is devoid of grass and looks like it would be fun to slide down, you have probably just found one of the play areas of a romp of North American River Otters.
River otters eat the small aquatic and amphibious animals that live in and around rivers. In the Smokies, that means that throughout the year these graceful creatures feast on trout and rock bass, on salamanders and frogs. Otters hunt in the water for their prey. They swim through the water and after spying something that looks particularly good to eat, they use their tail to produce a surge of speed. They catch their meal and then roll over on their back in the water to eat their newest catch.
The river otter had almost been moved out of the Smokies altogether and then in the early 1990s, the Park Service began to reintroduce otters to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These otters were placed in areas where the rangers knew they would find plenty of food and have the best chance for reproducing and growing their numbers. Since the first reintroduction, the numbers of river otters in the Smokies of doubled several times. The park service anticipates that these thriving creatures have rediscovered their home in the southern Appalachians.
The whitetail deer is a common sight along the roads and in the valleys of the Smoky Mountains. While they might not be as hard to find as the black bear or as large and imposing as the elk, the deer are still fun to see and are in fact so used to people that they will be glad to pose for pictures as they go about their lives.
The deer in the Smokies are the same kind of deer that you might see anywhere in the southeast or across the country. They are herd animals and the young tend to stay in the herds with the does until they have been alive for a couple of years. The bucks, after they have left the herd become solitary creatures and though you will see them, you will see them on the edges of the forest most of the time.
These herbivores eat the soft grasses graze throughout the year. The temperate climate in the Smokies also give them plenty of food in the winter months. During the mating season you will see spikes and bucks sparring and rattling their antlers on trees as they go through their own mating dance.
Where to see Whitetail Deer in the Smokies:
Cades Cove – If you are wanting to see large numbers of deer, there is no other place for you to go but Cades Cove. Herds of deer populate the fields. In the spring you will see fauns at play around their mothers and as the deer mature and the seasons change you will notice the deer getting bigger as the put on weight for the leaner winter months. If you are wanting to get a great picture, slide out of your car, stay low to the ground and walk slowly toward the deer. If you approach slowly enough you can get close enough to get some amazing pictures of the deer in Cades Cove.
The North American Beaver is a large rodent, one of the largest in the Smoky Mountains, that spends most of its time in the water, building dams to change the course of the water systems to establish homes for it and its young. While they are mostly nocturnal, it is possible to see the North American Beaver around the GSMNP right before dawn and right after sunset.
Behavior and Habitat
Of course, one of the easiest ways to spot a beaver is to look for a beaver dam and for the trees that have been felled by beavers in the park. The beaver dam is a conglomeration of logs, twigs, mud and sticks that is designed to back the water up and make the water around the beaver lodge deep enough to keep it from freezing during winter. As the water levels rise, it floods the forest land around the river behind the dam. This flooded area gives the beaver access to its favorite foods: leaves, buds and the inner bark of young trees.
The beaver lives in small family groups and they work together to construct their dams. Beavers, unlike most animals, mate for life and their young – which are known as kits – stay with their parents for around two years. Beaver dams and the ponds that they form have been shown to have beneficial effects on the other plants and animals that are around them. For instance, beavers have been shown to have a beneficial effect on many bird species by providing water and areas for waterbirds to find food and the fact that some of the young trees get felled by the beavers means that older trees will have the ability to produce a lush canopy for homes for birds.
In the Smokies
Though they are hard to find, there are plenty of beavers in the Smokies. From Cades Cove to Cataloochee you will see the effects on beavers in the National Park and you will possibly get to see them building their dams in and around streams and rivers in the park as well. When you cross the bridge in Cades Cove – the one that is almost at the halfway point – you will see plenty of trees that have been downed by beavers in the wild. On both sides of the bridge there are trees that have the tell-tale bite marks from the North American Beaver.
And if you are looking for a little more up close look at the beaver hike the area between the two crossover roads in the Cades Cove. In the center of this area there is a good sized beaver dam on a small creek that has flooded a good portion of the area. And while this is not a deep beaver dam it is a very successful one that has opened up this area for a more diverse set of species to inhabit. This is only one of the advantages to having beavers in the park. Though they are part of the rodent family, they are certainly not rodent in nature.
When you walk trails in the lower elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park you are bound to see Chipmunks. These furry, striped members of the squirrel family have fascinated people for thousands of years with their antics as the frisk about the Smoky Mountains. The term chipmunk comes from the Odawa word Ajidamoo which translates to “one who descends trees headlong.” This of course is a reference to the fact that chipmunks are adept enough at climbing that the come down the tree the same way the go up: face first.
Behavior and Diet
Chipmunks live, primarily, in deciduous wooded areas. This is especially true of the GSMNP where the chipmunk can range across all the lower elevations of the park. In the Smokies, no bulb, nut, fruit, seed, green plant, insect or bird egg is safe from these voracious eaters. During the day, the chipmunk spends almost all of its waking hours foraging for food. Running from tree to tree and digging in the soft soil looking for food. The chipmunk will store the food it finds in its cheeks and then eat it at a later time.
Though you will see the chipmunk racing from tree to tree in the National Park, they actually make their homes in burrows in the ground. These burrows are lined with small rocks and other detritus that the chipmunk finds to make it more difficult for predators to see. The live alone until mating season. After mating the female will have litters of 3 to 5 young. Chipmunks have two mating seasons a year and during the mating season you will hear them chattering to each other throughout the forest.
The chipmunk has many natural predators in the Smokies: foxes, raccoon, weasels, snakes, hawks and other birds of prey all keep an eye out for the unguarded chipmunk as a quick source of protein. The chipmunk uses its speed and ability to climb to stay out of the reach of the various enemies that it has in the park.
Where to Find Chipmunks
Again, the best place to find a chipmunk is in the lower elevations of the park. At dawn and dusk, you will see them scurrying from their burrows looking for food. But, throughout the day you will find chipmunks out, looking for food. They always seem to be on a mission and they are skittish creatures. If you happen to see one, stay back and enjoy the show as they scurry from point to point along the trail. You will also see chipmunks in the picnic areas of the National Park. And though they would be happy to take food from you, remember that feeding animals in the GSMNP is strictly prohibited and bad for the animals.
From tiny bugs to the mighty elk, the animals in the Smokies come in all shapes and all sizes. The diversity extends to all manner of critters. The protection that these animals are afforded inside the national park allow you to get closer than you will be able to in most places around the country.
There are rules and regulations concerning your interaction but it comes down to one concept: You are in the animals house, be a thoughtful visitor.
Do not feed the animals.
Do not tease or harm the animals.
In the case of elk and black bear, you must stay 50 yards or more from these larger mammals. They are big animals and they can hurt you. The rule of thumb is: if you are close enough that your proximity changes the behavior of the elk or bear then you are too close.
Black Bear – This is the symbolic animal of the Smokies. Found in all parts of the National Park, this animals provides hours of entertainment for people that have the good fortune to see one. Be sure to give the bear plenty of room and enjoy them from a distance. During the springs, if you are out early enough, Cades Cove is the best place to see lots of bears. During the fall of the year, aiming for early evening in Cades Cove will probably allow you to see the bears feeding out of the trees.
Synchronous Fireflies – One of the most interesting things that you will find in the Smoky Mountains are the synchronous fireflies in the Elkmont area. For some reason (scientists are not sure why) the fireflies in this area of the national park begin to blink in unison with each other. There is only one other place on the planet (Thailand) where this phenomenon occurs.
Elk – This has been the most successful reintroduction into the Smokies. The elk were brought back into this area in 2001 and now there are thriving herds of elk in both the Cherokee area and the Cataloochee value. Elk are the largest mammal (and therefore animal) in the National Park. During the rut – their mating season – you can spend an entire day listening to these majestic animals as the bulls court the cows.
Whitetail Deer – For the hunter or just the lover of wildlife, the chance to see a whitetail deer up close and personal is breathtaking. In the Smokies, the best place to see deer is in Cades Cove. The deer use the fields in the cove to graze and it is usual to see tens of them during one trip around the loop road. During the spring you will even get to see fauns frolicking in the forests, while later in the year you can see the spikes challenging each other in the fields.
Though the Park Service does try its hardest to keep animals and plants that are not native to the Smokies from harming the ecosystem for the GSMNP, over the years there have been several animals and insects that have been introduced into the environment.
Wild Boar – In the early part of the 20th century, a group of domesticated pigs got lose from a game preserve in North Carolina. Over the next few years, the pigs made their way into the National Park and began to breed. The boars are now wild, the domesticated pigs having breed with lowland boars on their way from the lowlands in North Carolina to the mountains. The wild boar in the Smokies are now one of the most destructive mammals in the park. They root around trees destroying wildlife and even eat some of the smaller animals in the park including many of the species of amphibians that call the park home.
The Department of the Interior has hunts at times to help eliminate the boar from the park. Unfortunately these animals breed as fast as they are removed and the Park Service has had a hard time getting rid of this invasive species.
Hemlock Woolly Adelgid – One of the worst nonnative insect species in the Smokies is the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. This is a sap-sucking insect that slowly kills the hemlock as they keep nutrients from getting to the leaves of the hemlock. As the leaves die, photosynthesis stops and the trees go grey and then die. The Park Rangers are experimenting with insecticides and other predatory insects to help get rid of this tree killing bug.
Rainbow Trout – Brought in as a game fish for the tourist to the area, the aggressive rainbow trout took over the areas of the park that the brook trout (the only native trout) had formerly lived in. And while the rainbow trout is the trout that people think of when they come to the Smokies, they are a nonnative species that has hurt the ecosystem of the brook trout. There is not a plan to remove the rainbow trout but there are plans to not only bolster the brook trout but to remove some of the rainbow trout from some of the streams in the national park.
Around June of each year, an insectile phenomenon occurs. The fireflies in the Elkmont area begin to blink. Now, of course, you expect fireflies to blink but in this part of the Smokies – they blink in synchronization with each other! This phenomenon occurs in only one other place in the world (Thailand). Scientist are baffled by this behavior but the people that visit this area love it.
The synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for a maximum of two weeks each year. Normally this occurs in early June, but it can happen a little earlier or a little later depending on the weather and the hatching of the fireflies themselves. And while there are fireflies all around the Smokies, the Elkmont area is the only place to see this strange and wonderful behavior. As you sit beneath the trees of the Elkmont area, night begins to descend. You start to see fireflies blinking as it gets darker and darker. As the blinking increases, the fireflies start to synch with each other. All of a sudden, the area is lit as thousands of fireflies flash their luminescent bodies in time with each other. It is eerie, chilling and one of the most incredible things I have ever seen.
So if you are coming to the Smokies in June or around that timeframe and you want to take the family to see something that they will never see anywhere else here are a few tips:
The Park Service provides transportation for this event now! If you are going to be here during the synchronous fireflies contact the park service at 865-436-1200 and make reservations. You can park your car at Sugarlands and they will take you to Elkmont on trolley donated by Gatlinburg.
Bring chairs or a blanket. You are going to be sitting outside for a while, waiting for the sun to go down. You will need to have somewhere to sit or you are just going to need to pull up a patch of grass.
Bring a flashlight. At the end of the night it is going to be dark. On your way ou, a flashlight will help you navigate your way to the trolleys. Remember though that your flashlight will need to be covered with a piece of cellophane or a colored lens so that the bright light doesn’t interfere with anybody else viewing the fireflies.