Keeping an eye to the sky in Cullowhee

Photo provided by @tuckbirders on Instagram

Birding, as it is formally known, is gaining popularity within the greater Tuckasegee area. Topher Stephens, a Caney Fork local, along with Sylva mayor Dave Nestler set out to create a community where they could enjoy their shared interest in birds.  

Together they created Tuck Birders, a club with a passion for local birds, species history, identification and education. 

“One of our goals as a club is to get a bigger picture understanding of Appalachian ecology and the ecosystems that we’re inhabiting here,” Stephens said. “We’re trying to open it up and not stay so myopically focused on just birds, but birds within the context of this greater interconnected ecosystem, and just talk about what’s interesting and present where we’re walking.” 

Tuck Birders enthusiastically welcomes both first timers and seasoned birders. The club has several pairs of binoculars for participants who don’t have their own. 

“We want to help people understand that there are these really amazing bird habitats throughout the Tuckasegee watershed,” Stephens said. “We’re trying to break down that division between quote-unquote ‘birders’ and just casual bird watchers– or bird-curious as I say… [We] hope people stoke their interest into something that can become a lifelong hobby.” 

Stephens, the club facilitator, hopes that the club – which is free to attend– will help more people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds become involved in birding. “We haven’t had many students that have joined us… We’d like to reach out to the ornithology professors to help bring in more folks from WCU,” he said.  

Tuck Birders doesn’t just focus on the birds. They document many types of life on the trail, as well as anything else they may find of interest. 

“We’ll have some Western professors; people that are really good with plants… I, myself, am really interested and passionate about animal tracking,” Stephens said. 

The group also hosts social events like bird trivia nights and a recent houseboat party on  Lake Fontana.  

“A lot of it is just about us coming together as a community, to share food, get to know each other a little bit better, and to connect over our shared appreciation of birds and beautiful nature,” Stephens said.  

For the convenience of its members, the club holds most events nearby. The group frequents Monteith Park in Sylva, the Cullowhee Community Garden, East Laport, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Lake Fontana. 

“You don’t have to travel far in Jackson County to see some really amazing birds,” Stephens said. 

Photo provided by @tuckbirders on Instagram

The Tuckasegee watershed is an ecological wonderland abundant with fauna of all shapes and sizes. Tuckasegee, a word likely derived from the Cherokee “Tsiksitsi,” roughly translates to “crawling terrapin,” referencing the slow, rambling waters that cut through the area. 

 The Environmental Protection Agency says birds can be a great indicator of the condition of the watershed, making birding a valuable resource for ecologists.  

A 2021 article published on ArcGIS, a mapping and analysis site, states “The Tuckasegee River’s water quality is listed as impaired due to fecal coliform and bacteria caused by the Jackson County wastewater treatment plant and a non-point source of runoff.”  

Tuck Birders and other organizations like Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, (WATR), aim to preserve the habitat for future generations to enjoy. 

To learn more or to get involved with the club, visit the club’s Instagram or Facebook page, both @tuckbirders.