The southern Appalachian Mountains are home to more kinds of mammals than any other area of eastern North America with more than 50 species documented along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Almost every Parkway visitor will see some of the more noticeable, including white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and the ever-present groundhog, along the roadside. The black bear is the largest mammal in these mountains and, although rarely seen by park visitors, is increasing in numbers in both Virginia and North Carolina. The most opportunistic mammals - raccoons, opossums, and skunks ? are common in campgrounds and picnic areas.
From the spruce-fir forests at the highest elevations down to the valley bottoms, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides nesting habitat for northern and southern birds alike. Dozens of other species pass through the Parkway on their spring and fall migrations. In all, more than 250 bird species have been observed along the Parkway.
About 20 percent of the Parkway’s breeding birds, including veery, red-breasted nuthatch, black-throated green warbler, golden-crowned kinglet and Canada warbler, are more typically found in more northern climates. Bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks can occasionally be found singing on fence posts in the meadows and pastures. One of the greatest wildlife success stories is the return of the wild turkey, often seen in the spring with a brood of young scurrying into the woods? edge. Great blue herons and wood ducks are benefiting from the return of beavers and are often found in beaver ponds, as well as in streams and man-made lakes. Peregrine falcons, reintroduced to the Southern Appalachians, have recently begun to nest again on the Parkway.
The Southern Appalachians are considered the center of salamander diversity on earth and the Parkway sits in the heart of this zone. The abundance of rain is probably the primary factor allowing for this richness. Whether laying their eggs, living in streams, or foraging under a rotting log, salamanders depend on water to survive. Water is essential for other amphibians as well. With the first warm rains in March, wood frogs and spring peepers head to vernal pools to lay their eggs. Later bullfrogs, pickerel frogs and American toads will follow suit. By summer the Parkway is alive with the call of frogs.
Though amphibians get more attention due to their diversity, there are also many reptiles found along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On-going surveys have found 22 species of snakes, 7 species of turtles and 6 species of lizards, including one federally threatened species and two that are rare in North Carolina.
Visitors are usually most interested in the two species of poisonous snakes, Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads. Both of these snakes are non-aggressive, avoiding contact with people, and are seldom seen by park visitors. Mainly active at night and in the twilight, these snakes spend the day in sheltered areas where they can avoid the daytime heat. Be careful where you place your hands, especially in rocky areas! Visits to Parkway ponds and wetlands may reveal one or more species of turtles. Snapping turtles inhabit many lakes and streams, feeding on fish and other aquatic animals.