Best-Kept Secrets

Best-Kept Secrets: For birders

Phillip Doerr watches for birds through his binoculars Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at Yates Mill Park in Raleigh, N.C.
Phillip Doerr watches for birds through his binoculars Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at Yates Mill Park in Raleigh, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

OK, maybe you can’t name the nervous little bird flitting from branch to branch in that whatever-kind-of tree. A stuttering chirp erupts from the edge of a pond, and you don’t know whether it’s a bird or what.

Relax. You’ll learn. Meanwhile, just savor the excuse to be out in the weather somewhere across North Carolina’s rich landscape. You’re going birding.

Take your cues from generous experts who share their wisdom and their awe. Dip into rich online resources to learn where the birds are – in a remote marsh or a nearby park – and when you’ll find them there.

Naturalists are ready to help visitors discover feathered diversity at parks and nature preserves around the Triangle and across the state. There’s no better place to start than Historic Yates Mill County Park in Wake County, just four miles south of downtown Raleigh, or Mason Farm Biological Preserve in Chapel Hill.

At ncbirdingtrail.org, you can take a deep dive into birding opportunities – species by species, season by season – at scores of sites, including three dozen in the Triangle. Check ebird.org to see how many species have been counted at each hotspot and which birds were spotted there last weekend or this morning.

There are at least two dozen local birding clubs across North Carolina, many of them linked at carolinabirdclub.org. Most Audubon Society chapters and other clubs invite newcomers to join expert trip leaders on outings – check their online calendars – during every month of the year.

Likely as not, someone will have binoculars you can use. And a birding app on their smartphone, to show you a picture and play you the song of a creature that just flew away.

“I’m very impressed with just how lovely the state is,” said Mark Greenfield of Portland, Ore., who brought 15 fellow Oregonians to North Carolina in May for a birding tour – they were especially keen to see migrating warblers – from the dunes of Pea Island to the slopes of Mount Mitchell. “The variety of habitats and the large variety of different bird species are really something.”

Many of North Carolina’s birds are year-round residents, while others are only passing through. Some opportunities are focused in a particular time and location. During the last two weeks of July, every night at sunset, you can see 100,000 purple martins coming in to roost beneath the old U.S. 64 highway bridge at Manteo.

And sometimes there’s an unexpected thrill.

More than 300 migrating bobolinks took a two-week pit stop this spring at Yates Mill and an adjoining section of an N.C. State University research farm, where they gorged on a bumper crop of winter wheat.

The bobolink is a black bird with white shoulders, a straw-colored cap and a delirious, bubbly song. It logs 12,500 miles a year in a seasonal circuit between South America and the northern United States. The unusual late-April stopover in Raleigh attracted a gaggle of birders.

“There were people grabbing their gear and running across the parking lot,” said Rebeccah Cope, the Yates Mill park program director. “They had to get out there. It’s a ‘life’ bird – you know, if you have your ‘life’ list and you’re checking it off. The birders are pretty funny. I love them.”

Historic Yates Mill County Park

“You’re going to hear a lot more birds than you’ll ever see,” Rebeccah Cope, program director at the Wake County park on Lake Wheeler Road, tells visitors as they step onto the boardwalk across a 24-acre millpond. You might catch the faint groan of traffic from Raleigh’s Beltline, a couple of miles away. But what you really hear are cardinals, indigo buntings, Canada geese, and what Cope describes as the “sassy call” of blue-gray gnatcatchers, the “really vocal” red-shouldered hawks, and perhaps even the “little feisty sound” of hummingbirds. The 174-acre Historic Yates Mill County Park (wakegov.com/parks/yatesmill) boasts a diversity of habitats that include upstream wetlands, a beaver pond, and thick pine and oak-hickory forests. It features three miles of trails, an 18,000-square-foot education and research center, and a busy calendar of classes, demonstrations and walks. Birders have counted 187 species here. “We have Belted Kingfishers here that catch crayfish and smash them up before swallowing them whole,” Cope said. “Sometimes they head down to the mill – and this drives the miller crazy – and sit on the waterwheel and smash the crayfish there.” Some highlights during the year are tied to the comings and goings of migratory birds, and the brief abundance of whatever food might have special appeal. “When the jewelweed blooms in our wetlands in the fall, there are ruby-throated hummingbirds everywhere,” Cope says.

Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Chapel Hill

The N.C. Botanical Garden manages the 367-acre Mason Farm – 199 species reported on ebird.org – for ecological research and teaching (ncbg.unc.edu/mason-farm-biological-reserve/). The entrance is behind the Finley Golf Course clubhouse parking lot. Before you go, you’ll need to pick up a permit and a gate card at the Botanical Garden a few miles away, off N.C. 54. No dogs allowed, and joggers are frowned upon (like dogs, they flush the birds as they pass by). Mason Farm is a magnet for Triangle birders especially in spring, fall and winter. Ours is one of six groups that report their counts that same day – 30 to 37 species apiece – to ebird.org. “Mason Farm has very nice different types of habitat,” says David Anderson, an Orange County retiree who formerly served as the Audubon Society’s Florida state executive director. “It has good thick woods, ... some grassland areas and bushy areas. It is surrounded by developed areas – so as birds are migrating over, they’re coming into what they see as a good green spot to land in and fuel up.”

Southport, Fort Fisher, the ferry and the aquarium

John Connors of Raleigh starts one of his favorite birding trips at the Southport docks. Battery Island, just offshore in the mouth of the Cape Fear River, is home in late spring to huge colonies of nesting shore birds – herons, egrets and tens of thousands of white ibises. You can see everything (binoculars are a good idea) from the Southport waterfront. “The ibises will be flying back and forth over your head,” said Connors, retired after three decades as a naturalist and educator for Raleigh parks and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. “They gather crayfish in the freshwater marshes and bring them back to their chicks.” For a closer view of Battery Island, ride the private ferry that goes south from Southport to Bald Head Island. A mile away are thousands of brown pelicans nesting on South Pelican Island, a bit of sand created by dredge spoils conveniently close to a different route: the state ferry from Southport north to Fort Fisher. At the end of the line is the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, widely known for the painted buntings that summer there. Peggy Sloan, the aquarium director, says the colorful songbirds are more plentiful than they have been in 15 years. They’ll be around until early fall.

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, Cary

This 150-acre preserve in southern Cary has trails along the tops of bluffs lining Swift Creek, and creekside trails through the wetlands below. When you are on top of the bluffs, you are at eye level with the birds in the treetops – no need to strain your neck looking up there. The north-facing bluffs create a cool, moist microclimate that supports rhododendrons and eastern hemlocks more likely to be found in the mountains. “It tends to capture some really good flights of warblers in the spring,” says Phil Doerr, a wildlife biologist and retired NCSU professor. After the spring migration subsides, there are plenty of permanent residents lingering through the summer. “We’ll have red-eyed vireos, summer tanagers, Acadian flycatchers, prothonatory warblers and wood thrushes,” Doerr says. “Many of these birds will still be singing in June.” Birders have reported 135 species at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve (online at bit.ly/25kX9lV).

Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, Hyde County

The shallow depth of North Carolina’s biggest natural freshwater lake (18 miles across) creates some of its appeal for geese, ducks and other wintering waterfowl, along with hawks and eagles. “Mattamuskeet has the largest population of tundra swans in eastern America in the winter, up to 40,000 swans,” says naturalist John Connors. “In early November they are whooping and hollering. They fly in family groups, two adults and up to three young. They’ve come a long way from the Arctic, and they have this reunion right there at Mattamuskeet. It’s spectacular, the sounds they make.” Birders have counted 270 species at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/refuge/mattamuskeet/), according to ebird.org. Songbirds are drawn to the surrounding marshes, swamp forest and croplands. “You don’t want to go to Mattamuskeet after March,” Connors says. “There are interesting birds coming in, but too many mosquitoes.”

Mount Mitchell, Yancey County

The Commissary Trail is an old logging trail high on the tallest mountain in the eastern United States, but it’s an easy, mostly level two-mile walk. It starts at the Mount Mitchell State Park office (ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park). Birders have logged 137 species here – and 49 on this trail alone. “You are literally in the climate of Canada, at an elevation of 5,500 to 6,000 feet,” naturalist John Connors says. “It’s always cool there, you can see a long way, with the bird life you would find in southern Canada.” Examples include red crossbills, chestnut-sided warblers and dark-eyed juncoes. And one of Connors’ favorite birds, hard to see but a joy to hear: the winter wren. “You could fit an adult winter wren probably in a tablespoon,” Connors says. “It’s a tiny bird with the biggest song. It warbles out for 30 seconds. It’s like a little fairy hanging out at the top of that mountain, and it’s singing to me.”

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