Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mary Parker Sonis: Call of the Unwild

If you’re quiet and careful, you can sometimes watch great blue herons hunt from just a few yards away, like Mary Parker Sonis did with this one in Lochmere Pond in Cary.
If you’re quiet and careful, you can sometimes watch great blue herons hunt from just a few yards away, like Mary Parker Sonis did with this one in Lochmere Pond in Cary.

As a photographer, I am always looking for wildlife that will stay put long enough to provide a photo opportunity. I try to be respectful and keep my distance, but even with a 400 mm lens, you need to be able to get closer than binocular distance.

There are wonderful wildlife locations near Chapel Hill such as Jordan Lake and Mason Farm Biological Reserve, but these are fairly wild. As a result, the wildlife is truly wild. Birds flee when you round the corner of a trail, and you often can only get a glimpse of winter waterfowl using a high-powered spotting scope. This can make for a very boring outing. No one “oohs” and “ahs” over photos of tiny blurred specks on the lake.

What we, or I, often overlook is the suburban pond. They are everywhere, and they provide a special type of wildlife observation. When looking for a nature experience, you don’t have to travel far, and if you want to experience wildlife up close, this is the way to go. We often worry about wildlife that is habituated to human presence, but in the case of ducks and waterfowl, this may provide a great opportunity for both the birds and the bird watchers.

When you bird at New Hope Waterfowl Impoundment on N.C. 54, the ground is littered with shotgun shells because hunters frequent the area. The waterfowl at New Hope are wary, and they have reason. When you check for birds at Henry Anderson Park in Carrboro, the birds linger and ignore you. There are two reasons for this change in behavior. First off, no one is allowed to hunt at Hank Anderson, and second, the birds see humans every day. There are joggers and dog walkers using the path around the pond at all hours. Ducks beget ducks. They fly over waterways, and set down where they see other waterfowl, so the tame mallards that wander close to people can attract the more skittish birds like hooded mergansers and buffleheads.

My latest outings have brought me to a condo pond in Cary. The pond is fairly large, but it is ringed by houses and condominiums. Everyone in the neighborhood uses the walk around. The residents are very fond of their waterfowl, and keep track of the comings and goings of the geese and ducks. In one afternoon, I counted three mute swans, six mallards, five ring-necked ducks, 22 ruddy ducks, a pair of buffleheads, and one very tame great blue heron.

Places like this are photo bonanzas. You are not disturbing the wildlife, you can get close, and access is simple. For those who are wary of birding alone, these ponds are quite public, and many are under neighborhood watch. The great blue herons are known for their boldness while hunting, and in a pond setting, one can watch a heron fishing from a distance of 20 feet. Sit quietly, and watch the show. You aren’t going to throw him off his game.

Now this city pond birding won’t gain you any macho points with other birders. I mean, you aren’t wearing waders; you aren’t welcoming the dawn while crouched in a flatboat by a reedy thicket. Where’s the challenge? Personally, I feel very virtuous when I am racked with the chill of a muddy bog, scratched by greenbrier, and sinking slowly into the oozing mud. It’s excellent for one’s outdoorsy image. Should I even admit to the fact that I have been known to set myself up at the edge of a pond while enjoying an egg and cheese biscuit? Just so you don’t think I’ve gone all soft, I still insist on lying down to get good low shots of waterfowl, but other than the lying-down part, city birding can be more about good observation than facing the elements.

The fun part comes when you see the surprise guests. As I have said, ducks bring other ducks, so what may start as a ho-hum day of watching the regulars, may change very quickly. These wintering ducks come from all over. They may fly down from Maine, or arrive from the far west. They are not breeding, but merely visiting our warm southern climes for the purpose of overwintering in a comfortable place with plentiful food. What better place to rest than a city pond with plenty of fish, and no hunters?

Quite often, city ponds have a loyal following of local birders who document the comings and goings of pintails, mergansers, grebes, and northern shovelers. They can tell you the exact location where the resident hawks build their nest in spring. It is an example of the excellent citizen science that contributes to our understanding of population fluctuations and trends in a given area.

A city pond will never substitute for a wildlife refuge, but it gives access to just about anyone who has an interest in the outdoors. For a novice photographer, it offers a chance to catch flight shots of herons and ducks, and you can pack a lunch to take along for the trip. No boots, no camo, no problem.

Mary Parker Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at