I stepped out of my car, my boots crunching on the fall leaves in the small parking area of Triangle Land Conservancy’s Swift Creek Bluffs Nature Preserve. It was just after noon on a sunny Sunday, and I was ready for a walk in the woods. I even had a snack-size Snickers bar in my pocket – hunger wouldn’t stop my explorations.
I was not only hiking that afternoon, but birding as well. The preserve has earned a spot on “The North Carolina Birding Trail: Piedmont Trail Guide,” and as I stepped onto the path I kept my eyes trained to the leafy canopy above me. Leaving the road, the car noise disappeared and was replaced with the steady chirping of crickets. The trees were much greener than other stands I’d seen near Durham, with only the hint of fall foliage showing in red and gold. Though the leaves on the trail made a sneaky approach to any animal impossible, I have to say I loved the crinkle sounds as I strode on.
Heading deeper into the preserve, I heard the rustle of squirrels, and a few brown birds faded into the background and then flew far ahead of me. There were no obvious calls yet, but I wasn’t worried. I felt like I had the whole preserve to myself, and that’s a special feeling. Fresh from the NC State Fair and the “fairy house” competition at the garden show the night before, I half expected to see little gnomes or other mythical woodland creatures skittering across the path in front of me.
Photo by Simon Howden
As I reached Swift Creek, the birds found me. Perhaps they preferred the clear space above the slow-moving, clear water of the creek, or perhaps there was more food along the banks, but whatever the reason there were definitely a lot of them! A delicate tapping suddenly sounded over my head. Craning my neck upwards, I squinted through the leaves. A tiny downy woodpecker, the tell-tale red patch on the back of its head indicating a male, was rapidly pecking the branch of a beech tree far above me. Throughout my walk I saw pairs of downy woodpeckers squeaking and chasing each other between the trees; undoubtedly the cutest of the woodpeckers.
Farther up the trail the creek-bed widened, and at its center lay fallen logs and young bushes growing in the clearing’s sunlight. This section was definitely a “birding hotspot.” I couldn’t move for at least twenty minutes there were so many birds flitting back and forth from the trees to the logs to the banks to just about anywhere I looked! There were loud blue jays, song sparrows darting in and out of the shadows of the upturned tree roots, downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, and the ever chattering Carolina chickadees. It’s probably lucky no one was with me, as anyone would have laughed watching my head snap back and forth trying to keep up with the antics of the creek birds.
That was the most active spot, but there were more chickadees and tufted titmice as I climbed the wooden steps to the top of the bluff and enjoyed my candy bar as I rested on one of the small benches overlooking the stream far below. From my perch I could hear neither cars nor planes, just the gray squirrels and the birds. The bluff is north facing, which means trees and plants normally found in the cooler Appalachians thrive, like hydrangea, bigleaf snowbell, witch-hazel, and alternate-leaf dogwood.
Reluctantly climbing back down, I saw my best bird of the trip as I headed back. Racing along the trunk of a huge tree, a white-breasted nuthatch was busy pecking the bark and feeding on what lay beneath. No, white-breasted nuthatches are not rare, but they are beautiful, and this nuthatch happily fed barely ten feet from where I was standing. Never have I had such an up-close-and-personal view of an active nuthatch, and with my camera I took full advantage. Eventually the nuthatch flew away, which may have been a good thing because all that gazing upward was developing a crick in my neck!
Finally at my car again, I checked my watch and was stunned when it told me I had been at Swift Creek Bluffs Nature Preserve for two hours. Though I had had great birding, I am sure the birding is even more amazing earlier in the fall during migration, and again in the spring when many of the migratory birds return. Something tells me I have a return visit in my near future.