Lake Crabtree Park

By Len Pardue

Overview: A combination of easily accessible spots offers a variety of habitat worth a check most any season — but the most interesting sightings may be water and shore birds in late summer through winter. The lake on Aviation Parkway just west of RDU airport has contained sizeable duck flocks last winter and this fall

Getting there: 1. Lake Crabtree Park main entrance—Exit I-40 south onto Aviation Parkway. The park entrance is on the east side of Aviation Parkway just south of the exit ramp. Gate opens at 8 a.m. No admission charge. 2. Continue south on Aviation Parkway past the park entrance; you'll see a pond and marsh on the west side of the road. Park at the south end of the guard rail. 3. A back entrance to the park is found on Old Reedy Creek Road. To reach this entrance, exit I-40 south onto Harrison Avenue east of RDU and go 0.4 miles to Weston Parkway. Turn southwest on Weston. Continue 0.6 mile to Old Reedy Creek Road. Turn right. Go 0.6 mile to a parking area and gate on your left. 4. To reach the lake west of RDU, get on Aviation Parkway along the airport’s west edge. The lake lies between Nelson Road and the main I-40 exit from RDU.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 50 44 N, 78 48 03.5 W

Where to go: In August and September after a good rain, check first the grassy shore adjacent to the first parking area in the park. Doug Shadwick has seen good shorebirds there yellowlegs, dowitchers, peeps, even a Baird’s Sandpiper—on occasion. You can hardly miss seeing Killdeer on the shore and Double-crested Cormorants in the west end of the lake.

The grassy shore is also a good spot to scope the lake. The best things I’ve seen there were the Common Loons and Red-breasted Mergansers I spotted late this November. I’ve never found anything unusual on the nature trail through the mostly pine woods next to the parking area, but your luck may be better. You can expect Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers year-round. Walking west along the grassy shore leads to a marshy area good in winter for sparrows, including Swamp Sparrows, but the path can be wet.

At the east end of the main park road is another parking area. The woods here, particularly close to the shoreline, can produce interesting woodland migrants such as Blackburnian and Worm-eating warblers in early fall. It’s a now-and-then thing but worth a try.

The marsh west of Lake Crabtree is good for egrets and herons in fall, a Red-shouldered Hawk most any time, Wood Ducks at the nesting boxes, Common Yellowthroats in spring and summer.

The back entrance to Lake Crabtree Park gives access to an asphalt path along lake's edge. It's good in winter for sparrows, in spring and summer for Blue Grosbeaks, and offers another vantage point for scoping the lake's east end. The bridge over Crabtree Creek also looks worth checking. A half-mile further north, Old Reedy Creek Road comes to a dead-end on the edge of Umstead State Park. Woods along the road might be worth checking.

Stopping at the RDU lake on Aviation Parkway can be less than pleasant, because of brisk traffic. But the waterfowl there have been more abundant than I’ve seen at other Triangle locations recently. Ring-necked Ducks have been most numerous, along with Coot. But look as well for Hooded and Red-breasted Merganser, Pied-billed Grebe (CHBC members saw a Horned Grebe at the lake’s south end, near the dam, late in November), American Wigeon, Bufflehead, teal in early fall, Lesser Scaup, and even Shovelers. Check fences, snags and fields along the edge of the airport and the lake for hawks and grass-loving birds (don’t be fooled by the owl dummies on airport light posts). I saw Savannah Sparrows in some bushes above the lake last winter.

Suggested spots to pull off: On Nelson Road just west of Aviation Parkway, just beyond the guard rail. Check the lake from both sides of the road. Aviation Parkway at the second pond south of Nelson Road. Aviation Parkway at the jetty near the dam, toward the I-40 end of the lake. In the fall migration season, these areas can be good for shorebirds, too, provided dry weather has allowed mud flats to become exposed.

Caution: Traffic moves fast on Aviation Parkway. Use your turn signal and pull well off the road. As of late November, there were no signs forbidding parking, but you never know when an airport police officer might make a new rule or when signs may go up. Also, road construction is changing the area. The airport is expanding its road system, and a Raleigh outer loop will connect I-40 and U.S. 70 west of RDU.

Note: this article was written in the early 1990's, so some information may be out of date. See also Steve Shultz's more recent article on birding Lake Crabtree County Park.

Official website: Lake Crabtree Park

Revised 12/28/2008

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