Duke Forest: Durham & Korstian Divisions

By Jeffrey S. Pippen

Overview: Owned by Duke University, Duke Forest comprises 7050 acres of recovered farmlands and patches of forest purchased during and since the mid-1920's. The Forest is divided into 6 divisions spanning 3 counties. While it's primary mission is to provide a natural, outdoor laboratory for environmental research and education, Duke Forest is one of the few private research facilities that is accessible for public recreation. Public activities, however, are limited to gated roads and posted access areas. There are many miles of trails in the Duke Forest system. The wide, graveled roads (which serve as vehicular access roads for research and management) allow hiking as well as horse-back riding and mountain biking. The narrower, dirt trails are designated for foot-use only. Please realize that a significant amount of research is ongoing in Duke Forest and the hiker should use only designated access trails marked by signs. Note also that the Forest is only open during daylight hours. Trail maps and more information may be obtained by contacting the Office of the Duke Forest at 919-613-8013, or by visiting http://www.dukeforest.duke.edu. While birding is possible at virtually all public access areas and trails throughout Duke Forest, I will focus on one particular nature trail that is close to Duke's campus, and then I will list several other access points that can be good for birding.


Description: Established in 1995, this 1 mile self-guided loop trail takes the hiker up and down several hills and over at least three small, intermittent streams. Twenty-nine signs along the trail inform the hiker of the forest usage and management (both past & present), important constituent trees, the effects of Hurricane Fran, and basic forest ecology. The trail is mostly forested, although the forest type varies as you hike along. Beginning at a rustic old picnic table under some tall, majestic oaks, the trail quickly winds down to a stream bordered by oak, maple, beech, and sycamore and then ascends through various mixed hardwoods with loblolly and lots of second growth brush (e.g. young sweetgum and blackberry tangles) in gaps created by Hurricane Fran. Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, and Eastern Towhee are common all year in these brushy areas. After passing through a large clear-cut regeneration area (used as a staging area for helicopter logging after Fran), the trail then goes through a loblolly stand and finally through more mixed hardwoods. The trail is marked by small wooden signs painted with a white tree outline and nailed to large trees. Be sure to look for these markers to stay on the trail, especially where the trail intersects and briefly joins some wider graveled paths. The Shepherd Nature Trail ends at a large, modern picnic shelter about 100 feet from the rustic old table where it began. (Turn left as you're facing the shelter to return to the beginning or to your vehicle.)

Getting There: From US 15-501 Bypass, go 1.3 miles northwest (i.e. away from Duke University) on NC 751. Pull off at the second gravel area on the right after Constitution Dr. This is Duke Forest Gate "C". (The "C" is stenciled in white on the green gate-posts and is difficult to see until you actually pull off and park.) Park along the highway shoulder, being sure not to block the access gate. Hike past the gate, and you will find the trailhead near the rustic old picnic table less than a hundred meters from the highway. At the trailhead is a wooden box with maps and a description of the Shepherd Nature Trail.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 36 00 43.5 N, 78 58 26 W

What to look for: Breeding birds of interest include American Woodcock, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Great-crested Flycatcher, Brown-headed Nuthatch (mostly near pines), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, White-eyed, Blue-headed, and Red-eyed Vireos, Pine, Prairie, and Hooded Warblers, Ovenbird, Summer (and probably Scarlet) Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Towhee, and American Goldfinch. In fall and winter look for Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated and Song Sparrow. Also Blue-headed Vireos are more common here in fall and winter. Of course spring and fall seasons may bring a variety of interesting migrants. Along with the more commonly observed migrating warblers (e.g. American Redstart, Black-and-white, and Black-throated Blue), the right timing may produce less common quarry like Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Cape May, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Worm-eating, and Canada Warblers. Fruiting dogwoods,especially in October, can host tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Swainson's, and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Veery, and Blue-headed Vireo, as well as large numbers of robins, sapsuckers, flickers, and bluebirds. Blue-headed Vireos may be found here year-round (fewer in summer), and Hooded Warblers nest here in fairly large numbers due to the abundance of second-growth habitat created by Hurricane Fran. American Woodcock may be seen or heard "peenting" in the clearings from December into March. While rare in the breeding season, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks are seen in the vicinity every summer.

Facilities: The Ross Picnic Shelter has built-in grills and may be reserved by calling the Duke Forest Office. To prevent erosion and avoid collisions with hikers, mountain biking is not allowed on the trail but is allowed on nearby wide graveled Duke Forest Roads. There are no restroom facilities on site. Trail maps of all of Duke Forest are available from the Office of Duke Forest. Parking is along Hwy 751, or if you have reserved the picnic shelter, you may drive in and park by the picnic facilities. Contact: Office of Duke Forest, Duke University, 919-613-8013, http://www.dukeforest.duke.edu

When to Visit: Any season. Spring and Fall migration will offer the most variety.

Additional Access Points for the Durham and Korstian Divisions of Duke Forest:

The following access points are additional hiking areas that can be good for birding. Most do not have loop trails but they do have several dirt spur trails (designated by yellow signs for foot access only). Backtracking is usually necessary to return to your vehicle. If you are unfamiliar with the area, I would recommend obtaining a set of trail maps and/or paying careful attention to which paths you take. In general, the birding will be similar to that described above for the above Shepherd Nature Trail.


Description: This series of paths goes through some mature loblolly stands and some areas of mixed hardwoods. Much of the path follows the edge of a younger loblolly pine stand established in 1988 following a seed-tree harvest. American Woodcock, Prairie Warblers and Eastern Towhees nest here. Numerous Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) flowering in March and April tend to attract early spring butterflies such as Henry's Elfin.

Getting There: 1. From US 15-501 Bypass, go 0.8 miles northwest (i.e. away from Duke University) on NC 751. Gate 4 is located just past the second gravel area past Erwin Rd. on the right side of the highway, only a few hundred feet before Constitution Dr. Park on the shoulder of the road. Note the white number "4" stenciled on the green gate-posts. 2. From The Shepherd Nature Trail: Gate 4 is located along Hwy 751 1/2 mile back toward US 15-501 Bypass. Shortly after passing the paved Constitution Dr. on your left, pull off onto the gravel area on left (north) side of Hwy 751. Park here, but do not block the gate.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 36 00 26 N, 78 57 57.57 W

Facilities: None


Description: The topography along this access road is much flatter than the Shepherd Nature Trail. Most of the main trail goes through loblolly pine stands of varying ages, however there are some patches of hardwoods. This trail also intersects a power line right-of-way, which may offer good birding along its edges. This power line is also an excellent area to look for butterflies. Over 60 species have been seen here since 1995. You will have to backtrack to return to your car. Birds are similar to those of the Shepherd Nature Trail.

Getting There: 1. From The Shepherd Nature Trail: Gate 10 is located along Hwy 751 0.7 miles northwest of the Shepherd Nature Trail (or 1 mile past Constitution Dr.) Opposite Kerley Rd., which goes off to the left, pull off onto the gravel area on the right (northeast) side of Hwy 751. Park here, but do not block the gate. 2. From US 15-501 Bypass, go 1.9 miles northwest (i.e. away from Duke University) on NC 751. Opposite Kerley Rd. which goes off to the left, pull off onto the gravel area on right side of Hwy 751. Park here, but do not block the gate. See also Will Cook's description of the Gate 10 loop.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 36 01 04 N, 78 58 57.7 W

Facilities: None


Description: Most of this trail goes through fairly tall oak-hickory forest. Several hundred meters from the beginning, the trail splits. The right fork (Slick Hill Fire Trail) eventually (about 3/4 of a mile) leads to a very young loblolly stand planted in 1997. In the breeding season, look among the brambles and saplings for Carolina and House Wrens, Eastern Bluebird, Prairie Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and perhaps a Yellow-breasted Chat or a Blue Grosbeak. Scan along the edges for Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Indigo Bunting. In winter, look for accipiters, Ruby- and Golden-crowned kinglets, Eastern Bluebird, and various sparrows. (Song Sparrows can be abundant here!) The forested portion of the trail is a good place to look in the winter for Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Brown Creeper, both kinglets, and Hermit Thrush. In autumn, large flocks of blackbirds including Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird often cruise through these areas of the forest. Northern Flickers, Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers are found here all year. Backtrack to the original fork in the trail and take the left fork (Laurel Hill Fire Trail). Several hundred meters later, the hiker is treated to some Rhododendron bluffs overlooking New Hope Creek. In the breeding season, look and listen for yellow-billed Cuckoo, Wood Thrush, Northern Parula, both tanagers, and possibly a Louisiana Waterthrush. During migration, many species of warblers may be seen in the vegetation along the creek. You may wish to explore some of the dirt spur trails (designated by yellow signs) leading down to the river.

Getting There: 1. From US 15-501 Bypass, go a couple hundred meters northwest on Hwy 751, and go around the traffic circle to turn left onto Erwin Rd. (also known as "Old Erwin Rd."). Continue for 3.3 miles and turn right at the stoplight onto Whitfield Rd. Pull off to the right onto the gravel area after 0.6 miles and do not block the gate. 2. From I-40 take the Hwy 86 (Airport Rd.) exit near Chapel Hill and turn north onto Hwy 86. Turn right at the first stoplight (after the I-40 exit ramps) onto Whitfield Rd. Go 2.9 miles and pull off onto the gravel area on your left and do not block the gate.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 58 40.2 N, 79 00 59.4 W

Facilities: None


Description: Like most of Duke Forest, this gravel road goes through both mixed hardwoods and varying ages of loblolly stands. Just over a half-mile from your car, this trail fords New Hope Creek via a concrete bridge. After very heavy rains, this crossing may be under water. Here, the riverbanks are forested with tulip poplar, sweetgum, beech, sycamore, oak, and hickory, and it is a good place to look for migrating warblers. In the breeding season, search for Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush , Yellow-throated Vireo, Northern Parula, and perhaps a Prothonotary Warbler or Louisiana Waterthrush. Several dirt spur trails (designated by yellow signs), including a couple that follow the riverbank, offer the hiker a chance to leave the noise of the crunchy gravel underfoot, climb a few rock outcrops, and explore along the river for birds and butterflies. Eventually the main trail comes out at Gate 23 on Mt. Sinai Rd. (But beware of two trail forks after crossing the river.) Unless other arrangements were made, backtracking is necessary to return to your vehicle.

Getting There: 1. From Gate 26 above, continue on Whitfield Rd. for 1/3 mile and pull off at the next gravel area on the right. Park on the shoulder and do not block the gate. 2. From I-40 take the Hwy 86 (Airport Rd.) exit near Chapel Hill and turn north onto Hwy 86. Turn right at the first stoplight (after the I-40 exit ramps) onto Whitfield Rd. Go 2.6 miles and pull off onto the gravel area on your left. Do not block the gate.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 58 40.6 N, 79 01 21.25 W

Facilities: None

Revised 12/28/08 cwcook@duke.edu

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