Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve and Ritter Park

By Steve Shultz

Description: Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is a 150 acre oasis in Cary, protecting a series of north-facing bluffs along Swift Creek. The orientation of the bluffs creates a microclimate that is cooler and wetter than the surrounding area. This microclimate has allowed a disjunct population of Eastern Hemlock trees, and other vegetation uncommon in the piedmont, to thrive. The bluffs separate the Preserve into two areas, a low-lying floodplain along the creek, and a forested upland of mixed deciduous and pine trees. Several elevated platforms along the crest of the bluffs allow the visitor to look down on the crowns of trees along Swift Creek. This is especially convenient during spring migration when warblers, vireos, and tanagers can be viewed among the emerging leaves. Viewing becomes more difficult once the trees completely leaf out. The floodplain is accessed by the 0.63 mile Swift Creek Trail. The trail is good for resident birds, migrants, and summer visitors. Waterthrushes, kingfishers and herons can be seen along the creek; you may be lucky enough to spot a Least or Pectoral Sandpiper, both species have been sighted in the park. The floodplain's mature trees harbor tanagers, warblers, and vireos in the summer. Residents and winter visitors make other seasons entertaining as well. Access to this trail is via a staircase that descends the bluffs, so this portion of the park is not handicapped accessible.

The upland area can be accessed by the 1.1 mile Chestnut Oak Loop Trail. This area is also good for resident birds with woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches locally common. The oaks along the trail are especially good for migrating warblers, tanagers and vireos. Look and listen for resident owls in the Beech Cove area. The upland area was formerly more difficult to bird due to a fairly closed canopy, but recent storms have created open areas more conducive to viewing. The many downed trees have provided habitat for a thriving population of wrens. One can usually count on hearing the "Tea-kettle" call of the Carolina Wren at almost any time. Much of the Chestnut Oak Trail is graded and mulched, and is handicapped accessible.

Getting there: From I-40 take exit 293A, US1 South. Proceed to exit 128A, Tryon Road. Go less than a mile and turn right on Kildaire Farm Road. Proceed 1.3 miles. The Preserve is on the right. Brown "Wildlife Viewing" roadsigns featuring a pair of binoculars are posted at the exit on US1, the intersection of Tryon Road and Kildaire Farm Road, and at the entrance to the park. The facility is open from 9 a.m. to sunset daily.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 43 24.6 N, 78 47 01 W

Facilities: 2 miles of trails, 5 observation platforms. Stevens Nature Center (phone 919-387-5980) provides information, structured activities, and a small gift shop. Ask for a copy of the park's bird list at the desk. Kiosks provide information on plant and animal life, trail guides, and lists of upcoming activities. Handicapped parking is available. Portions of the trails are wheelchair accessible although none are paved. Water and restrooms are available, picnicking is discouraged. Seed, suet, and hummingbird feeders are maintained at the Nature Center. Please note that visitors are asked to remain on the trails at all times. Please respect this rule and remain on the trails, no matter how close that lifer Cerulean Warbler might be!

When to visit: Year-round. Spring and Fall migration best. The park is open from 9 a.m. to dusk, daily.

What to look for: Barred Owls are resident and often seen along the Swift Creek Loop Trail. White-breasted Nuthatches are common around the Nature Center. Ovenbirds can often be found during the spring along the base of the bluffs on the Swift Creek Loop Trail. Breeders include Wood Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, Downy Woodpecker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Summer Tanager, and Red-eyed Vireo. You may even be lucky enough to spot a Mourning Warbler in migration, one of the more uncommon species on the park's 130 species bird list.

Also Nearby: Cary's Ritter Park is a good complement to Hemlock Bluffs. Ritter Park protects lands on the opposite side of Swift Creek. To reach the park turn left out of the Hemlock Bluffs parking lot and proceed to your first stoplight. Turn left and proceed approximately 0.25 mile. The entrance to the park is on the left. Park in the first lot on the left. A paved trail begins at the end of the parking lot. Proceed down this trail for a few hundred feet. The trail intersects a greenway that parallels Swift Creek. The best birding is generally to the left upon reaching the intersection. Fifteen warbler species were seen from one spot on the trail on a morning in early May. The woods nearest the parking lot usually have one or two chickadee-titmice flocks during the winter. These flocks should be checked for Orange-crowned Warblers in the winter, and for other migrants during the spring and fall. Ritter Park has one major advantage over Hemlock Bluffs — it opens at dawn. Birders may wish to arrive at Ritter Park in the early morning and then move over to Hemlock Bluffs after the gates open at 9 a.m.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 43 41.2 N, 78 46 54.2 W

Revised 12/28/2008 cwcook@duke.edu

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