Notes on birding Jordan Lake by canoe and kayak

By Ginger Travis

Overview: Nothing beats birding by boat. With a kayak or canoe you can get into places that are difficult or impossible to reach on foot. Many birds allow a closer approach by humans in a boat – we must look like harmless floating debris. Birds easily seen from a boat at Jordan in the right season include Bald Eagles (especially April-Oct.), migrating shorebirds (late summer with low water) and migrating warblers (spring and fall), not to mention some of our Southern specialties like Brown-headed Nuthatch (shoreline pines). To see a Prothonotary Warbler from 10 feet away, to be in the middle of a swirling group of Tree Swallows, to hear the cry of a springtime Common Loon and see the bird in breeding plumage – these are thrills waiting for boating birders at Jordan Lake. Here’s where to go:

Beaver Creek | Bush Creek | Morgan Creek | New Hope Creek | Northeast Creek | Roberson Creek | Weaver Creek | White Oak Creek

A quick word about safety: Powerboats and jetskis are the biggest hazards at Jordan. When you paddle across a main arm of the lake on a summer weekend you take your life in your hands. Boaters aren’t discourteous – there are just so many of them going so fast. You have to paddle defensively. Wait for a good gap in boat traffic before you attempt to cross a busy channel. Be extremely careful going under the highway bridges at Jordan. These are no-wake zones, but make sure boaters see you – and the best thing to do is wait till they’ve all gone through before you take your turn. Here are a few more common-sense steps to having a good time and getting back safely.

Where to go: (Note: the lake is considered at normal operating level if the water reaches 216 feet above mean sea level. High water is anything above 216. Really low water, with extensive mudflats, is down to 212 or so. WRAL-TV (channel 5) routinely shows local lake levels as part of its weather reports, and you can check lake levels anytime on the USGS National Water Information System website.)

(Big) Beaver Creek is a long, broad arm of the lake on the east side of SR 1008 south of Hwy. 64. You can put in at the Ebenezer boat ramps, which are open year round – and which can be very hectic. (At Ebenezer the less-used ramp is on the west side of the parking lot.) Paddle east under the highway bridge and you’re on your way. (Look up at the underside of the bridge structure to check for swallows’ nests – Barn and Cliff are the two possibilities.) You’ll soon see Little Beaver Creek branching off to the southeast. Check a map, if you have one, so you know which way to go – or just follow the lefthand shoreline. It's a 4-mile paddle from the Ebenezer boat ramps to the marshy east end of the lake arm. Good birds can be seen at any point. Osprey are now nesting in pines right on the shore of the Big and Little Beaver Creeks. Formerly they used dead snags in the water, but virtually all of these have fallen in. For many years a pair of Bald Eagles has nested in the woods on the north side of the Beaver Creek lake arm where the pines were thinned in a so-called “shelter cut.” The nest is not visible from the water. The shoreline near the nest is marked off with plastic tape denoting the no-entry area. Adult Bald Eagles may fly near as you skirt the shoreline in a boat. You might see a Wild Turkey in one of the quiet inlets along the north shoreline. In spring and summer, Prothonotary Warblers are possible at the east end of Beaver Creek in the beaver ponds and also along the south shoreline of this arm of the lake – listen for their “sweet, sweet, sweet” call and look for dead trees in or very near the water. Dead trees are a magnet for other cavity nesters, too – woodpeckers including Pileateds, Eastern Bluebirds, and Great Crested Flycatchers. In late summer there seem to be far fewer Great Egrets on Beaver Creek than up north around Farrington Point. However, I have twice seen Little Blue Herons here, once each on Big Beaver and Little Beaver Creek.

Bush Creek is a peaceful arm of the lake northwest of the often-chaotic Farrington Point boat ramps on Farrington Rd (SR 1008). These ramps are free and open 24 hours a day, year round. Boat traffic is very heavy at the ramps on summer weekends, so be careful. Farrington Point is close to Chapel Hill, and Bush Creek is nice for an after-work paddle in the summer. Put in at the set of boat ramps closer to the SR 1008 causeway – mostly kayaks and sailboats are launched here. Oh, and jetskis too! Follow the shoreline to your right, passing the other set of boat ramps with extreme caution. Continue to follow the shoreline to your right and around the point. Then it’s a straight shot up this arm of the lake to its end at a little bay with swampy edges: total distance, 1.5 mile. Along the way, you’re almost guaranteed to see Osprey, and Bald Eagles are often around too, as well as Red-shouldered Hawks. The little bay has good-looking habitat with buttonbush and willow, which are attractive to Red-winged Blackbirds and Green Herons. In winter I’ve seen Bufflehead in this bay. In spring 1999 there was a Great Blue Heron's nest in a dead tree about 75 yards up the first beaver impoundment to the west, and two big, ready-to-fledge chicks were seen tussling over a food item brought by a parent. In spring and early summer the bay is a good spot for Prothonotary Warblers.

Morgan Creek: Bald Eagles in late spring are the attraction here – lots of eagles. Morgan Creek flows into Jordan Lake at its extreme north end. On a map you can see a large peninsula with major feeder streams on each side: Morgan Creek on the west and New Hope Creek/Little Creek on the east. Bald Eagles congregate here, and in recent years they have nested on the peninsula. Thus Morgan Creek's entry to the lake is cordoned off with a yellow floating boom to keep boaters out from January to June. (The Morgan Creek mudflats appear here when the water level drops significantly, so shorebird viewing can be good in late summer and early fall.) To visit this part of the lake, put in at the Farrington Point boat ramps, paddle under the highway bridge and follow the left shoreline north. Eagles can be seen all along the shoreline – often perched quietly in trees – particularly during May when the year-round residents are joined by birds passing through. On May 14, 2000 I took part in the Chapel Hill spring count by boat, covering the lake shoreline on the Morgan Creek side and helping the parties led by Alan Johnston and Doug Shadwick, who counted inland. I had 36 eagle sightings, starting a half-mile north of the Farrington Rd. bridge. Undoubtedly I saw some of the same birds more than once, but the number of sightings was extraordinary. Inside the count area I found 16 perched birds along about 5 miles of shoreline, most in small groups. For example, four eagles (2 adults, 2 immatures) sat in a Loblolly Pine at the water's edge just a mile north of the bridge. Yet on this day only one eagle was observed by the two parties inland. Clearly, the birds spend most of their time at the water's edge or over water. So if you crave more eagle action than you can get on the wildlife observation platform (off Hwy. 751) or the Farrington Rd. bridge, get in a boat in May or June and paddle north. The piney shoreline of Jordan Lake is not very scenic, but there is one nice spot worth taking pains to find. Cub Creek enters the lake on the west shore in an inlet a little more than 2 miles north of Farrington Rd. As you paddle to the back of the inlet it narrows, then opens out again in a beaver impoundment, which you may be able to enter if the water is high enough. On May 14, 2000, with the lake at 216.4 (full), I got in and floated around with just a few inches of water under my boat. The impoundment seemed enchanted that day, and birds sang like crazy. The number and diversity of birds in this sheltered place, as in other impounded creek mouths at Jordan Lake, was much higher than along the lakeshore. I saw three Bald Eagles perched on snags, a pair of Wood Ducks, a Pileated Woodpecker, several Tree Swallows, and Eastern Bluebirds. I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Great-crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Northern Parula and more. It was hard to tear myself away. Granted, it was spring. In hot July, this spot would be charmless – just like the rest of the lake. May and June are the best months. To find Cub Creek, a map will come in handy. If you go all the way up to Morgan Creek, the roundtrip will be about 7 miles.

New Hope Creek comes into Jordan Lake at its extreme north end. On a map note the big peninsula at the top of the lake – New Hope Creek is on the east side of peninsula. The north end of the lake is shallow because the flood plains of Morgan, Little, and New Hope creeks were wide and flat before they were submerged. So when the water level drops, vast mudflats appear, attracting migrating shorebirds. The flats are reachable by birders on foot, but the walk in summer from Old Hope Valley Farm Road or from Hwy. 751 can be long and hot -- "not for the faint of heart," as Will Cook says. With a boat it may be easier to approach the mudflats, depending on weather conditions. And the attractions of the north end of the lake are great, with water or without. Bald Eagles abound in late spring and early summer, Prothonotary and Yellow-throated Warblers breed here in spring, and migrating shorebirds drop in from mid-summer through early fall. The protected swampy north end is a good place to look for late-lingering Blue-winged Teal or early-arriving Great Egrets. To get there the shortest way, put your canoe or kayak in at the south end of the Hwy. 751 bridge. Park on the west side of the road and find the well-trodden path down the embankment. Currently (winter 2009) there is a convenient new bulldozed path down to the water; it's the width of a one-lane road. Unless it is kept mowed, however, it will quickly revert to a tangle of trumpet creeper, poison ivy, and blackberry brambles. So use it while you can, and in the future be prepared for anything. (Carry loppers!) The path ends after about 100 yards at a tiny sandy beach in a little cove. Paddle north, keeping the Hwy. 751 bridge on your right, to the point of land opposite. Go around the point and keep paddling north with the shoreline on your right. In early morning you can actually paddle in the shade of the trees on this shore, postponing the inevitable grilling you'll get from the sun. At first there will be fishermen along the shore, but soon you'll leave them behind. The mouth of New Hope Creek is on the east side of the shoreline about three miles north of the put-in and just a few yards north of the old railroad grade. This is easy to see on a good map but can be hard to find on the water. The creek is hidden in a maze of willows and other trees, and you just have to poke around till you find it. Once in the creek, you'll soon run into beaver dams unless the water level is high. But beaver impoundments at Jordan are much birdier than the lakeshore, so you might enjoy hanging out here in the morning. Of botanical interest, in the water near the old railroad grade is an apparent planting of young Baldcypress trees; some have mesh sleeves around the trunk to keep beavers from killing them. Jordan Lake is out of range for Baldcypress, but the species can naturalize in this part of the Piedmont, so in years to come a cypress grove could become a great landmark. At Jordan the lake level typically drops through the summer, unless a hurricane fills it up again, so you may find in late July or August that you can't paddle more than a mile or so north of the put-in. In that case, just look for the shorebirds, beach your boat as near as you can, find a spot to plant your scope, and enjoy!

Northeast and Panther Creeks at Hwy. 751 bridge. At normal to high water levels there is a small bay on the east side of the Hwy. 751 bridge. This bay is where Northeast Creek and Panther Creek enter the lake. The shallow bay turns into a giant mudflat when water levels drop in summer, and it then becomes very attractive to waders. More than 100 Great Egrets spent several weeks here in the summer of 1999 (and returned in June 2000), and an American Avocet in winter plumage was seen by a couple of lucky local birders. The put-in for Northeast/Panther Creeks is at the south end of the Hwy. 751 bridge on the west side of the road. Park on the rutted, well-worn shoulder and look for a trail down the embankment. You have to carry your boat about 100 yards along a poison-ivy-edged path to the water and hoist it over a barrier to wheeled vehicles. You will also see trash everywhere on the lakeshore, so this spot may not feel completely safe, if you’re alone. Launch and turn right (east) and go under the highway bridge into the little bay. Bear right and poke around the maze of bushes and trees to find where the creek enters. Panther Creek is normally impassable because of the progression of beaver dams, but in high water, 217 and above, you may be able to float over the dams and make your way upstream. This is a lot of fun. Even though you can hear traffic on roads nearby, there is a sense that you're in another world. You might see anything from a deer swimming the channel to Black-crowned Night-Herons perched in trees to Red-headed Woodpeckers flying and calling. Is it possible to get lost in the flooded swamp forest? You bet it is. Carefully note the landmarks so you can retrace your way.

Roberson Creek. The Roberson Creek canoe launch is just below the last rapids on the Haw River as it flows into Jordan Lake. It’s the take-out for whitewater boaters ending their run. In fact, the filling of Jordan Lake in the late 1970s deprived whitewater paddlers of some of the very best rapids on the Haw. But because of the huge rocks in the river and the rich woods along the shore, this is the most beautiful spot on all of Jordan Lake. On some lake maps, the Roberson Creek canoe launch is not shown, and you might confuse it with the Roberson Creek boat ramp, which is on the map. So pay attention and look for the turnoff, which is marked by a wooden sign. From Wilsonville – the intersection of Hwy. 64 and SR 1008 – take Hwy 64 west (toward Pittsboro) and cross the lake. Six miles west of Wilsonville you'll come to the Haw River. After crossing the Haw take your first left onto Foxfire Trace, SR 1991. (Foxfire Trace is a new road not shown on old maps.) Ignore the sign for Haw River Canoe Access – this is the whitewater boaters’ put-in. After a short distance, turn left on SR 1944 (Dee Farrell Road). When this deadends at SR 1943, turn left. After 1.0 mile of traveling southeast on SR 1943, look for a gravel road on your left with a sign for the Roberson Creek canoe launch site. The canoe launch is a very pleasant change from much of Jordan’s trashy shore. It's now being kept clean by the Carolina Canoe Club, and it's a quiet spot that feels reasonably safe. There’s no boat ramp, just the steep riverbank. A pleasant four-mile loop is to paddle upstream (north) from the canoe launch till you're stopped by the first wall of rock across the Haw, then come back down the opposite (east) shore of the Haw about a mile until you're even with Roberson Creek on the west side. Cross the lake to Roberson Creek and paddle up it a half-mile or so past the boat ramp and under the bridge if the creek is passable there. Then return to the lake and paddle north up the west shoreline back to the canoe launch. You'll hear and see typical birds including several species of woodpeckers (Pileateds among them), phoebes, Pine Warblers and Yellow-throated Warblers. Because the Haw River arm of Jordan Lake isn't birded nearly as much as the main body, you might find some interesting birds here through the four seasons. For example, no one ever reports winter ducks from this side of the lake. Are there any? You could find out and let the rest of us know!

Weaver Creek is a small arm of the lake on the south side of Pea Ridge Rd. It is closed to boats with gasoline motors – the only such place on Jordan Lake. Osprey have nested on this peaceful stretch of water, and warblers are present in spring. In December 2005 I saw 6 Bufflehead here. At normal water levels it's a mile and a half from the put-in to the end – but less in low water when mudflats appear. The put-in is maintained by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; it’s a drowned blacktop road just off SR 1008 a couple of hundred yards south of the Pea Ridge Rd. intersection. The Wildlife Resources Commission keeps the small parking lot clean.

White Oak Creek. The White Oak Creek arm of Jordan Lake is attractive and often very birdy on spring mornings. On May 8, 2005, I found 62 species here, including Lesser Yellowlegs and Common Merganser. The shoreline has a high proportion of deciduous trees – good for Ovenbirds and Wood Thrushes – and a lot of coves, where you can expect to find perched eagles. But launching is problematic. I used to put in at the lower parking lot serving the Wildlife Resources Commission fishing pier at the north end of the SR 1008 highway bridge (next to Bell's Baptist Church). But a small sign on the bulletin board declares this site off-limits to boaters – which apparently includes paddlers: in the summer of 2004, I was issued an official warning by a couple of zealous Wildlife enforcement officers. Now I park in the upper parking lot and drag my kayak down a woodland path choked with poison ivy and sprinkled with toilet paper. There are no good alternatives. The Crosswinds campground on the south side of White Oak Creek has a boat ramp that is restricted to use by campers. And the Crosswinds marina charges a high fee for use of its ramps. Assuming you do get on the water here, it’s well worth it. There’s a wonderful series of beaver impoundments where White Oak Creek comes into the lake just west of Hwy. 751 and about 2.0 to 2.5 miles east of where you put in on SR 1008. I once counted 9 species of cavity nesters in the standing dead timber in the upper impoundment. For many years there was an eagle's nest in the impoundment, and it was clearly visible from the lake — an exception to the general rule that eagles seek secluded nest sites. (The nest tree is gone now, although the eagles are presumed to be somewhere on White Oak Creek.) On May 8, 2005 I saw a recently fledged juvenile eagle fly in and perch on the nest. Shortly thereafter an adult arrived and dropped a food item into the nest for the youngster to eat. Very cool! Other attractions: Orchard Orioles, Eastern Kingbirds, Green Herons, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos can be expected in the willows. And I once saw a Yellow Warbler here, too.

When to visit: Mid-May is absolutely perfect. Summer would not be so pleasant. But late Aug./early Sept. when the lake is down to 214 or lower might be good for shorebirds in the shallow upper end of the White Oak Creek arm. Lots of mudflat potential up there, though it's a moderately long haul to get there. Hazards: Wind above 10 mph isn't a lot of fun to paddle in. A spray skirt is really handy if you're crossing the main channel in wind or if there's a lot of motorboat traffic churning up waves. Heat: go early; take water. Jetskis and motorboats: go early and paddle defensively. Try to give them a smile and a wave to encourage good behavior.

Beaver Creek | Bush Creek | Morgan Creek | New Hope Creek | Northeast Creek | Roberson Creek | Weaver Creek | White Oak Creek

See also: Haw River Above Bynum Dam by Canoe and Kayak

Triangle Birder's Guide home | Chatham/Jordan Lake | Durham/Falls Lake | Orange | Wake