Triangle Birding – Great for Newcomers and Oldtimers, Too

by Ginger Travis


The Triangle is rich in birds: 335 species on the Orange Co.-Durham Co.-Jordan Lake checklist.

A nitpicker might point out that the Triangle lacks the fabulous rarities-in-residence that bring birders on pilgrimage from other states – like Five-striped Sparrow and Rose-throated Becard (Arizona), or Kirtland’s and Colima Warblers (Michigan, Texas). We do have the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker just 90 minutes away in the Sandhills. But birders in California and New York don’t spend their whole year planning a late-spring vacation to Mason Farm, Duke Forest, Falls Lake and other Triangle hotspots.

Doesn’t matter. We’ve got great birds – and great birders. We have so many excellent birders, in fact, that when rarities show up around here – like the Gray Flycatcher on a Chatham Co. fence, the Pacific-slope Flycatcher at Jordan Lake, the Glaucous Gull at Farrington Point, and assorted winter hummingbirds – word travels fast and the sightings are shared.

The Triangle also is occasionally blessed with ultra-rarities when a hurricane blows inland, dropping pelagic species at our lakes. Hurricane Fran brought Black-capped Petrel, Leach’s and White-faced Storm-Petrels, Bridled Tern, and Audubon’s Shearwater, among others. Here for a day, then gone.

Still, the real pleasure of Triangle birding is the everyday chance of seeing a beautiful bird or observing a fascinating behavior – extraordinary sights in ordinary places. Happens to people here all the time, like...

  • The local birder who photographed a Mississippi Kite perched in his Orange Co. yard.

  • The birder who worked at an RTP office building where Black Vultures would stand on the sidewalk at the main entrance, peck at their reflections in the glass, and scare the wits out of people inside.

  • The Finley Golf Course groundsman – Matt Byrd – who reported an adult Bald Eagle that spent all of August 2005 perching in pine trees on the course and occasionally walking the fairway next to a water hazard.

  • The many Christmas, spring and fall bird counters who find all kinds of surprising stuff at Jordan Lake: Anhingas, Willets, Red Crossbills, a Sabine’s Gull.

  • And me – watching a Sanderling dash from puddle to puddle in a rain-soaked Carrboro parking lot in June, a month when none had been reported here before.

Every Triangle birder has experiences like these. If you stay outside long enough, something wonderful will fly by.

In fact, I bet many of us are better birders here at home – where we’re looking at all the birds every day – than we are in our travels chasing life birds and ignoring any familiar species. At least I’m like that – a schizophrenic birder depending on location: home or away.

A lot of the Triangle birds I’ve enjoyed most were the ones I saw at work in Chapel Hill: elegant Cedar Waxwings flocking next to an ugly downtown parking deck, a Cooper’s Hawk chasing pigeons past a sixth-floor office window, an immature Red-tailed Hawk gorging on squirrel in a white oak tree at UNC while passersby stopped and stared, and a migrating Blackpoll Warbler foraging and singing just a few feet away from me on the UNC quad next to Franklin Street. Oh yeah – and the spookiness, at dusk, of hundreds of Chimney Swifts whirling down the Old Post Office chimney at the corner of Franklin and Henderson Streets.

If you’re a newcomer to the Triangle, you can set yourself up for good birding here:

  • By having confidence that great birds can appear in the most surprising places. Just look up!

  • By joining one or more of the three excellent local birding clubs: Wake Audubon (Raleigh), New Hope Audubon (Chapel Hill) and the granddaddy of them all, the Chapel Hill Bird Club.

  • By downloading the local checklist maintained by Will Cook at

  • By either subscribing to or regularly checking the archives of Carolinabirds, the local birding listserv.

  • By participating in field trips and counts offered by the three clubs, and by the Wild Bird Store at Eastgate in Chapel Hill. (See for Christmas, spring and fall count schedules and contacts.)

  • By joining the Carolina Bird Club, the ornithological society of the two Carolinas, which offers great field trips several times a year

Local hotspots

– All deciduous woodlands near water can be great in the spring, but the mother of them all is the Mason Farm Biological Reserve behind Finley Golf Course at UNC. This has a creek, bottomland forest, marshy ditches, an unusual piedmont swamp forest, and old fields – with everything in season from Woodcocks and Wilson’s Snipe, to Yellow-breasted Chats and Indigo Buntings, to Hooded and Kentucky Warblers, to winter sparrows – and bobcats, too. You need a gate card for admittance. Call the N.C. Botanical Garden (919-962-0522) and ask how to get one (free to Garden members, small fee for nonmembers).

– Other great woodland spots: Duke Forest and the Johnston Mill Nature Preserve on New Hope Creek.

– Year-round the most attractive spot in the Triangle is probably Jordan Lake, although Falls Lake, which is birded less intensively, should be equally good. Brickhouse Road is great for winter sparrows. For winter waterfowl (including Canvasbacks but maybe not much longer), add the Raleigh lakes and ponds. For breeding grassland birds such as Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, and for migrating Bobolinks in early May and the occasional odd Dickcissel, you can’t beat Dairyland Road in Orange Co.

All of these locations are described in one or more of the following:

  • “Birding North Carolina” (A Falcon Guide by Globe Pequot Press, 2005),

  • “Birding in North Carolina State Parks” (Audubon North Carolina, 2002),

  • “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to the Triangle” (Wake Audubon Society, 2002),

  • The on-line “Triangle Birder’s Guide” (Will Cook).

When you’re not beating the bushes at a hotspot, you can always sit on your porch at home, sip the appropriate beverage, and see what you can see. There could be an Eastern Kingbird or a Yellow-billed Cuckoo right around the corner. (Ever watch a cuckoo spend 15 minutes mashing up a caterpillar before finally swallowing it? My point exactly!)

Article originally written for the Community Sports News on 7/10/2006; posted online: 2/3/2007; last revised: 1/24/2008