University Lake

By Ginger Travis

Description: University Lake, constructed in 1932, is a source of drinking water for Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The lake is a little over a mile long from north to south, with a big side bay projecting a half mile to the northwest. Surface area is 213 acres. Five creeks feed the lake, and the shoreline is entirely forested except at the lake office. Only in three places can a house be seen from the lake. Jones Ferry Rd. crosses the lake at its extreme north end and can carry heavy traffic at rush hour. On the whole, though, University Lake is quiet and extraordinarily peaceful – a wonderful getaway from the ever-increasing traffic and noise of the Triangle. The main recreational use is fishing, with electric trolling motors only. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill crew team and rowing club have a boathouse next to the lake office. Teams practice on the lake. Swimming is prohibited. So is walking on the shoreline.

Note: As a water supply first and recreational lake second, University Lake charges a hefty fee for use by boaters. However, the shoreline at the lake office can be used for free by birders, picnickers and others. (The rest of the shoreline is closed to protect water quality.) Birding University Lake by boat may be most attractive to Orange Co. residents wanting a spot nearby that is free of powerboats and jetskis – gasoline engines are prohibited at this lake. (The only gasoline-powered boats are the lake warden’s and the coach’s boat for the UNC crew team. See below.) The lake has a small fleet of johnboats and canoes, and the fee charged to boaters includes the use of one. Electric trolling motors can be rented for an additional fee. Paddlers may bring their own canoe or kayak. But there’s no reduction in the use fee, and a boat brought in from outside will be subjected to careful inspection by the lake warden to ensure that aquatic weeds are not introduced to the lake. So is it worth it to bring your own canoe or kayak for birding University Lake? I sure think so!

Getting there: From the Hwy. 54 bypass around Chapel Hill and Carrboro, exit at Jones Ferry Road and go south (away from town). Turn left at the second stoplight (top of the hill, Old Fayetteville Rd intersection), then take your next right onto University Lake Rd. This dead-ends at the lake office. If you actually cross the lake on the Jones Ferry Rd. causeway, you've gone too far.

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 53 54.3 N, 79 05 33.5 W

What to look for: Birding is best in spring and can be OK in late summer if there are shorebirds. University Lake has not received much attention from birders over the last couple of decades. (Archived reports of bird sightings date from the mid-1970s to the late ’80s.) Few uncommon birds have been reported, but in a place with so much good habitat, something could turn up. Breeding birds of University Lake include Yellow-throated Vireo, Belted Kingfisher, Red-winged Blackbird, Orchard Oriole, Wood Duck, Mallard, Canada Goose, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Indigo Bunting, Wood Thrush, Barn Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Green Heron, and Red-tailed Hawk. Bald Eagles and Osprey are visitors in summer, probably from nearby Jordan Lake, and Double-crested Cormorants can be found on the lake in spring. Migrant warblers such as Blue-winged and Black-and-white pass through, as do shorebirds from July onward, in years of low rainfall when the water level drops and mudflats form. The lake office surroundings can be good, in season, for Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Kingbird, Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Spotted Sandpiper, and assorted raptors. The south end of the lake is best for Wood Ducks. Two creeks flowing in at the south end have been dammed by beavers. The water there is marshy, full of willow, buttonbush and cattails. Common Yellowthroats and Red-winged Blackbirds are breeding birds. In summer, if mudflats appear, so do Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers and Great Egrets. To get to the extreme north end of the lake, you can paddle under the Jones Ferry causeway (a tight squeeze when the lake is full). Where Morgan Creek enters, it's very beautiful and rocky. Louisiana Waterthrush is reliable there, and a Great Blue Heron or Osprey may flap up the creek ahead of you toward the first rapids. By far the birdiest area of the lake is across the side bay in the northwest corner, in the area where Phils Creek flows in under Jones Ferry Rd. The creek has deposited a delta in the bay – a wide fan of sand and silt that is under water in the spring but exposed as the water level drops through the summer. In fact, the bay, though wide, is very shallow. Buttonbush and willow grow on the edge of the creek channel, which extends out into the bay between two parallel spits of land with ash trees and river birch. If you can find the channel, and if it's not blocked by a logjam, and if the water level is high enough – a lot of ifs! – you can paddle up Phils Creek, right under the Jones Ferry Rd. bridge and on to the first rapids. The beautiful stretch of creek upstream of the bridge is reliable for Acadian Flycatcher, and in spring a Hooded Warbler often can be heard calling from the woods just north of the bridge. In breeding season, the Phils Creek spits are alive with birds, especially Prothonotary Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, E. Kingbirds, Orchard Orioles, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, N. Flickers, E. Bluebirds, Indigo Buntings, Eastern Phoebes, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Also, you might see beavers swimming in the creek channel very early in the morning. In summer, if the lake level falls the entire north side of the bay becomes a giant mudflat and eventually a meadow, as grasses and sedges sprout. Ducks and geese graze the flats. (A few funny-looking ducks are Mallard-domestic duck hybrids.) Least, Spotted, Solitary, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpipers may be found on the muddy edge, along with dozens of shrieking Killdeer. More unusual shorebirds could turn up – this area should be monitored. A note on raptors: Accipiters, probably Cooper's Hawks, are present but not often seen. And although the habitat looks good for Red-shouldered Hawks, the resident Buteo most often seen and heard is the Red-tailed Hawk. Redtails breed nearby, and immatures hang out near the shoreline in mid-summer. Osprey regularly visit the lake to fish but don't breed there at this time. Bald Eagles, both adults and immatures, are occasional visitors; birders might expect to see one once or twice a summer. In addition to birds, there are abundant wildflowers on the lakeshore in spring and early summer: Virginia sweetspire, elderberry, swamp rose, buttonbush, lizard tail and mallow. Also interesting are the bald cypress trees that have naturalized along the lakeshore from a few trees that must originally have been planted somewhere nearby. A noteworthy geological feature is a diabase dike that intersects the lake toward the south end. A lot of small, dark, rather rounded rocks denote this feature.

Open dates and times: Generally, University Lake and Cane Creek, the other big reservoir, are open on weekends from the last week in March through the middle of November. Opening and closing dates vary, so check the OWASA website. University Lake: Friday through Monday, 6:30 AM to 6:00 PM. Cane Creek: Thursday through Saturday, 6:30 AM to 6:00 PM; Sunday, 1 to 6 PM.

Facilities: There is a small, modern office with restrooms (wheelchair accessible), plus a boat dock with canoes, paddleboats and johnboats.

Fees: (as of Jan. 2006) Orange Co. resident, $6.50 per half-day for the first person in the boat. $2.75 per half day for each additional person in the boat. Resident of other counties: $11 per half day for first person in the boat. $4.25 per half day for each additional person in the boat. As a practical matter, the half-day limit may not be strictly enforced, although I’ve never tested it by staying on the lake more than 5 hours.

More Information: Recorded message at 942-8007. Website:

Revised 12/13/2008

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