By Will Cook
Overview: The marshes at the west end of Lake Wheeler are a wonderful place to explore if you're in good physical shape and don't mind a little bushwhacking. In winter there are often huge numbers of White-throated, Song, and Swamp sparrows here. It's also a dependable place to hear Virginia Rails grunting, the only one I know of in the Triangle. You can access the marshes from either the north of south side of the creek feeding the lake (Swift Creek). You should be able to find over 100 Swamp Sparrows if you visit these spots in winter, pish, and listen for the cardinal-like chips of the Swampers.
Getting there: The focus of Lake Wheeler birding is the Penny Road causeway. To get there from I-40, take the L. Wheeler road exit, follow L Wheeler Rd. south, turn right on Penny Rd. (at the ruins of Yates Millpond), follow Penny Road to the lake, and pull off on the right after you cross the causeway. Scan the lake from the causeway for ducks (not as productive as it was before the introduction of Chinese grass carp), then continue across and check the pond on the north side of the causeway — it's often loaded with ducks.
Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 41 59 N, 78 43 21 W
Sparrow spot 1: continue on Penny Road and take the first left on Blaney Bluffs Rd. Follow this through the neighborhood, keeping an eye out for the shrike, to Blaney Franks Rd. Turn left and park on the shoulder where the road crosses the stream coming from Greenview Pond. On the left side of the road there's a makeshift trail along the creek. Follow it to the lake and marshes. If you pish, good numbers of sparrows should pop up.
Sparrow spot 2: [Note: this area is currently posted no trespassing.] From the causeway, continue on Penny Rd. to Hunter's Bluff Road and turn right. Follow this road until you see a tennis court/park/nature trail area on the left. Park and walk in between the pond and tennis courts. Follow the very short trail into the woods. You'll see the marshes — bushwhack from there. There's a peninsula across the lake. If you bushwhack your way far enough upstream, you can cross over to it. It's a very birdy area. Virginia Rails occasionally sound off here — a tape is helpful to encourage them.
Sparrow spot 3: [Note: this area is only accessible on bird count days; they do not welcome visiting birders.] From the causeway, turn around and head north, back across the lake. Take a left at Olde South Road (where Hardee's convenience store is). Follow this road to the end and turn left onto Yates Mill Pond Rd. Next turn left onto They's Road. Follow They's to the Theyland stables at the end. Park near the gate on the right where the road bends to the left. You may be able to see the lake from here. The pastures are private, but they don't mind birders. Walk diagonally across the field to the left of the gate to the woods, then bushwhack into the woods to the creek. You may have to go upsteam a little to get to the creek. Once you've reached the creek, turn left and follow it downstream. There's a makeshift trail, but be very careful of Beaver holes! Eventually, you'll reach the very tip of the peninsula, the same one you can easily see from the Penny Road causeway. On the 1998 Christmas Bird Count we found a LeConte's Sparrow by doing this! In spring, if the lake is low, you may see some shorebirds here. You might in fall, too, but see the caveat below. This area is loaded with sparrows (mostly Song) — you should see hundreds if you pish. The marsh on the left is the best spot for Virginia Rails and Swamp Sparrows. You can also explore the woods upstream for passerines.
Warning: do not attempt to visit spots 2 and 3 in the fall -- you will get cut to pieces and your clothes will be permanently stained by the vegetation. It's safe in winter and spring, thanks to the deer.
Also, while in the area, it's always worthwhile to stop at the NCSU dairy pond. Follow Penny Road back to L Wheeler Rd, turn left, and turn right on the dirt road (before Mid-Pines Rd) leading to the dairy operation. You'll see the pond on your right. On 1/17/98 this small pond was packed with ducks, including an amazing 60 N. Shovelers rotating in several flotillas! It's a good spot for Greater Scaup, too, though Lessers are more common.
Revised 1/6/2009 firstname.lastname@example.org
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