Free as a bird
I remember Christmastime my first year in North Carolina, last century, when I bobbed in my wetsuit on the surf off Pea Island refuge just beyond the breakers. Looking into a Carolina blue sky, I saw four northern gannets dive from about 100 feet at breakneck speed, their six-foot wingspan tucked back, and plunge into the ocean. I literally thought I had died and gone to heaven. That same winter, in the Lake Landing district of Hyde County, I saw the angels: hundreds of bright white snow geese hooting and honking on broad expanses of farmland.
The next spring, my wife, Susan, and I ventured for the first time into Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge where an indigo bunting on a tree branch didn't flinch while watching us walk along the road.
I am not one who keeps a "life list" of the number, species, dates and locations of birds I see. But for some reason, I remember them anyway.
I remember seeing a red-cockaded woodpecker for the first time in my life one spring afternoon when you could walk the woods quietly in Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Moore County. The first bald eagle I saw in North Carolina glided overhead as I paddled my kayak on Jordan Lake. On the grounds of the 4-H Rural Life Center in Halifax County one winter evening at dusk, I stood mesmerized for maybe 12 minutes as thousands of blackbirds streamed across a fading salmon-colored sky. One summer day, Jerry Plemmons of French Broad Electric led me 4,000 feet up to Max Patch in Madison County where yellow-breasted chats flitted among wildflowers. Visiting at Haywood Electric one fall, I took a long drive down Blue Ridge Parkway to Devil's Courthouse (Milepost 422) because I'd heard about the peregrine falcons there, but I returned to Waynesville after not seeing any.
It's hard to know why people like to see birds. Maybe it's the "free as a bird" idea. Maybe it's the amazing coloring they wear — they say God had fun while painting the birds — or how they fly. A hummingbird can fly in reverse. A woodcock blends with the ground and eats worms, so it doesn't show off its looks and can be hard to spot, but when the male wants a female in the spring he buzzes loudly, spirals straight up in the air, shows off up there, and dives back down with a thud. Bird names are fun, too, such as woodcock (also known as mud snipe, timberdoodle and bogsucker). Maybe it's because birds have been on Earth for about 100 million years and resemble dinosaurs.
Some fanatics go to extremes to see birds. (See the movie "The Big Year," with Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.) I remember John O. Fussell III, who in 1994 published the amazing 540-page "A Birder's Guide to Coastal North Carolina," taking off from Stumpy Point one morning and driving some 500 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see a rare warbler, then coming right back.
But John O. Fussell III on that trip could have seen lots of great birds in dozens of great locations along the way. North Carolina claims about 440 species of birds who hang here in different seasons. We've got high mountains, foothills, slow and fast rivers, broad meadows, game lands, swamps, savannahs, estuaries, lakes, bays, remote islands and, of course, the ocean and beaches. Parks and protected refuges are everywhere, but so are private preserves that landowners open to the public.
Trips to see birds can be rewarding outings for families, students, clubs, a suitor who wants to impress someone, and individuals who want be alone with peace and quiet and bird songs. Susan and I took my mother on one of Brian Patteson's pelagic seabirding excursions, two hours on a headboat out to the Gulf Stream with other birders where we saw petrels, shearwaters, fulmars, skuas, a white-tailed tropicbird — birds you can't see from land unless they fly astray. One summer day we took Susan's mother to the Reynolda House Gardens in Winston-Salem and happened to see a scarlet tanager who was as pleasing as the art inside the house. A group of Touchstone Energy cooperative associates spent a morning appreciating the scarlet ibis and Demoiselle crane among nearly 2,000 exotic waterfowl that are propagated and conserved at Scotland Neck's Sylvan Heights Bird Park.
The North Carolina Birding Trail
All these sites and many more have been placed on The North Carolina Birding Trail. Published in three volumes 2007–2009 by a partnership of six agencies and organizations, the Birding Trail covers 310 locations where you can see birds. Combined with the website ncbirdingtrail.org, it is a comprehensive guide not only to sites, but also to how to get there, what birds to look for, and what else there is to do nearby.
The guide series makes an interesting point of how birding benefits local economies. A recent survey reported that 2.6 million wildlife watchers in North Carolina in one year spent $916 million while traipsing around out here. The Birding Trail guides even supply a set of Birder Calling Cards that you can leave at local businesses telling them that "we were here" to see the birds.
The three volumes cover birding sites in the Coast (16 regions), the Piedmont (15 regions), and the Mountains (18 regions). Not all the trails are in remote rural areas. There's Freedom Park in downtown Charlotte and Lake Crabtree County Park off I-40 in The Triangle. And for those places way, way out there, you get detailed descriptions on how to get there (including GPS coordinates and Google Maps directions online), as well as what to wear and how to survive the elements.
The North Carolina Birding Trail is evaluating its plans and may add new sites and information to its project.