Birding in NC: Dunn-Erwin Trail

Do you enjoy strolling through farmlands, beside cotton fields and across wetlands? Then plan an excursion on the Dunn-Erwin Trail, which occupies the former rail line in Harnett County that connected the Erwin Mill to the Cotton Exchange Yard in Dunn.

The 5.3-mile gravel trail is a part of the N.C. Birding Trail, which links educational and historical attractions with communities and businesses across the state. The Dunn-Erwin Trail is popular with casual walkers, runners and bikers because its surface is flat and well-maintained as well as with families because dogs on leashes are welcome. Trail heads are located in the downtown areas of Dunn and Erwin and are convenient to shops and restaurants. The trail has multiple access points in both communities where it intersects streets at several locations, and it is wheelchair accessible before it enters into farmland.

Kentucky Warbler 

Kentucky Warbler

The trail is home to a variety of migrating and breeding warblers, such as the Kentucky warbler that is more often heard than seen and is identified by a loud “churee” song. Found throughout the forests of the Southeast, this warbler stays near the lower levels of woodlands and nests on the ground at the base of a shrub or in an area of abundant vegetation. Unlike most songbirds, the male sings only one song type and never changes it throughout his life.

The Kentucky warbler has yellow underparts that contrast with its olive-green back. The black marks down the side of its face and on its throat give the appearance of being “sideburns.” Another curious feature is a yellow eye-stripe that wraps about the back of each eye to form “spectacles.”

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

Because the trail is the home to many songbirds, it’s also the residence of the Eastern screech-owl, a predator known to eat a variety of songbirds. In fact, smaller birds can help you to find the screech-owl during the day when they swoop around it with noisy calls and mob it to create such a nuisance that it moves away. The noisy calls alert other songbirds to the screech-owl’s presence and teach younger flock members about the danger.

Although screech-owls are mainly active at night, they do hunt occasionally in daylight and often at dawn and dusk. Both males and females sing, and mated pairs sing to each other in alternating turns during the day as well as at night. The calls of screech-owls are screeches (the reason for their name) when defending nests as well as low, soft hoots.

Screech-owls are perfectly camouflaged and can be mostly gray or reddish-gray. Regardless of the color, their patterns of complex bands and spots provide exceptional camouflage against tree bark. They live along the trail in trees where they nest in holes and cavities opened or enlarged by woodpeckers, squirrels or other animals. They never dig a cavity themselves and often occupy abandoned woodpecker nest holes.

Downy Woodpecker 

Downy Woodpecker

The reliance on woodpeckers for nesting support means that the trail is also home to a variety of woodpeckers, including the downy woodpecker. This bird nests in dead trees or decayed parts of live trees. Both the male and female work to prepare the nest hole, an effort that can take up to three weeks. They are black and white, although only the male has a red nape.

Woodpeckers don’t sing, but they drum loudly against pieces of wood (or metal). This month especially the downy woodpecker makes a lot of noise, both with a shrill whinnying call and by drumming on trees.

The male and female divide up where they look for food. They mainly eat insects, including insects living on or in the stems of weeds that larger woodpeckers cannot reach. About a fourth of their diet consists of plant material, such as grains and berries. Along the trail they share the wooded space with other species, such as red-bellied, pileated and red-headed woodpeckers among others.

Dunn-Erwin Trail

The scenery along the trail is varied. The path crosses the Black River headwaters and floodplain. The adjacent forest includes oak and pine, and parts of the trail pass through small wetland communities. Wading birds, migrating shorebirds and other waterfowl often frequent the ponds along the trail.

Part of the East Coast Greenway, the Dunn-Erwin Trail has interpretative markers and signs about area history. Updates on the trail’s status, such as when organized runs and repair activities are scheduled, are posted routinely on the trail’s Facebook page (@thedunnerwinrailtrail).

OutreachNC has embarked on a yearlong series that highlights regional sites of the N.C. Birding Trail. Enjoy the series as contributor Ray Linville explores beautiful landscapes and birds of our home state. He can be reached at