The Best Anglers May Be Our Winged Neighbors

Finally, the heat of summer will soon be relenting. As fall approaches, it’s time to be outdoors more and enjoy the cooler temperatures. Where better to go than to Jordan Lake? There you can observe a large variety of significant birds not only this month but also year-round.

This area, which is part of the North Carolina Birding Trail that links educational and historical attractions with communities and businesses across the state, is a known habitat for ospreys, bald eagles, double-crested cormorants and other fishing birds. The overlook adjoining the Visitor Assistance Center in southeastern Chatham County is handicapped accessible, has mounted binoculars and provides an excellent, sweeping view of the lake below.

Osprey 

Jordan Lake is typical of sites where fish are plentifully available that ospreys choose as habitats. Ospreys are piscivorous, which means their diet consists almost entirely of fish, and they typically feed on fish four to twelve inches long. Watching them fly slowly over water and hover as they spot fish below is captivating for children as well as adults, but watching them rise in flight from the lake with a fish is even more remarkable.

The osprey is well suited to detect underwater objects from the air and can spot fish when it is more than 100 feet above the lake. When a fish is close enough to the surface, the bird plunges feet first and grasps the prey in its talons. It is such an excellent angler that it catches fish on at least one of every four dives, and some have a success rate as high as 70 percent.

This bird’s body is particularly well adapted to support a fish-eating lifestyle. Because its dense plumage is oily, the feathers don’t become waterlogged after diving. Its closable nostrils keep water out during dives, and its outer toes are reversible (a feature shared with only one other raptor, the owl), which lets it grasp fish with two toes in front and two behind.

Bald Eagle

In the Jordan Lake area and elsewhere, ospreys are often harassed by bald eagles, which chase and force them to drop their catch. Fish are also the centerpiece of the bald eagle’s diet, which explains why this bird similarly chooses the massive Jordan Lake as home. The lake is considered by human anglers as an excellent place to catch bass, crappie, white perch, striper and catfish. The bald eagle, the emblem bird of our country, would agree.

The eagle builds some of the largest bird nests, which often exceed five feet in diameter. A popular site is a tall pine that extends above the forest canopy and provides good visibility and easy flight access. A powerful flier that likes to soar and glide over long distances, it is active throughout the day, but the best time to observe one is during early morning hours or late in the evening.

Because the lake supports the largest concentration of the bald eagle in the eastern United States, it is often seen soaring over water as it searches for fish or other prey. It sometimes may wade into shallow water where fish are plentiful. It can also float, and a special sight is observing it “row” over water that is too deep for wading.

Although fish are readily available at the lake, the bald eagle also dines on other birds and small mammals. It also feeds on dead fish washed up on shore as well as steals fish from smaller birds. Belying its very majestic appearance, it is sometimes a scavenger and may push away black and turkey vultures that are feeding on carcasses. Perhaps this trait is why Benjamin Franklin considered it “a bird of bad moral character.”

Double-Crested Cormorant

Unlike the osprey and bald eagle, the double-crested cormorant dives not from on high but from the water’s surface and swims underneath as it forages for fish and other aquatic life. An expert at diving for small fish, it can dive to a depth of more than 24 feet for up to two minutes.

The cormorant often sits on the lake with its head and bill tilted slightly upward. The yellow-orange skin on the face and throat of this dark, prehistoric-looking bird is noticeable only when it’s very close. The S-shape crook in the neck is another distinctive feature of its black body.

The cormorant’s wings are not waterproof, and wet feathers help it to hunt underwater with speed. After being in the water, it has to take the time to dry them, which it does by perching upright with wings half-spread as it suns itself at the lake’s edge. When a male wants to catch the attention of a female, he splashes in the lake with his wings, swims in zigzags and brings up pieces of weeds after diving underneath the water.

Jordan Lake

Plans for the lake were begun as part of a flood control project after a tropical storm devastated the region in 1945, although construction of the dam did not begin until 1967. Almost 14,000 acres in four counties were flooded to form the lake when the dam was completed in 1974. Another 32,000 acres of adjacent land are set aside for recreation and wildlife management. The Visitor Assistance Center itself sits on a 400-acre site near the small rural community of Moncure and is less than three miles from exit 79 of U.S. 1 just north of Sanford.

Several trails, which require an average amount of fitness to enjoy, depart from the center and offer walking adventures through mixed oak and pine forests. On these woodland trails, stay alert to spot birds typical of the Piedmont upland forest such as the brown-headed nuthatch, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting and wood thrush previously described in this series.

Other dirt trails along the lake and downstream banks of the Haw River also provide birding opportunities. At various times, several species of ducks, mergansers, gulls, terns and shorebirds can be seen. Trail information is available at the center (919-542-4501), which although open daily until 4:30 p.m. this month, is open on only weekdays from October through March.

As your interest in Jordan Lake peaks this month, save some enthusiasm for next month too. On the first Saturday in October, Jordan Lakes holds a festival (held at the White Oak Recreation Area) known as Heritage Day to celebrate the area’s cultural and natural resources. Demonstrations, arts and crafts, live entertainment and exhibits are among the family-friendly activities.

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 linville910@gmail.com.