Birding in NC: Tar River Trail

by Ray Linville

Walking Through a Floodplain Forest with Cultural Connections

Want a birding location where you can connect to early colonial history, the Industrial Revolution, Civil War activity and the Civil Rights Movement? The cooling days of October are a great time to explore the Tar River Trail in Rocky Mount. The scenic paved trail links together these cultural connections as it meanders through a floodplain forest that borders its namesake river.

Because the trail offers year-round birding opportunities, it is part of the North Carolina Birding Trail that links educational and historical attractions with communities and businesses across the state. As the Tar River Trail intersects a diversity of habitats, the prospects of seeing migrating and breeding songbirds are excellent. It is also a great location to observe the Acadian flycatcher, brown creeper and winter wren.

Acadian Flycatcher

Acadian Flycatcher on a branch

The Acadian flycatcher is a favorite of birding enthusiasts because it can fly backward. An excellent flier, it likes to clean itself in the Tar River. Rather than standing in water, it dives into the river from above and hits the water with its chest. Then it returns to a perch to shake off the water and groom itself. You may hear its song, which is a quick, loud “peet-sa,” along shady spots of the river.

An adult has olive upperparts and whitish underparts with pale wingbars. The approximate size of a sparrow (its wingspan is about nine inches), the flycatcher chooses the deciduous forests of the eastern United States as its breeding habitats, although its name derives from Acadia, now Nova Scotia, where it was first discovered but no longer lives. Its nests are usually about a dozen feet aboveground, but sometimes may be as high as 50 feet up in a tree.

This flycatcher waits mid-level in trees for small insects such as wasps, bees and beetles, and flies out to catch them in flight. In addition to caterpillars and spiders that it finds on the undersides of leaves, it may also eat small fruits, berries and seeds.

Brown Creeper creeping up a tree.

Brown Creeper

A small woodland songbird, the brown creeper loves the tallest trees that it can find. Its migration from northern and high-altitude areas to North Carolina and the South peaks this month. Although it is well camouflaged in a shady forest, you may spot it as it zigzags up a tree trunk in search of insects. After working its way to near the top of a tree, it flies down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and begins again the process of gleaning, probing and pecking with its long, thin bill that curves downward.

Its energy needs are low and it burns only 10 calories a day. Eating one spider gives it enough energy to climb 200 feet. The creeper rarely feeds on the ground and spends most of its time spiraling up trees as it searches for insects, which constitute most of its diet. It also eats small amounts of seeds and plant materials.

Adults have white underparts and are brown on upperparts with light spotting that resembles tree bark. In fact, they look like a piece of tree that has come alive. When they can’t be spotted, their piercing calls provide notice of their presence. Both males and females make high, wavering call notes all year long, and particularly when foraging. Their calls are longer than the short call notes of other birds.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

Unlike the brown creeper, the winter wren forages very low in dense vegetation. As it creeps around decaying wood and hops slowly on the ground as it inspects crevices and roots, it behaves more like a mouse than a bird. However, like the creeper, it also feeds mostly on insects, such as beetles, caterpillars, ants and wasps. It also feeds along the river’s bank and sometimes takes items from the water’s surface. Occasionally it eats small fish and berries.

Its migration from northern areas occurs late in the fall. The winter wren frequents the Tar River Trail during nonbreeding seasons when it inhabits gardens and bushy fields as well as deciduous forests. It flies short distances with quick wing beats in the forest understory between food searches on the ground.

This wren is brown overall with dark barring on its wings, tail and belly. It is very energetic and bobs its body as if doing squats when nervously looking around the understory. The male sings a cascading, bubbly song that can last up to ten seconds. Its song is delivered with ten times more power than a crowing rooster (per unit weight).

Tar River Trail

The Tar River Trail, which runs almost three miles along its namesake river, is open daily from sunrise to sunset. From Sunset Park to Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, it connects to three other city parks and several historical landmarks and also passes the original site of Rocky Mount Mills, the second cotton mill in the state.

Only a block away from Business U.S. 64 in the downtown area, the trail is wheelchair accessible and near public parking at five locations. It is mostly asphalt paving but tree root bumps may hinder mobility and one boardwalk section crosses a marsh habitat. Pets on a leash are permitted.

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.