Local Gems: Treasuring North Carolina’s Parks

Living in Durham, I am lucky to have a handful of State Parks within a 45 minute drive. As we are creatures of habit, I tend to go to the same three parks when I have the chance to go for a hike, but this time I decided to return to a spot I have only visited once before: William B. Umstead State Park.

Here at Umstead, it is obvious that North Carolina’s Division of Parks and Recreation does an excellent job of tending their parks. I drove in on smooth roads, and hiked along clearly marked trails that gently meander through the trees. This ease of access combined with the allure of the woodlands and lakes are surely what make this a perfect destination for everyone living in the surrounding areas.

And I mean everyone. In my short evening walk along the eastern shore of Big Lake, I saw a great variety of visitors to the park, including slackliners in the shade, a young dad and his toddler, and a couple picnicking in the sunset. Under the golden sunflecks, grandparents and a mother showed her young daughter to follow the trail. Runners passed me by on the trail, and I met another hiker with a camera and his friendly dog.

As for me, my visit to Umstead was for the birds.

The fall migration of birds is in full swing, and after a busy summer, I finally dusted off my guide to birding trails. I love to explore the outdoors through a variety of activities, but there is something very different and special about searching for birds. It is my chance to be Sherlock Holmes, piecing together clues from quick glimpses of silhouette and color, to deduce the species keeping me company in the woods.

Today I was in the company of nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, towhees and — one of my favorites — a Northern Flicker. This large woodpecker calls with a loud, singular “Cheer!” that always reminds me of home and the regional parks where I first learned to be a birder.

This flycatcher put on an elegant display, flitting about the tree's leaves catching insects for dinner
This flycatcher put on an elegant display, flitting about the tree’s leaves catching insects for dinner.

For me, birds are my way to feel connected to nature wherever I go. Whether I am in the woods or walking in urban areas, birds are ever-present, and as esteemed poet Mary Oliver once said, “Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.”

I understand that birding is not for everyone — though I would encourage everyone to at least give it a good try! The beautiful thing about the wide open spaces is that it welcomes all with open arms to all, and there are endless possibilities. If birding doesn’t suit your taste, give salamandering or herping a try. Maybe trees are your cup of tea, or, maybe you haven’t tried it yet, but you will absolutely love kayaking. Walking through Umstead reminded me that our parks are a gift and offer a place for everyone to come to relax, to be active, to explore and ultimately to be themselves. The parks are our playground, it’s up to you to decide how to enjoy them!

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