When you set out for a little birding on a summer morning, downtown Winston-Salem doesn’t spring to mind as the best destination.
The city and county have lots of parks and greenways that offer great birding, from Salem Lake in the east to Tanglewood in the west, from Miller Park in town center to Horizons Park just this side of Germanton, and lots more in between.
But if you choose downtown, you can often expect little more than pigeons, starlings and house finches. Maybe a couple of house sparrows picking up crumbs from the sidewalk in front of a bakery.
But wander just east of downtown on Third Street and birding gets more interesting.
A feral field that the city keeps closely cropped lies between U.S. highway 52 and Research Parkway, hardly pristine habitat, but Canada geese like it, and a small flock can usually be found there. In winter, meadowlarks forage in the short grass, occasionally perching in the bare treetops on the opposite side of Research Parkway. A catch basin at the junction of U.S. 52 and Salem Parkway holds water year-round forming a tiny pond that often attracts buffleheads in winter.
An elegant pair of eastern kingbirds and several red-winged blackbirds recently graced the willows circling the pond.
As you approach the Salem Parkway overpass, hearing birds becomes difficult because of the traffic noise above. But birds can be seen even here at this completely man-made structure. Along with the ever-present pigeons, cliff swallows and barn swallows soar gracefully in and out of the massive columns that support the roadway.
Historically, these nests were built on cliffs, but the two species have adapted to man-made structures where they are protected not only from the weather, but from predators as well, the nests being built in inaccessible places. Both swallows construct nests by collecting little balls of mud in their beaks and attaching them to hard surfaces under overhangs that protect them from heavy rains. The globules build up until they achieve the design characteristic of the species. A barn swallow nest looks like a cup that has been sliced in half top to bottom and glued to the vertical surface, while cliff swallow nests look like gourds or little pottery jugs.
In winter months, you might see a few people along Research Parkway with telescopes aimed at downtown. They’re looking among the taller buildings for a peregrine falcon that has roosted there for several years. The falcon’s presence may well coincide with a decrease in the pigeon population since this is a favorite prey. The America kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America and one can be seen roosting in the trees along Research Parkway year-round.
Sidewalks on either side of Research Parkway offer an opportunity to join Long Branch Trail for an easy and enjoyable loop walk, but the highlight of this area is Long Branch Trail itself. It’s just over a mile and a half of paved walkway stretching from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive through Innovation Quarter to Salem Creek Greenway, passing under Salem Parkway along the way. This is perhaps the most beautifully landscaped park anywhere in the city, with the most attractive part of the trail the section from Third Street south to Salem Parkway.
Song sparrows skulk among pretty ornamental grasses until a male is so overcome with the compulsion to proclaim his patch of land that he just has to perch atop a shrub and sing his heart out. The towhee is a skulker, too, but his ebony upperparts contrast with brick-red flanks and a flash of white in his tail-feathers that give him away.
A bright yellow goldfinch perches atop a black-eyed Susan plucking seeds from the flowerhead, while a mockingbird scolds from an overhead utility line. Mockingbirds may very well be the bossiest birds along Long Branch. It seems that different ones take over every hundred yards or so, all the while mimicking other avian residents of the neighborhood.
The trail’s bridge over Third Street affords a wonderful perspective of downtown. It’s worth a trip downtown at dusk to catch the sunset and watch the city light up. A few minutes later, your attention may be drawn to the twittering overhead as chimney swifts head home for the night. Often mistaken for bats, they circle round and round a chimney until they feel they’ve timed it exactly right and dive through the opening, landing inside where they will spend the night clinging to the bricks inside.
In fall, hundreds will amass at a few chimneys downtown, preparing to fly south for the winter.
A Winston-Salem Journal editorial recently announced that Innovation Quarter will embark on a substantial expansion which will include 15 acres of greenspace and an extension of the Long Branch greenway. It’s good to see that, along with impressive economic impact on the city, the otherwise hard surfaces will be enriched by a bit of nature.
If you have a birding question or story idea, write to Bird’s-Eye View in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, N.C. 27101, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please type “birds” in the subject line.