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CRYSTAL COCKMAN COLUMN: An early morning adventure

A recent Monday I was given the day off and decided to meet a good friend at Morrow Mountain State Park for a hike.

We did the Fall Mountain Trail loop, and it was early in the morning, about 9 a.m., and we did not see anyone else on the trail the whole time. We did, however, encounter a number of beautiful birds while we were on our hike.

Not long into the hike, just after passing over the first gravel road coming out of the parking area, we had two pileated woodpeckers flying around in the trees overhead. I had just thought to grab my good camera as I headed out of the house, and I was so glad I had it this morning. I got a good picture of one of the pileateds high in a treetop of a sweet gum tree.

We came to the ascent up to the top of the mountain, and I heard a number of red-headed woodpeckers with their trilling calls. I snapped some good pictures of one up here, and another one later in the hike as well.

Thanks to the land management that Morrow Mountain is doing, including prescribed burning, there are a number of snags, or standing dead trees, which are necessary habitat for red-headed woodpeckers. I was still surprised by the number of red-heads I saw on this particular hike.

As we headed down the mountain, you can see the river closer up to you and hear the water going over Falls dam. It was here that my hiking buddy stopped me and quietly said “Eagle!” — and we found ourselves just about 100 feet away from a beautiful adult bald eagle. He was in a tree overlooking the river, and we were up the hillside, so we were almost at eye level with him — and I got a lovely shot of him just before he flew off.

Then we made our way down the mountain and to the lakeshore portion of the trail. I had heard last fall that the tropical storms and huge rainfalls we had recently had resulted in some serious erosion on this part of the trail, so I had hesitated to hike here for a while, but the erosion was really no worse than normal. I definitely still felt safe enough walking along the lake. If you don’t feel comfortable with the lake portion, there’s a gravel road you can also walk back to the parking area.

This was truly a morning hike to remember. It isn’t easy to convince yourself to get up early and go hike on your day off, especially on a dreary gray day like this Monday was. But the wildlife sightings we had definitely made it worth the effort. And we weren’t in a rush on this hike.

Sometimes when I hike, I’m trying to go as fast as I can to get the best exercise for the activity, but it’s nice every now and then to just meander and take your time. We certainly wouldn’t have been able to see all these wonderful birds if we hadn’t been willing to go slow.

If you’re trying to spot birds like we did on our trip, consider going during the week and early during the day. Lots of people are sure to create noise and commotion and scare wildlife away, so avoiding peak times will be necessary. Be willing to take your time and be silent and observant.

You never know what you might see.

Crystal Cockman is director of conservation for the Three Rivers Land Trust, which includes Stanly County.