Occoneechee State Natural Area
Habitats: The majority of land at Occoneechee is dominated by a pine-heath-bracken community. The north-facing slope of the mountain has several rock outcroppings as well as an abandoned rock quarry. The park has two small ponds bordered by a field where visitors can view various stages of succession.
Key birds: Summer: Green Heron, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, Hooded Warbler, Northern Parula, Wood Thrush, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers. Winter: Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Winter Wren, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Year-round: Great Blue Heron, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches, Barred Owl, Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Phoebe, Common Yellowthroat, Pine Warbler, American Goldfinch, Eastern Bluebird, Belted Kingfisher, Red-winged Blackbird.
Best times to bird: Any season will produce good birding opportunities.
Description: Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, a satellite park of Eno River State Park, is located in Hillsborough. Occoneechee Mountain is the highest point in Orange County (867 feet), as well as the highest elevation between Hillsborough and the coast. Compared to the relatively flat areas surrounding it, Occoneechee Mountain provides a unique opportunity to view many plant and animal species more typical of the western part of the state. This, along with the amount of development surrounding the park (I-85 serves as one of the parks boundaries) makes Occoneechee Mountain a “habitat island” for many bird species.
Directions: The park's entrance is on Virginia Cates Road in Hillsborough. Traveling south on Interstate 85, take exit 164. Take a right at the stoplight onto Churton Street. At the next light turn left onto Mayo Street passing a (now closed) Wal-Mart. At the stop sign turn left onto Orange Grove Road. Virginia Cates Road is the second right turn. It is a gravel road just before an overpass for I-85. Once on Virginia Cates Road, you will see the park entrance sign. Follow signs to the designated parking lot.
Birding Highlights: Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, and other scrub species nest in the fields above the ponds. Green Herons nest in the marshy headwaters of the upper pond. Broad-winged Hawks nest on the steep edges of the mountain and a Common Raven has shown up to inspect the monadnock. Along the Eno River look for Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Northern Parula.
Spring and fall migration fallouts can be impressive, albeit quick. Often seen are Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Blackpoll Warblers.
General Information: There is a restroom and picnic area adjacent to the parking lot. Park maps are available in the display case around the corner from the parking lot (down the gravel road). Fishing is allowed in the ponds as well as canoes and small boats. Hiking trails are for foot traffic only. The fields and ponds are accessible by the park's main trail, the 1.1-mile Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail. Other short trails in the park provide access to the bottom of the quarry and a section of the Eno River. Information on bird hikes and bird checklists are available at the Eno River park office.
Parking is allowed only in the parking lot on Virginia Cates Road. Please stay on marked trail and respect the rights of private landowners by staying within the park boundaries.
DeLorme map grid: page 39, A6
North Carolina Travel Map grid: H1/2
For more information: Eno River State Park 919-383-1686; http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/ocmo/main.php