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Beating the heat on the Catawba River (1 Viewer)

Hamhed

Well-known member
Though we never know what month we will have the chance to go, my wife, Liz, and I like to do a once a year kayak trip up the Catawba River at the west end of Lake James in McDowell County, North Carolina. There’s good birding there and our best chance to see a Prothonotary Warbler without leaving the mountains. Okay, we’re at 1200 feet which some wouldn’t qualify as mountains but for more than two thirds of the state, a lofty altitude.
The boat ramp we use is Burnette’s Landing at the end of Hankins Road. At the ramp, a variety of pine trees and deciduous trees along with a wide expanse of shallow water attracts a diverse variety of bird life. In the warmer months when we tend to go, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Pine and Parula Warblers are often heard along with Song Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals. On the water, Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers are also common. Studying Swallows is easy since four species - Rough-winged, Barn,Tree and Cliff - and will congregate on the low wires above the wooden dock long since adjusted to the people and boat traffic. This is a link to the 99 species shown in eBird bar charts:
https://ebird.org/barchart?r=L4689371&yr=all&m=

Morning paddling across the last open water of the lake proper is almost never windy so in just a few minutes, we’re cruising by the willows on an island likely formed by silt coming down the Catawba. It has grown in recent years, held in place by willow and buttonbush roots. Our first chance to see or hear the yellow swamp bird we came for is here and we’re not often disappointed.
The railroad trestle is in full view now. As we pass underneath the tall structure, the water narrows down to river size with a current that gradually becomes noticeable but fairly minimal at this point in our travels. Hillsides of rhododendrons and deciduous trees on our left, we regularly hear several species of Vireos here. Red-eyed are the most common, Blue-headed are better heard early as they migrate up to higher elevations, Yellow-throated are there too; we heard three on yesterday’s trip. White-eyed Vireos are usually found further up the river making this a great place to work on Vireo identification as well as the Swallow family.
A low area to our right is also prime habitat for Prothonotarys and they soon become a “trash bird” as we soak up the relaxing experience of rhythmic strokes and constant bird activity. We flush a number of Great Blue Herons and this time an immature Little Blue Heron, so similar to a Snowy Egret, we had to work hard for the correct identification. Yellow-billed Cuckoos sound off with regularity; they’re often seen as well, working the willows along river edge.
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
The water remains flat as we work our way upriver. Evidence of a slight current can be seen as ripples around a stationary log or stick. We are paddling our 20 year old, Prion sea kayaks, an ideal craft for this trip as they can make short work of mileage and are extremely stable, made for ocean waters. Distant mountains occasionally come into view to remind us that despite the surrounding flat terrain, we are not in the coastal plains of the Carolinas or Georgia.
Where the river forks around an island, we find a family of Rough-winged Swallows. Some years, we’ve seen Wood Ducks in this area. Nest boxes on poles tell us that someone cares but I’ve yet to find out who.
We approach the low, Yancey Road bridge where Cliff Swallows nest every year. This year, we’re a little late for much nesting activity. To our surprise, Barn Swallows are nesting instead, though a few Cliffs are in the air as well.
Our next point of reference is Shiflet Air Field; on this, the beginning of July Fourth weekend, a busy place. The small planes that come and go here let us know we are nearing the upriver part of our journey. A small cluster of river homes, crowded against the right side river banks, are also busy with weekenders, some relaxing, others keeping up with repairs though a few of the docks may be beyond salvaging. There’s often an Eastern Phoebe seen and a Field Sparrow heard here, attracted by the open habitat around the houses.
As we pass the last of these structures, the first of low water rapids appear. They are sometimes navigable, paddling fast and shallow in the deepest water we can find but the second set, not much further on, is not. Too rocky, too fast and not enough deep water. After four miles, we’re ready to reverse course and let the river do some of the work for us.
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
We’ve already picked out our lunch spot and with the current now helping us along, we soon stop our boats on a shady and sandy beach. Tufted Titmice fuss overhead. A Yellow-throated Warbler is also singing; so is a Northern Parula. One of many Blue-gray Gnatcatchers we seen flits about, it’s wispy call a familiar sound. As we rest on a fallen log and eat, I notice a stand of Monkey Flowers, then a damselfly and a small Hairstreak butterfly on the wet sand. We know from past experience that if we sat in the sand and cooled our feet in the shallows, numerous minnows would nibble at our toes while the growing heat and full stomachs would have us ready for a nap.
However, we pushed on, eclipsing a few other kayakers in rented boats who were also there for the cool waters and relaxation of river traveling. Despite our fears that jet skis or motorized fishing boats would interrupt our peaceful paddling, we only saw one family in a pontoon boat who were very respectful of our relatively fragile crafts.
We caught up with the Little Blue Heron again in a cypress-rimed lagoon off the main channel. Spatterdock was common here and blooming in a sense since the flowers never truly open as one might expect. Eastern Kingbirds have nested in this hidden backwater. Green Herons, Eastern Phoebes and Prothonotary Warbler are also regularly seen.
On our final pass along the steep hillsides at river’s end, we admire the plentiful Rosebay Rhododendrons clinging to the rocky water edges. Catawba Rhododendrons are also here; their bloom period is over for the year. Then, it’s under the trestle, across the bay with one last song from the Prothonotary and we touch the cement ramp at Burnette’s, just over 6 hours from when our paddles first split the water. The temperature is 91 degrees and, while loading the boats, we sweat for the first time that day.
Our 44 species for the day was a bit off average but the date was July 3 so not too disappointing. This list from early June includes a better idea of what one can expect before hot weather sets in.
https://ebird.org/checklist/S23796545
I hope this encourages other birders to try this beautiful spot. It does require a boat, ideally a bay or sea kayak, but that investment opens up worlds of birding in other waters, both fresh and salt.
 

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sbarnhardt

Traveling man
Opus Editor
Supporter
United States
Very nice trip and pictures.

Do you ever get further down the Catawba toward Mountain Island and Lake Norman with pictures like that?

Or on the Yadkin-Pee Dee chain?
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Wonderful write-up! It sounds absolutely idyllic, even without the Prothonotary Warblers!

Cheers
Mike
 

sbarnhardt

Traveling man
Opus Editor
Supporter
United States
Nice narrative along with some great pictures. This is a very scenic part of the Western North Carolina / Mountain Region of the state.
 

Hamhed

Well-known member
Very nice trip and pictures.

Do you ever get further down the Catawba toward Mountain Island and Lake Norman with pictures like that?

Or on the Yadkin-Pee Dee chain?


Years ago, we paddled down the Yadkin, camping for a couple of nights but I can't tell you exactly where we traveled. Lake Tillery comes to mind but whether that was at the beginning or end, I couldn't say. That was before I did much in the way of photo documentation.

We've done the Congaree Swamp twice but our usual kayaking haunts are the coastal regions of Georgia and just about anywhere in Florida. So, obviously, we love the flatwater, including salt water estuaries and bays. Our 16 foot boats are not made for high speed maneuvering which limits us here in the mountains to mostly lake paddling.

Steve
 

Hamhed

Well-known member
Wonderful write-up! It sounds absolutely idyllic, even without the Prothonotary Warblers!

Cheers
Mike

Thanks, Mike. This year has been a tough one for many reasons and we find this paddling trip is one of our favorite ways to de-stress. We usually go just once a year; maybe that is what has us looking forward to it so much. This year, though, we may go a second time! Or third....

Steve
 

sbarnhardt

Traveling man
Opus Editor
Supporter
United States
Thanks, Mike. This year has been a tough one for many reasons and we find this paddling trip is one of our favorite ways to de-stress. We usually go just once a year; maybe that is what has us looking forward to it so much. This year, though, we may go a second time! Or third....

Steve

I just noticed where you are. That part of the world is something else. Before my parents passed, they lived up in that area for a number of years starting out over near Mills River, moved to Fletcher across I26 from the Asheville airport, and finally built a house at Lutheridge and moved over there. It was never hard to find a place to go for an outing. Have you ever ventured out on the French Broad with your kayaks? Or, is it too rocky/swift/etc.??
 

Hamhed

Well-known member
We've never taken our kayaks on the French Broad River though we have rafted and canoed several sections of the river. The sea kayaks, being so long and slow to turn, would likely only work on the slowest, least obstructed sections. Mills River and Etowah area are fairly flat and offer the best sections for that type of water.
When we bought our kayaks in 1999, we often traveled to the coastal areas of the southeast. Boating in this area really sparked our interest in birding which takes up much of our travel time these days. Still, we make at least one trip where we cram in a variety of kayak trips. This past December, we paddled locations in south Georgia and northeast Florida which turned out to be the last time we kayaked since our time on the Catawba. I added a few photos from that excursion. Egan's Creek, apparently home to large alligators, is in Amelia Island, northeast Florida. A beautiful slow water trip with excellent birding. Near Jacksonville, Half Moon Bluffs is on Sawpit Creek on the way to Bird Island, a coastal sandy spit full of birds at ocean's edge.

Steve

I just noticed where you are. That part of the world is something else. Before my parents passed, they lived up in that area for a number of years starting out over near Mills River, moved to Fletcher across I26 from the Asheville airport, and finally built a house at Lutheridge and moved over there. It was never hard to find a place to go for an outing. Have you ever ventured out on the French Broad with your kayaks? Or, is it too rocky/swift/etc.??
 

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sbarnhardt

Traveling man
Opus Editor
Supporter
United States
Please allow me to extend my thanks for the use, in an Opus article entitled Western North Carolina, of a picture you took looking west on the Catawba River. It is the first picture on the left in post #2 of this thread.

It is a very nicely composed picture and it's use is really appreciated.

Thanks!
Sbarnhardt
 

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