10 a.m. Arrive at the Swift Creek Bluffs Nature Preserve, 7800 Holly Springs Rd, Raleigh. The gravel parking area is small, so slow down as you approach to avoid passing it altogether. Though the trail is approximately one mile, don’t plan on rushing through the preserve. Swift Creek Bluffs was featured on the North Carolina Birding Trail for a reason, and even in the winter many species are well represented. Instead of heading straight to the creek, stay to the left and begin on the trail that winds its way through the woods. As you cross a wooden bridge heading toward the creek, take a few minutes to watch the ground for any sign of motion. Carolina Wrens and different thrushes are busy flipping leaves and running along the forest floor, their motion setting them apart from the carpet of leaves.
10:30 a.m. Upon reaching the creek, follow its gurgling waters into the beech bluff. The foliage is particularly spectacular along the water’s edge, and birds and gray squirrels seem to like the open space created by the creek. Continue along the trail until you reach a spot where the creek-bed widens, and a fallen tree trunk overlaps with low bushes and other debris. This is not only a particularly sunny, beautiful spot — it is also a hot spot for birds. Song sparrows dart in and out of the undergrowth, blue jays call back and forth, and downy woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (don’t be fooled by their name, these woodpeckers are recognized by their bright red heads) run along the tree branches above the trail. Spend as much time as you can at this spot, the longer you watch the more species you’ll see!
11:00 a.m. Continue along the trail until it reaches its final loop. Doubling back, take the “Stairway to Heaven” on the right side of the trail to trek up to the top of the bluff. Now up in the tree canopy itself, relax on one of the small wooden benches, eat a snack or sip some water, and look out over the creek and woods beyond. The trail continues along the top of the bluff, but be careful to retrace your steps – there is no loop that remains inside the preserve. Look for wrens, sparrows, kinglets, and dark-eyed juncos.
11:30 a.m. Head back down the wooden staircase to the creek bed. As you work your way back to the parking area stay to the left once again to return on the path that follows the creek bed instead of snaking through the woods. White-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers are easily spotted on the bare trunks of the tall trees, and the creek narrows and is particularly beautiful.
12 p.m. Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, drive fifteen minutes to 18 Seaboard ($8-$15), 18 Seaboard Ave #100, Raleigh, a contemporary American grill that has spent over $50,000 this year to purchase local seafood, produce, dairy, meats, and dry goods. Try a signature cocktail, and choose between a varied menu of salads, pastas, entrees, and sandwiches, like the hardwood smoked pork sandwich with apple-horseradish slaw on a house-made brioche bun. Love their pork? Their website shares delicious recipes for their BBQ sauce and their dry rub!