By Fred J. Eckert
If you live in or near Raleigh you are an easy drive away from the largest bird park in North America and largest waterfowl park in the world.
Did you realize that? Few do.
The scarlet ibis inhabits tropical South America and islands of the Caribbean.
I didn’t – not until just recently when my wife Karen and I discovered and visited Sylvan Heights Bird Park, located in the tiny northeast North Carolina rural town of Scotland Neck (pop. 2,000), a bit east of Rocky Mount between Tarboro and Roanoke Rapids on NC Route 258. It was only about an hour and a half or so drive from our home in North Raleigh, meaning it’s an easy day trip from anywhere in Wake County.
This fascinating and fun park is home to more than 2,500 birds. Included among them are 18 endangered species; more than 30 species of very rare birds; all 8 swan species; 30 of the just over 30 species of geese and more than 100 species of ducks.
And it truly is a park as opposed to some tourist attraction that merely bills itself as a park. The pleasant, neat, well-maintained 18-acre park-like environment is well laid out in a double-8 clearly marked pathway and divided into sectors dedicated to each of the seven continents (except, because of climate, Antarctica) plus sections focused on exotic birds, finches, pheasant, flamingos and swans, geese and cranes.
The knob-billed duck, also known as a comb duck, is found in tropical wetlands in several areas of the world – sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, in Asia from southern China and Laos to Pakistan and in areas of South America, including Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina.
There is no other place in the country quite like Sylvan Heights Bird Park where visitors can observe up-close, and sometimes even interact with, such an amazing array of exotic and/or endangered birds, ducks, geese and swan from all parts of the world.
This great avian collection is the dream and culmination of a lifetime of work devoted to saving birds and waterfowl of Mike Lubbock who founded and directs this not-for-profit operation with his wife Ali and their son Brent and a small handful of staff and volunteers.
Widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on waterfowl, this farm boy from the Somerset area of England became fascinated with birds as a youth and began his career in ornithology at Britain’s prestigious Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust where he served first as a volunteer then as Curator and ultimately as Director of Aviculture. It’s also where he met his future wife, Ali, who was serving as a volunteer.
His rare talent for bird breeding — his successes where others had failed – became widely known and resulted in his being personally consulted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who first turned to Mike for advice about her concern that the red-breasted geese among her bird collection at Buckingham Palace were reluctant to breed. The Queen followed his advice and one day she called Mike all excited about the change she credited him with bringing about. He became her go-to expert from then after.
Mike’s passion to preserve threatened waterfowl and other birds and promote conservation efforts has taken him all over the world and he has worked in this field he loves so much in both the UK and the USA. The International Wild Waterfowl Association, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame – they’ve also inducted Ali Lubbock — and bestowed upon him its most prestigious aviculture award, has said: “Mike Lubbock’s avicultural accomplishments on both sides of the Atlantic are legendary. He has brought many new species and new bloodlines in from the wild. He has accomplished many first breedings and he has been a source of bird and breeding advice to many.”
How Mike Lubbock path in life led him to realizing his and Ali’s dream of creating their own great avian collection park here in North Carolina is a long story and the subject of a recently released book, The Waterfowl Man of Sylvan Heights. What we Wake Audubon Society members need to know is that such a great birding experience that so few of us have been aware of for too long is so near-by and so well worth a visit.
The 18-acre park which is open to the public is an outgrowth of its adjacent 10-acre Breeding Center devoted to raising rare and endangered species of waterfowl. “The Park is designed to educate people about waterfowl and the importance of preserving them,” says Mike Lubbock. “Our goal is to tell visitors the story of every species–where it comes from, what habitat it prefers and why the species is important to our world. Visitors are also immersed into a wetland setting, so the feel and scope of a primary waterfowl habitat can be fully experienced.” Park generated revenue also helps fund the Breeding Center.
Among the many interesting facts about Sylvan Heights: It is credited with breeding 17 species of waterfowl for the first time in the world and 15 species for the first time in the North America and nearly one-third of the world’s once perilously endangered White-winged Wood Duck population reside here.
Naturally a place where visitors can come see waterfowl and other birds that include endangered and very rare species has to house them in a protective captive environment. For anyone who suggests that it is not a good thing to have birds in such a protected area, Mike Lubbock has a question: “Would you rather view an endangered species alive in a nice park-like environment such as Sylvan Heights Bird Park or dead in some museum?”
It is obvious that great thought and care have gone in to making Sylvan Heights the best possible experience both for those who visit it and for the birds and waterfowl who reside there. Besides being so pleasant and well-maintained the areas are extra good sized with exceptionally high nets. The water is very clear. The design is such as to insure maximum safety for the birds and waterfowl.
And here’s something truly smart that anyone who likes to photograph birds will appreciate: In places where otherwise you would normally expect to have to shoot through a wire fence, ruining any possibility of getting a very good photo, Sylvan Heights enables photographers to open an area in the fence that is wide enough to poke through a long lens and easily move it up or down and from side to side. You’ll need a key, which you can use while your driver’s license is held to insure its return. I thought this was a fantastic plus but asked if it didn’t pose any risk of what was being photographed somehow escaping through the resulting temporary small hole in the fence. No chance – the design prevents such a possibility.
Yet another interesting feature of Sylvan Heights is that within the park you can also observe and photograph birds and waterfowl in the wild. At Beaver Pond Blind, which overlooks a wetland, as its name suggests you can observe and photograph looking out of one of its many blinds. The wheelchair accessible Treehouse is a large roofed viewing platform located over another, larger wetland.
The feature probably most popular with kids in the interactive Landing Zone, a good sized building where parakeets will fly to you if you have a seed stick and you can feed flamingoes out of your hand. Seed sticks for the parakeets and food for feeding to flamingoes cost $1 and are available in the Landing Zone or the Visitor Center gift shop. Besides a variety of parakeets and the American Flamingos inside The Landing Zone visitors encounter parrots, doves, pheasants, pigeons and the white-rumped shama, a small passerine bird.
Tours of Sylvan Heights Bird Park begin at the Visitors Center, where you can watch an introductory video and check out some displays, sometimes baby birds or waterfowl. Its Gift Shop is small but nice. Sylvan Park does not operate any food service – but this very-family-friendly attraction welcomes anyone to bring a picnic lunch and provides a playground for the kids and a couple of picnic areas. It’s only a few minutes’ drive to any one of several restaurants and fast-food outlets in town.
While anyone living in Wake County or close by can do Sylvan Heights as a day-trip, we opted to devote more time and were glad we did. Anyone who enjoys photographing beautiful birds, as I certainly do, really should devote more than just one day to this great experience and take advantage of being able to shoot different sections in different lighting conditions.
What we would not recommend doing is following the accommodations recommendations of some of the reservations booking sites. Most we checked recommended staying in Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount or Tarboro – and each place is a 30 to 40 minute commute to and from Sylvan Heights on small country roads that are pitch black at night and best avoided at night especially, say, during deer season.
We stayed in Scotland Neck at the Scotland Neck Inn which compares favorably to any of the recommend motels that require a long commute. It was comfortable, very clean, good service and it’s reasonably priced, offering a discount for Sylvan Heights visitors. It was hot when we visited the park and it was nice to be able to return to the motel and freshen up during our lunch breaks. There is also a bed-and-breakfast in town.
Not surprisingly there’s not much to do in a town so tiny that it does not have a single traffic light and which, except for a few familiar fast-food spots, looks pretty much as it did in the 1950’s.
What did surprise us, as it has others, is that tiny Scotland Neck has a restaurant serving such outstanding Italian food – LaCasetta. My wife and I know Italian food pretty well, having lived in Rome and having traveled throughout so much of Italy – and LaCasetta, operated by an Italian who hails from Sicily, is great!
For anyone who enjoys birds or anyone who just wants to try something different a visit to Sylvan Heights Bird Park is a wonderful experience. Pretty much everyone who visits it gives it rave reviews.
When’s the best time of year to visit? Anytime. Ducks are at their best colors during the early months of the year, tropical birds during the summer months.
For more information about Sylvan Heights – including information about its hours, fees, events and its various educational programs – visit its website by clicking here.
The photos I’ve submitted to illustrate this feature give you a taste of the sorts of birds and waterfowl you will see, but to try to give you a better feel I’ve created a slide show video using images I took there. To watch it click on A Visit to Sylvan Heights Bird Park. You will be asked to enter a password. Enter: Birds. Capital B then lower case.