Nature, North Carolina

Wild Chapel Hill

There’s a side to the quiet Town of Chapel Hill most folks don’t know about….and it’s a wild one.

A barred owl fledgling rests on a log beside Bolin Creek, soon after leaving the nest for the first time.

Do you have to go ‘into the wild’ to see wildlife?  No! Even urban areas can have a surprising diversity of wildlife.  Case in point:  Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a university town of around 60,000 residents, making it the 15th largest community in the state.  It is one corner of the high-tech hub known as the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill).

Don’t let the ‘town’ in the official name fool you, Chapel Hill is a fairly densely populated area, with a greater number of persons living per square mile (2,687) than large cities such as that of Atlanta, GA (630) or Nashville, TN (1,300).  Only 7 percent of land remains undeveloped.

Piebald white-tail deer seen on a town trail

I toss out these statistics to establish that Chapel Hill is truly an urban environment, with high population density and built-up environment.  Yet, it is home to a rich diversity of wildlife.


What’s around town?

I am a wildlife photographer living in Chapel Hill, so when I’m around town I usually have a camera with me.

Gray fox near Homestead Road

Over the past year, I’ve been documenting the wildlife I’ve encountered which I’d like to share because it is truly outstanding. Among the animals I’ve photographed:

  • Barred owl
  • Gray fox
  • Bald eagle
  • Raccoon
  • Opossum
  • Deer
  • Nutria
  • Beaver

    Nutria in Bolin Creek near Franklin Street
  • Woodchuck (groundhog)
  • Rabbit
  • Great blue heron
  • Three species of hawks
  • Monarch butterflies
  • And far too many birds, insects, and reptiles to list.

I set up some camera traps in my tiny backyard (I live on a quarter acre within in the city limits).  The animals which have been documented in my yard:  gray fox, raccoon, opossum, white-tailed deer, flying squirrel and a host of birds.   Some mornings, I hear the hoot of an owl and the call of a coyote.

Marsh rabbit from a town trail

Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals whose native habitats have been lost or fragmented by development.

Barred owl at sunrise near Morgan Creek

I’ve lived either in or near Chapel Hill for around 30 years. The area has changed dramatically, with the region booming with new development.  Clear cutting is more commonplace than ever before.  Native wildlife habitats have been lost or fragmented.  Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals, who have adapted to city life and are attracted to man-made food sources.

Is living with wildlife safe?

When people and wildlife live in close proximity to each other, it can lead to conflict.  However, much of the issues are of our own making.  Leaving garbage or food out and getting too close to wildlife can lead to problem behaviors.

steeplevultures2 (1 of 1)
Black vultures atop Christ Church in Southern Village

Wildlife should not be feared, but we should have a respect that these are wild animals. I have encountered residents who, for example when I point out a barred owl roosting in a tree, are simply terrified.  They find it difficult to understand that unless they are the size and weight of a mouse, the owl has little interest in them!  Fear stems from a lack of knowledge and interaction with the natural world.

Barred owl near Franklin Street & Estes Drive.

Yet, I have also encountered residents (and photographers!) who don’t have enough fear and get entirely too close to a wild animal.  I have a long zoom lens so I can stay a good distance away from my subjects.  But many (far too many) times while I’m photographing a subject, a passerby will get way too close in an effort to snap a picture with their cell phone.  I’ve even seen naturalists with binoculars and photographers with zooms get too near an animal’s personal space proclaiming ‘oh, this one is used to people’.

Great Blue Heron at Finely Golf Course

Such harassing interactions always cause the animal to flee, creating a hazard for both the animal (who may be flushed from a safe spot into the open where it may face predators) and people—a frightened animal may perceive you as a threat and lash out towards you in self-defense.   Observe.  Appreciate.  Be respectful.  Don’t harass.

If you leave wildlife alone, they will leave you alone.  One exception…a sick or injured animal.

Baby raccoons on a backyard deck off Weaver Dairy Road

With most wild animals, if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.  The exception being a sick or injured animal.  Rabies is an issue in the region; yet it seems far too many people mistakenly think ‘it must have rabies’ at the first sight of a fox, raccoon or bat.  Just because an animal can be a carrier of rabies does not mean every single animal is rabid.

Red-shouldered hawk at Bolin Creek

How do you know when an animal is sick?  A good rule of thumb:  wild animals should act wild, having a healthy fear of humans. As a wildlife photographer, I take great care to not be seen by my subjects because the moment I’m spotted, they will retreat. Even among urban animals who have been acclimated to people, they may tolerate your presence but they will never approach you.  If a wild animal chooses to approach you, that’s not normal behavior and a sign that you should keep your distance.

Where to see wildlife

  1. Look where you already go every day, close to home or work.  We are often so focused on where we are going that we don’t take time to truly look around us.  You might be surprised what’s in plain view!  I’ve seen owls at UNC, bald eagles over 15-501, fox off Weaver Dairy Road and a woodchuck raising a family in a burrow right under busy Franklin Street!

    Who’s living a busy Franklin Street bridge?   A woodchuck, also known as a groundhog!
  2. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County has many great public trails.  Many are paved and easily accessible, such as Bolin Creek trail, Morgan Creek trail, and the Riverwalk.
  3. UNC owed lands contain public trails from which wildlife can be found. Carolina North Forest and the NC Botanical Garden’s Battle Park and Mason Farm Biological Preserve are great places.

Want to see more?

Wildlife of North Carolina note cards



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