By Fred J. Eckert
One of the most delightful and distinctive visitor attractions in the United States is a place you've probably never heard of located in a tiny North Carolina town of which you've also probably never heard.
In rural northeastern North Carolina, 29 miles south of the Virginia border and 19 miles east of Interstate 95, Scotland Neck sits astride Route 258, which doubles as its Main Street. The town is so tiny (population 2,029) that it doesn't even have a single traffic light.
What Scotland Neck does have is an outstanding attraction that enchants adults and children alike and gets rave reviews from just about everyone who has discovered it.
Sylvan Heights Bird Park is the largest bird park in North America and the largest waterfowl park in the world — containing an amazing array of exotic and/or endangered birds, ducks, geese and swans from all parts of the world.
Home to more than 2,500 birds — including 18 endangered species, more than 30 species of very rare birds, all eight swan species, 30 of the just over 30 species of geese and more than 100 species of ducks — it truly is a park, 18 acres of nicely treed, attractively landscaped, meticulously maintained grounds well laid out in a double-eight clearly marked pathway and divided into sectors dedicated to each continent (except, because of climate, Antarctica), plus sections focused on exotic birds, finches, pheasant, flamingos and swans, geese and cranes.
An outgrowth of its adjacent private10-acre breeding center devoted to raising rare and endangered species of waterfowl, 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 handful of staff and volunteers.
"The park is designed to educate people about waterfowl and the importance of preserving them," Lubbock said. "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."
Park-generated revenue helps fund the breeding center.
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 and Wetlands Trust. His rare talent for bird-breeding resulted in his being personally consulted by Queen Elizabeth II and becoming the queen's go-to expert thereafter.
Lubbock's passion to preserve threatened waterfowl and other birds and promote conservation efforts has taken him all over the world, and the story of how Scotland Neck became the place where he and Ali came to realize their long-time dream of creating their own great avian collection is detailed in the 2014 book "The Waterfowl Man of Sylvan Heights" by Dale A. True.
Sylvan Heights was carefully planned and designed to ensure maximum safety for the birds and waterfowl as well the best possible experience for them and for their visitors. Besides being so pleasant and well-maintained, each area is quite sizable with exceptionally high nets.
Obviously a place where visitors can come see waterfowl and other birds that include endangered and very rare species must house them in a protective captive environment. For anyone who suggests that it is not good to have birds in such a protected area, Lubbock has a question: "Would you rather view an endangered species alive in a nice parklike environment such as Sylvan Heights Bird Park or dead in some museum?"
The 18 endangered species and 30-plus very rare species that reside at the bird park should appreciate Lubbock's point of view. One-third of the world's once perilously endangered white-winged wood duck population calls Sylvan Heights home. It's also credited with breeding 17 species of waterfowl for the first time in the world and 15 species for the first time in North America.
Within the park you can also observe birds and waterfowl in the wild. At Beaver Pond Blind, which overlooks a wetland, you can look out from one of its many blinds. A large roofed viewing platform located over another wetland is wheelchair accessible. Especially popular with children and parents is the Landing Zone building where parakeets fly to you if you have a seed stick and where you can feed flamingoes out of your hand. Food packages cost only $1, a pleasant surprise — just like everything else about Sylvan Heights Bird Park.
WHEN YOU GO
Any time of year is a good time to visit. Most ducks are at peak coloring mid-October through mid-May, tropical birds during the summer months: www.shw.com.
It's worth a two-day visit and it's best to overnight in town. The 31-room Scotland Neck Inn offers a discount for Sylvan Heights visitors and compares very favorably to any of the next-nearest motels in Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount or Tarboro, each a 30-to 40-minute commute on small country roads that are pitch black at night.
Sylvan Heights does not operate any food service but welcomes bringing a picnic lunch and provides a couple of picnic areas and a playground. It's only a few minutes' drive to several restaurants in town, one of which, LaCasetta — operated by an Italian who hails from Sicily — draws customers from as far as Raleigh and Richmond because of its reputation for truly extraordinary Italian food reasonably priced: www.italiancuisineandpizzeria.com.
Closed Mondays, except Easter Monday, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Otherwise open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through October and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through March.
Children under 3 are free; 3-12, $6; 13-61, $10; 62-plus $8.
Fred J. Eckert is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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