I’ve lived in Metro Atlanta for most of my life, so I’m a little embarrassed that it took a pandemic for me to discover so many of the city’s pockets of wilderness and the diverse fauna that can be found there. In the past year, I’ve taken it upon myself to visit as many of the city’s trails as possible, photographing the wildlife I encounter—more than 150 species of birds, plus amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, dragonflies and mammals like the Red Fox I saw at Henderson Park in Tucker.
There are miles and miles of trails around the city and its suburbs, from scenic boardwalks along South Peachtree Creek to wilder paths overlooking the Chattahoochee River. All of these are within about a 30-minute drive from downtown and offer a respite from Zoom meetings, construction traffic and the neighbors’ leaf blower. If you’re willing to drive a little further, I’d also recommend George Pierce Park in Suwanee, Roger’s Bridge Trail (when it reopens) in John’s Creek, Big Creek Greenway in Alpharetta, Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Kennesaw, and Newman Wetlands and Nash Farm—both in Hampton.
The boardwalk between Constitution Lakes main lake and marshy back pond may be my favorite spot in Atlanta. It’s from here that I’ve watched River Otters diving down to catch crustaceans which they nibbled on from atop the floating grasses, fledgling Yellow-crowned Night Herons learning how to hunt in the shallows, Kingfishers and Osprey speeding down from the sky to fish, Common Snapping Turtles slipping into the water, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos calling out from high in the treetops. It’s also one of the few places in Atlanta where you can find Great Egrets year-round, along with a variety of wintering ducks and an abundance of migrating warblers in the spring and fall. On my visit to the park this past Sunday, I saw 30 different species of birds, including a pair of Tricolored Herons, usually found much closer to the coast; a lone Anhinga—a water bird that dives below the surface to catch its meals and can be seen swimming with just its neck above the surface; and a bright yellow Hooded Warbler.
The one-and-a-half-mile loop includes the creepy and clever Doll’s Head Trail, a modern folk-art project turning the trash found in the park into an outdoor art exhibit. Located near some of the city’s newest film studios just inside the southeast Perimeter, the park is open dawn to dusk. Half of the loop is well-kept, while the other half can get muddy and overgrown. There’s also an additional trail along the railroad tracks that leads back to a hidden third lake. The lakes themselves were formed from the excavation of clay pits when the site was a brickyard up until the 1960s. There are proposals in the work to connect the 200-acre park, which DeKalb County purchased in 2003, to a much larger swath of wilderness in Southeast Atlanta—including the Atlanta Prison Farm property—if the police department doesn’t turn it into a training facility first. Join Friends of Constitution Lakes to help preserve this patch of nature in the future.
Pictured below from Constitution Lakes: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, River Otter, Zebra Longwing butterfly
Just outside the Perimeter, the Cochran Shoals Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area provides more than four miles of the most scenic and wild trails around the city. The first stretch takes you right along the river and then splits away into low wetlands and hilly forests. One of my favorite bird encounters was in the marshy ponds at Cochran, where a small creature was rustling in the vegetation, and I couldn’t tell what it was. As it moved to the water’s edge, I realized I was looking at a juvenile White Ibis—a bird that breeds on the coasts and disperses to find its own territory once it leaves its nest. The marsh is also home to a variety of amphibians—on a trip with Audubon’s Urban Ecologists, my son had to swoop up and move a large Spotted Salamander to save it from getting run over by cyclists. And a whopping 211 bird species have been recorded on the site, the most in all of Cobb County.
Pictured below from Cochran Shoals: White Ibis, Spotted Salamander
The trails at Davidson-Arabia surround and cross a massive granite outcropping (and former quarry) with scattered copses of trees, shrubs and flowers, offering a unique and otherworldly landscape just southeast of the city. Arabia Mountain is at the center of this 2,550-acre park which also feature two lakes, several streams and large swaths of forest. Think of it as a smaller Stone Mountain without all the Confederate imagery. The park changes drastically with seasonal blooms of rare red diamorpha in the winter and yellow daisies in the fall. Bluebirds, mockingbirds, killdeer and robins love the open spaces, and you’re as likely to find some of Atlanta’s rarer breeding birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Summer Tanager here as anywhere else around the city.
The paths connect to other wonderful spots for birdwatching, like Lyon’s Farm, where I recently got to watch Swallow-tailed Kites put on their aerial hunting display—a rare site in the metro area; the heavily wooded Panola Mountain; Vaughter’s Farm, where Barn and Northern Rough-wing Swallows can be seen swooping over the vast fields; and the Power of Flight bird-banding station, the most reliable site for birds like Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Orchard Orioles and a wide variety of sparrows in the city, now that Rogers Bridge Trail in John’s Creek is temporarily closed. Parking can be tough as more and more hikers and bikers discover this jewel just southeast of the city.
Pictured below from Davidson-Arabia: American Robins, Pileated Woodpeckers, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies
My home-five-minutes-from-home during the pandemic has been the city of Decatur’s newest park on 77 acres that used to belong to the United Methodist Children’s Home. The diversity of habitat—fields of tall grasses ideal for sparrows; riparian forests full of songbirds; a small pond occasionally visited by herons, ducks and kingfishers, and two small flooded wetlands home to bullfrogs, salamanders and a wide variety of birds. In the last year, I’ve seen 115 different species of bird in the park, from a tiny Sedge Wren to great Pileated Woodpeckers.
Last May, a local couple spotted a Barn Owl, rare for the Atlanta area, and my fellow bird paparazzi were lined up every dawn and dusk for days, watching the raptor fly loops around the property, diving down on unsuspecting field mice and getting pestered by the local Red-tailed Hawks and American Crows. The space certainly got more popular during the pandemic, and while the trails can still get a little muddy after rains, the city has slowly been transforming it into a more people-friendly space, while (hopefully) preserving the wildlife habitat. I led my first Audubon bird walk at Legacy a few weeks ago, and we saw 30 species of bird, including Red-Headed Woodpeckers, a Green Heron, and a White-eyed Vireo feeding its adopted fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird (cowbirds are parasitic breeders, laying eggs in other birds’ nests).
Pictured below from Legacy Park: Barn Owl, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Bullfrog
There’s no better place in metro Atlanta to find the kinds of shorebirds you’d only expect to see on the coast. I’ve encountered Roseate Spoonbill, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe and dozens of Little Blue Herons all wading in the shallow mudflats of the wetlands right next to the Chatahoochee River. A beautiful boardwalk runs between the marsh and the river. Depending on the time of year, you’re bound to see Cedar Waxwings, Common Yellowthroat or migrating warblers along the path. And a paved trail takes you right to the equally spectacular Chatahoochee Nature Center. On the trails near the nature center, I watched a wild Bald Eagle swoop overhead just yards away from the raptor rehabilitation center, which houses recovering eagles, as well as owls, hawks and vultures. And the deer have become used to the steady flow of people on the boardwalk, contentedly grazing just yards away from the rails.
Pictured below from Roswell Riverwalk: Roseate Spoonbill, White-tailed Deer, Wilson’s Snipe
A winding trail connects Medlock Park to the Emory University Campus along the South Fork Peachtree Creek and then continues past Mason Mill Park and the DeKalb Tennis Center along the Burnt Fort Creek all the way to North Druid Hills. The well-built boardwalk often overlooks the surrounding forest and wetlands, and was the most reliable winter home to a wayward American Bittern earlier this year, as well as temporary pools, perfect for Spotted Salamanders. There are nearly two miles of concrete or wood trails for walking or biking, as well as several dirt paths leading to more hidden views. In the winter, you can see Hooded Mergansers mingled with the Wood Ducks in breeding plumage, and in fall and spring, you can find migrating warblers. Be sure to also check out the beautiful lake at nearby Lullwater Park.
Pictured below from South Peachtree Creek Trail: American Bittern, Red-shouldered Hawk, Brown-headed Nuthatch
Atlanta’s newest park opens next week, and it’s a beautiful space. The $44 million project surrounding the Bellwood Quarry (which you may have seen in the first season of The Walking Dead) took 15 years to complete, but looks to be worth the wait. I got an unofficial sneak peek earlier this year, and while there are many more open spaces designed for people than habitat for wildlife, the park is also a short walk from the Proctor Creek Greenway, which is a bit of a birder’s paradise. I saw large flocks of Cedar Waxwings and Red-winged Blackbirds, and even a lone American Kestrel, as well as a family of White-tailed Deer down by the creek. But the real reason to go are the views overlooking the now-flooded quarry. It’s a beautiful place.
Pictured below from Proctor Creek Greenway: Cedar Waxwing, Red-winged Blackbirds, Field Sparrow
Another gem along the South Fork Peachtree Creek is this privately managed 28-acre preserve. It may be small, but the wooded trails around Beaver Pond—more flooded wetland than actual lake—will quickly make you forget you’re right next to North DeKalb Mall. I’d recommend joining one of local naturalist Stephen Ramsden’s Saturday morning bird walks or summer night walks, where you can see the local racoons. The boardwalk trails are well-maintained, including a few viewing platforms around the pond and several well-stocked bird feeders and Wood Duck boxes, where quite a few ducklings hatched in late spring. With its series of small pools, Clyde Shepherd is an especially good spot for amphibians and reptiles. And this spring it hosted a nest of baby Barred Owls, including a rescued baby owl that volunteers added to the nest. It provided plenty of drama for the park’s nature observers as the mama owl raided a nearby Red-shouldered Hawk nest to feed its owlets a baby hawk. I witnessed an adult hawk seemingly trying to take revenge the next day when I was watching the owlets adventure out onto nearby branches. The hawk swooped down and knocked the young owl off the branch with the mama owl immediately chasing it off. The owl was fine and flew back up the tree soon after.
Pictured below from Clyde Shepherd: Barred Owl, Eastern Phoebe, Wood Duck
Opened in 2010, this 30-acre park features a floating dock on Bull Sluice Lake, fed by the Chattahoochee River, one of my go-to spots for kayaking and paddle boarding, a good place to spot osprey, otters and turtles. A steep three-quarter-mile trail rises through dense forest, up to the top of the overlook, and a series of bench swings looks out onto the still waters above the falls. Below the dam, the Chattahoochee runs more quickly, and Barn Swallows gather in large numbers to hunt for insects above the flows. This spot also tends to attract wayward water birds, like the only Common Loon I’ve seen around Atlanta.
Pictured below from Morgan Falls: Great Blue Heron, Common Loon, Barn Swallow
With its Confederate imagery and racist history, Stone Mountain is the most complicated entry on this list. But the 3,200-acre park is full of wildlife, and it’s easy to immerse yourself in nature, whether hiking, biking or getting out on the water. The 323-acre Stone Mountain Lake is the best place in the metro to go kayaking or paddle boarding, which my son and I have done regularly throughout the pandemic. We’ve seen Bald Eagles, Belted Kingfishers, Great Blue Herons and Double-crested Cormorants and a variety of ducks while getting some exercise and sunshine. The site for archery and cycling during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games has been converted into the park’s Songbird Habitat & Trail, a great spot to see both field and woodland birds. The enormous campgrounds overlook the lake, and the hiking trails take you everywhere from deep in the woods to the top of the mountain. In January, I joined a dozen or so neighbors on a literal marathon hike from Avondale to the top of the mountain, stopping at a couple local breweries on the way back.
Pictured below from Stone Mountian: Indigo Bunting
The home of the Midtown Music Festival and the traditional ending spot for the Peachtree Road Race is also home to some wonderful trails and wildlife. While there are typically more people per acre than any of the other locations on this list, there’s also an abundance of birds—177 different species have been recorded in the park. Check out Lake Clara Meer to see a variety of water birds in the winter, beyond the year-round Mallards and domesticated Muscovy Ducks. A little more off the beaten path is the Six Springs Wetlands, where you can spot migrating songbirds in the spring and fall. And if you want to see some more cultivated flora, the adjacent Atlanta Botanical Gardens showcases both local and imported plant life.
Pictured below from Piedmont Park: Eastern Chipmunk, Muscovy Duck
Most people know Murphy Candler for its sports facilities—I first played T-ball at Murphy Candler Park way back in the 1970s. But the 135-acre park also includes a two-mile loop around Murphy Candler Lake and the surrounding woodlands and wetlands. It’s here that I got to watch a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls—a rare sight in Atlanta—feeding on bugs on the lake’s surface. In the summer, Eastern Box Turtles sun themselves on logs, Double-crested Cormorants dive for fish, and Great Blue Herons stalk the water’s edges. In the winter, Ruddy Ducks, Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal form rafts in the middle of the large lake. And year-round, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks soar above the trees. Parking is easy during the week, but can be a challenge as the ballfields and pool fill up on the weekends.
Pictured below from Murphy Candler: Bonaparte’s Gull, Brown Creeper, Double-crested Cormorant
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. You can see more of his nature photos on Instagram @atl_birds or on Twitter @BirdsAtl.