The North Carolina Wildlife Federation has named its nine top sites for enjoying wildlife and one is just 30 minutes from uptown Charlotte, yet rarely visited.
Cowans Ford Wildlife Refuge, at Mountain Island Lake northwest of Charlotte, is home to 206 species of birds, more than any other site in Mecklenburg County. Twenty mammal species live there, along with 22 species of reptiles, 12 species of amphibians and 36 butterfly species.
Unusual species spotted in the 867-acre reserve include bald eagles, bobcats, river otter, wild turkey, silverbell and the southern rein orchid.
In 2011, a biology student found a palm-sized oldfield mouse, so rare it hadnt been seen in Mecklenburg County since 1968 and had been documented in the state only three other times.
Also among species seldom seen at the refuge: humans.
The refuge has almost no facilities, and perhaps thats why there is more wildlife than visitors, just the way I like it, said Patti Wheeler of Cornelius, a federation board member.
Wheeler writes about the refuge for the organizations Nine in North Carolina Not to Miss, a list of top destinations to enjoy wildlife and wildlife-related activities.
Most of the east side of Mountain Island Lake is conserved open land, so the chances of seeing incredible numbers of waterfowl during the winter are very high, Wheeler writes. The fact that the Carolina Raptor Center, located at Latta Plantation, is right in the neighborhood doesnt hurt, either.
Its an ecological jewel for the area, said Tim Gestwicki, chief executive officer of the Charlotte-based federation. When you combine Cowans Ford with the (nearby 1,464-acre) Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve, you get a wide swath of habitat.
Cowans Ford Wildlife Refuge is part of an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area. Its also in one of the most historic rural areas of the county, Wheeler notes. The area includes Latta Plantation and Rural Hill, the circa-1788 home of Maj. John Davidson thats near the site of the 1781 Revolutionary War Battle of Cowans Ford.
The refuge is a mix of pines, grassland and waterfowl ponds. While public access is restricted, visitors can get to the refuge by land and by water.
From Charlotte, drive north on Beatties Ford Road to Huntersville and turn left at the sign for the refuge onto Neck Road. An observatory point looks out onto Mountain Island Lake and Duck Pond.
The trip by canoe or kayak is five minutes from the Killian Road Access Area on the west side of the lake in Gaston County, Gestwicki said.
Either way you get there, youll be happy you did, he said.