Constitution Lakes is not a well-kept park. The first boardwalk is buckled up like a kids’ roller coaster after a 2021 storm with entire sections of railing sitting uselessly in the shallow marsh. Graffiti covers nearly every sign in the park, and there’s so much trash that most of it has been gathered into an art installation called The Doll’s Head Trail with creepy exhibits like “The Linda Blair Witch Project.”
But if you can tune out the noise of trucks and train and planes, nature is alive here. This morning alone, I saw a trio of river otters swimming a dozen feet away, and a large white-tailed deer bound across my path. There were yellow-bellied sliders sunning on logs and dragonflies with fantastic names—blue dasher, Eastern pondhawk, whitetail skimmer, green dancer—darting around the lakes’ edges. There were not-quite ripe muscadines and the last of the summer’s wild blackberries. And lots and lots of birds.
River otter, surprised to see me
I watched a little blue heron, young enough to still have its white feathers, catch and eat a frog, and an indigo bunting with a grasshopper in its beak. A fledgling white-eyed vireo cried for its parents to come back and feed it, and a yellow-billed cuckoo called repeatedly in the distance. There were large birds—an osprey, a belted kingfisher, a pileated woodpecker, a great egret, two yellow-crowned night herons and three red-shouldered hawks. And tiny birds—tons of blue-gray gnatcatchers flitting about the leaves of trees and a ruby-throated hummingbird glistening like gold as it zipped among the flowers. And I saw two birds this morning that I’ve never seen anywhere else in Atlanta: a pair of cattle egrets and an anhinga—also called a snakebird for the way it looks with its body under water and its long, thin neck exposed. The cattle egrets represented species #180 in my ATL Birds project (atl_birds on Instagram and BirdsAtl on Twitter).
Juvenile Little Blue Heron with a frog
Cattle Egret, far from home
I’m a native Atlantan, but I didn’t know about Constitution Lakes until two years ago. I’ve been making up for lost time, taking long walks on the weekends or short walks before work and watching the scenery and flying fauna change with the seasons, whether its migrating warblers in the spring and fall, weird ducks in the winter or awkward young fledglings in the summer. And there are always surprises, like the American White Pelican that took up residence for about a week last October. Or the juvenile White Ibis that showed up the year before. The back boardwalk separates two of the three lakes on the property and has become my favorite spot in the city. It’s there that I’ve seen otters hunting in the shallows and a variety of wading birds that I would expected to see down in Florida, not in my city.
The view from the back boardwalk throughout the year
American White Pelican, the second largest bird in North America
DeKalb County bought the old abandoned brickyard along the South River in Southeast Atlanta in 2003 and converted it into a 200-acre park. The lakes themselves were formed from brick excavation pits after the South River Brick Company was founded in 1892 to compete with the convict-labor practices of companies like Chattahoochee Brick that were using the still-active “except as a punishment for crime” loophole in the 13th Amendment—basically arresting Black people for crimes as harmless as “vagrancy” and exploiting them as free labor. South River only hired free men.
A dashing blue dasher
The park sits along a large swatch of undeveloped land—just across Moreland Avenue is Atlanta’s newest city park, Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, a 216-acre oak-hickory forest with some 60,000 trees. Both parks are part of the Soapstone Ridge, where Native Americans in the Late Archaic Period dug out the valuable metamorphic rock for use in cooking, art and trade. Just to the north is the Old Atlanta Prison Farm along Entrenchment Creek, the site of a proposed police academy training facility. And all of that sits in what could one day be the 3,500-acre South River Forest conservation area, an idea the Nature Conservancy calls “one of the most ambitious concepts for greenspace expansion in Atlanta.”
For now, Constitution Lakes Park simply offers my favorite escape from the city.