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OBX Waterfowling #2

This year, I turned President’s Day weekend into a four-day nonstop birding adventure to the OBX and Pamlico/Albemarle Peninsula. What an adventure it was—my most exciting birding trip to date, with 129 species of birds (6 lifers) over the course of 29.5 hours actively spent in the great outdoors. Unusual February weather in the 70’s every day didn’t hurt.


Day 1: Lake Phelps, Pungo Lake, Alligator River NWR

I spent the morning at multiple locations on Lake Phelps, where I’ve never been before. This lake held massive numbers of ducks that are very uncommon elsewhere in the state, like COMMON MERGANSER (~350 individuals) (life birds) and Canvasback (~125 individuals) (state birds), but not many other waterfowl.

Next, I performed a recon mission to Pungo lake (part of Pocosin Lakes NWR), another new location for me. Here, I saw tens of thousands of Snow Goose and thousands of Tundra Swan, plus a good assortment of dabbling ducks. Also interesting was a group of 7 juvenile Nutria, including one aberrant blond-colored individual.

I ended the day at Alligator River NWR, a location I’ve only briefly visited in the past. A few ducks and shorebirds in the flooded fields—most notable of which was a group of at least 50(!) Wilson's Snipe. Also a couple of distant Wild Turkey. Around dusk, I settled down at a reliable spot and was rewarded with good looks at (at least) 2 SHORT-EARED OWLs (life birds) flying over the fields, as a Great Horned Owl called and the numerous Northern Harriers finally retired for the night. Just before leaving, a pack of Coyote began howling nearby--quite an experience.


Day 2: Bodie Island, Pea Island, Nags Head Pier

Day 2 began at the Bodie Island Lighthouse with some incredible birds that are generally secretive and not often seen (and all of which were seen). They included AMERICAN WOODCOCK at dawn, AMERICAN BITTERN, and 3 rail species—SORA (life bird), KING RAIL (life bird), and VIRGINIA RAIL. Also a large group of American Avocet and good numbers of waterfowl, including hundreds of Northern Pintail. This hour or so was probably the highlight of my entire trip.

A quick stop at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center yielded my 4th rail species of the morning (all seen, somehow)—a CLAPPER RAIL!

Upon arriving at the salt flats on Pea Island NWR, I was immediately treated to at least 3 American Mink, 1 RIVER OTTER (two of my favorite mammals), and 1 blonde RACCOON (actually a pleasure to see on the coast). AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN and BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON made for good avian finds here.

North Pond on Pea Island NWR provided the most photo-cooperative waterfowl I’ve ever encountered, including some uncommon species like COMMON GOLDENEYE and CANVASBACK, and some more common but still stunning ducks like REDHEAD.

A late afternoon visit to Jennette’s Pier on Nags Head yielded a different set of birds than the freshwater locations I’d visited until then, including numerous RAZORBILL, a continuing COMMON EIDER (life bird) and a strangely plumaged BLACK SCOTER. Perhaps most important, I got fantastic looks at (at least) 1 HUMPBACK WHALE (life mammal) blowing, breaching multiple times, then finally diving with its tail kicking into the air.


Day 3: Hatteras (Cape Point), Ocracoke

Day 3 started off with some good quick stops, including the continuing SORA at Bodie Island and an AMERICAN BITTERN in a roadside ditch S of Pea Island.

I spent most of the morning at Hatteras Cape Point, where hundreds of RAZORBILL, a single MANX SHEARWATER (life bird, usually found much farther out in the open ocean) hundreds of NORTHERN GANNET, thousands of DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT, and a sizeable number of LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLs.

I couldn’t resist a quick stop to see the ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD (state bird) that strayed from the west coast to spend a few weeks in Buxton, as well as the RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS that overwinter at the same location.

Finally, I took the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke and birded the island for the few remaining hours of daylight. Notable birds included RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (the rock pigeons of the island village, uncommon elsewhere in NC).


Day 4: Ferry to Swanquarter, Mattamuskeet, Pungo Lake

The day started off interesting in Ocracoke with a few American Oystercatcher and a group of 14 Tricolored Heron flying together in formation close to the water—a bizarre sight I'd never seen before.

I then spent the next 2:40 on the long ferry ride across the Pamlico Sound (from Ocracoke to Swanquarter). Scoping seabirds was challenging, given that the screw holding the center column of my tripod finally stripped out. I made due, but the scope was very unstable on the vibrating ship deck… Anyway, some great birds on the voyage, including hundreds of Red-throated Loon, hundreds of Black Scoter, and hundreds of Surf Scoter (one of my favorite ducks).

On the drive towards Mattamuskeet NWR, a Cattle Egretforaged in a roadside field. At Lake Landing (part of Mattamuskeet), some dabbling ducks were present, and I had great looks at a couple of Nutria and one River Otter rolling around in the grass nearby. However, the undeniable highlight (of the day) was a MERLIN that caught an unsuspecting songbird midair and devoured its victim on a snag as I watched. Later, near Mattamuskeet HQ, an Orange-crowned Warbler and 2 Fox Sparrow were good passerines.

Finally, I finished the trip back at Pungo, in order to witness the famous sunset flight of the aforementioned tens of thousands of Snow Goose and thousands of Tundra Swan. The experience was indeed surreal, and in the relatively modest groups that flew directly overhead, I was able to pick out ~45 Blue Goose (really just a different color morph of Snow Goose; same species) and a few Ross's Goose. Hundreds of ducks streaming towards the lake around sunset was also an interesting sight. On the drive out of Pungo, the last birds I encountered were two Woodcock that I heard calling.


Trip totals:

  • 129 species of birds (9 species of mammals)

  • ~ 85,728 individual birds

  • 29.5 hours in the field actively birding (7:20 per day)

  • 780 miles traveled by car, ~35 by ferry

  • 1173 photos/videos taken (most deleted)

  • 38 full pages of memo book filled with bird sightings

Personal bests:

  • 6 new life birds (Common Merganser, Short-eared Owl, Common Eider, Sora, King Rail, Manx Shearwater), bringing my total to 288

  • 2 additional NC birds (Canvasback, Anna’s Hummingbird), bringing my total to 255

  • 54 year birds

  • Personal high counts of numerous species:

  • Snow Goose—tens of thousands

  • Tundra Swan—thousands

  • Common Merganser—hundreds

  • Canvasback—over a hundred

  • Razorbill—over a hundred

  • Killdeer—hundreds

  • Wilson’s Snipe—50 or so

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