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OBX Kayak/Camping #2: Lookout, Cedar Island

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

A friend and I replicated our Memorial Day OBX trip from last year, but changed the location from Ocracoke/Portsmouth to Cape Lookout National Seashore (South Core Banks) and Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge. I birded and he fished, all primarily from our kayaks. With roughly 20 kayak-miles on Cape Lookout and around 6 at Cedar Island, we spent the majority of each day on the water. The 4-day trip didn’t feature huge numbers of bird species (72), but it was definitely quality over quantity, and yielded 3 life birds.


Friday 5/26/17: Harkers to Cape Lookout

We left the piedmont around 4:00 AM, and got our boats in the water at the end of Harker’s Island by 8:00 AM. The paddle from Harkers to Cape Lookout National Seashore was a fairly challenging 2-mile trek with a crosswind, choppy water, and heavy kayaks loaded with camping gear, food, water, etc. However, I managed to catch some good looks through my saltwater-covered binocs at large numbers of wading birds flying by, including 8 Cattle Egret, 2 Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2 Glossy Ibis, possibly 250 White Ibis, and good numbers of the 4 more typical heron species (Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron). Funny enough, I went the whole trip without seeing a single Great Blue Heron. The protected islands between Harkers and Lookout also had impressive numbers of nesting Brown Pelicans and some gulls.

By mid-morning we made it to the soundside of Cape Lookout and paddled North for about 4 miles. With a mild wind at our backs, this was a much more pleasant ride. The soundside marshes held 10 shorebird species (including large numbers of Whimbrel), some Clapper Rails, terns, and wading birds. Once we arrived at our campsite (near the Sheep Pen Creek dock) around noon, we settled down and relaxed, surrounded by Common Nighthawks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Seaside Sparrows.


Saturday 5/27: Cape Lookout

A pre-dawn beach hike was a good way to start the day, with nighthawks booming and diving behind the dunes. An early morning kayak trip near the campsite offered good opportunities to photograph various shorebirds. Later, a 4 mile paddle out to the dilapidated Horsepen Creek docks yielded some good birds, but paddling back against the wind turned out to be a serious challenge.

We got picked up by some friends that ferried their SUV to the island, and ended up setting up camp at the heavily populated point of Cape Lookout itself. Surprisingly, a massive flock of approximately 275 Red Knot were foraging in the midst of all the campers and fishermen.


Sunday 5/28: Cape Lookout to Harkers, then Cedar island NWR

We got back on the water around 7:00 AM, hoping to beat the wind and boat traffic back to Harker’s Island. Leaving from the cape, we passed by the east end of Shackleford Banks, and had some nice views of wild horses mixed in with the standard waders and shorebirds. The 5 mile paddle back was unbelievably smooth, with flat water and a gentle breeze at our backs, so we were back at our car by 9:00 AM.

Our next stop was the Cedar NWR, where we put our boats in West Bay, by the John Day ditch bridge. Lots of seaside sparrows and other interesting birds occupied the very unique saltmarsh habitat comprising the refuge, plus distant looks at 4 Least Bitterns (life birds). There were also hundreds of Seaside Dragonlet (which appears to be an unusually high count of these dragonflies), around 20 Diamondback Terrapins, and lots of jellyfish. My friend brought in a flounder for dinner.

We set up camp at the Cedar Creek campground (in the town of Sealevel), which I would highly recommend. Lots of good birds in the marshes surrounding the campground, and a Chuck-will’s-widow gave us a nice parting song after the sun retired for the day.


Monday 5/29: Cedar Island NWR

I woke up early and drove to the Cedar Island causeway around 4:20 AM, stopping frequently to listen for Black Rails. I was rewarded by at least 2 individuals calling (life birds, if you count heard-only birds). Also heard lots of Virginia Rails, Clapper Rails, Marsh Wrens, and Seaside Sparrows. Around dawn I paddled down the John Day ditch, where, among other birds, I got excellent up-close looks at good numbers of Least Bitterns.

I squeezed in one last stop to the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal, where the beach held some interesting shorebirds, including a White-rumped Sandpiper (lifer #3 for the trip). Then, it was time to drive back home.

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