Updated: Apr 16
My third annual winter OBX solo birding trip was an exercise in efficiency, comprising just two full days of birding (compare last year’s four full days). It was productive and exciting nonetheless, especially for waterfowl. Overall, I saw/heard 102 species of birds, including 24 species of ducks (22 the first day)! However, efficiency sometimes comes at a sacrifice of thoroughness, and I missed a number of rare birds that others reported in the same areas.
Day 1: Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula
(Washington & Hyde Counties)
My first stop (around dawn) was the Beasley Rd. Pond off of US-64, where lots of geese are known to winter. Highlights were two Ross’s Goose, a handful of Snow Goose (including 4 blue morph), and more Canada Goose than I’ve ever seen in one place—I counted 1,440!
Next up: Phelps Lake (Pettigrew State Park), to look for the wintering Common Merganser flock, which I found, to say the least—I counted 790 of this otherwise uncommon duck species! The moccasin overlook (I think it was closed last year when I visited) offered the best vantage point for duck watching. I saw 15 different duck species at this location (including Canvasback and Redhead, two of my favorites), an Orange-crowned Warbler, some Rusty Blackbirds, and 32 other bird species. Hundreds of Tundra Swan and >75 Snow Goose graced some farm fields adjacent to the lake.
I took a lunchtime trip to Pungo Lake (Pocosin Lakes NWR), which was great, but a bit underwhelming compared to last year’s sunset show of swans and geese streaming overhead.
I spent the afternoon around Lake Mattamuskeet NWR. Despite the limited winter access at Lake Landing (good for the birds, less good for the birders), I found a great duck—a Eurasian Wigeon. The impoundments along HQ Road were full of hundreds (thousands?) of ducks, but I didn’t have great lighting and was in a bit of a hurry, so I hurried through this segment of the trip.
I boarded the 4:30 ferry out of Swanquarter, headed to Ocracoke across ~28 miles of Pamlico Sound. While this only gave me an hour and a half of daylight to bird (I missed some prime territory during the last 1 hour of the ferry ride), it proved quite fruitful. It’s always fun watching Horned Grebes struggle to takeoff and awkwardly fly as the massive ferry approaches, and well over a hundred Red-throated Loons crossed the bow. The sea ducks were also good; I saw the expected Black and Surf Scoter, got good looks at 4 Long-Tailed Duck (!), and the very last bird I saw was a Red-breasted Merganser. That brought a personal record of 22 duck species in one day! Total species count was around 81 species for the day. Unfortunately, few photographs...
Day 2: OBX (Dare County)
Day two began with an early morning ferry ride from Ocracoke to Hatteras. It was interesting to see how much recent storms had claimed the road at the north end of Ocracoke. The ferry ride offered uncomfortable birding, with sub-freezing temps and 20 mph winds. I spent the last half of the ride in my car, which proved wise—I got great windows-down looks at two BRANT (type of sea goose)! That was probably the highlight of my trip.
Just outside of Hatteras, I stopped to check out the huge raft of Redhead ducks that others had reported seeing. Sure enough, at least 5000 were there, as well as a Merlin. I spent most of the morning at a brutally windy and cold Cape Point, attempting to seawatch (I’m glad I brought my balaclava!). I caught a ride to the point on the side of a SUV, hanging on for dear life (I had to hike back). Over a relatively short period of time on the point, I saw thousands of Red-throated Loons and hundreds of Razorbill flying north. Also notable were lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a couple of flyover White-winged Scoter.
Lunchtime brought me to Pea Island NWR, which was awesome, as always. South Pond had a large group of American Avocet, but North Pond stole the show. The lighting was perfect for photography, and the ducks were really cooperative. This is a reliable spot for American White Pelican, and a female Common Goldeneye was an exciting find.
After quick stops at the Oregon Inlet marina (nesting Great Horned Owl), Bodie Island (good numbers of ducks), and Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, I headed to Alligator River NWR to finish off the day. Highlights there included an assortment of ducks and swans, >11 Northern Harrier, a flock of Rusty Blackbird, a Barred Owl (seen), a Great Horned Owl (heard), an American Woodcock (heard), and--last but not least--a covey of Northern Bobwhite (quail) that emerged around dusk, offering great looks before I began the long, dark journey home.