Updated: Nov 29, 2020
The continuing government shutdown afforded me an opportunity for a productive mid-week OBX solo birding trip. I saw/heard 120 species of birds over 3 days, including 20 ducks, 2 lifers, and a handful of rarities. Although the weather wasn’t the most cooperative for photography (overcast, some light rain), the birding itself did not suffer.
Day 1: Pungo, Nags Head, Harbinger, Bodie
My first stop was Pungo Lake (Pocosin Lakes NWR), where I was treated to a constant procession of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese flying overhead. Harriers, Bald Eagles, Kestrels, a Merlin, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk put on a strong raptor showing, and I flushed a pair of Wilson’s Snipe.
Continuing my progress towards the coast (along one of my favorite roads in the state: the easternmost segment of US 264), I encountered some good birds in flooded roadside fields near Mattamuskeet HQ, including a couple of Cattle Egret and hundreds of White Ibis.
I arrived in Nags Head around lunchtime, and stopped by Jennette’s Pier after hearing about huge flights of Manx Shearwater earlier in the morning. Although the numbers had decreased (or moved farther offshore) by the time I arrived, I nonetheless managed to see a single Manx flyby, as well as a handful of Razorbill sitting on the surf not too far out.
My next stop involved something I don’t usually do: chasing a rarity. (I was already at the coast, and it fell within my 30-minute drive radius, so maybe I wasn’t really chasing??) The target was a Golden-crowned Sparrow, a west coast species had been never before been reported in North Carolina, until this individual decided to set up shop behind a gas station in Harbinger, NC since around Christmas. Sitting in a car for two hours next to a gas station dumpster waiting for a rare sparrow to appear from nearby bushes is exactly as exciting as it sounds. And, after two long hours with no luck, I dipped on the sparrow to resume my travels. As a consolation during this vigil, I was treated to excellent views of a Dickcissel (life bird, finally!), another uncommon bird that had inexplicably favored this location in recent days.
I spent the late afternoon at the Oregon Inlet marina and at Bodie Island, where highlights included lots of ducks (including a big group of Redheads) and great looks at an American Bittern in flight. I tried without success to locate the Northern Saw-whet Owl present at Bodie (one of four unsuccessful attempts this trip), ate dinner, and then retired for an early night’s sleep in my car.
Day 2: Pea Island, Cape Hatteras
I spent day two exploring Pea Island and Cape Point at a leisurely pace, with a couple stops in between. Despite some early morning drizzle, Pea Island North Pond provided an excellent starting point to the day. As expected, the ducks stole the show, with 15 species present on the impoundment, including a Eurasian Wigeon, an all-white (leucistic?) American Wigeon, a handful of Canvasbacks, and hundreds/thousands of ducks of other species. Large groups of American Avocets (120+) and Marbled Godwits (30+)—two of my favorite shorebirds—were icing on the cake, as were some relatively cooperative Sedge Wrens. Compared to North Pond, New Field Pond held little of interest except for a Black-crowned Night-Heron, and I couldn’t locate any American White Pelicans this year. Finally, South Pond hosted hundreds of Snow Geese, many of which were very close to the roadside.
A quick stop at a small pond in Waves yielded an immature Common Gallinule and a couple more Canvasback. And a similarly brief stop just before Buxton featured a bizarre-looking dark-headed Herring Gull, which threw me for a loop.
I passed the afternoon at Cape Point and its salt pond. The pond held an assortment of ducks and gulls (including Lesser Black-backed Gulls, common at the point), as well as a continuing Red-necked Grebe. After a long hike to the point, I seawatched for about an hour and was rewarded by a few more Manx Shearwater, a lone Razorbill, and various other expected species. A Least Sandpiper amongst the resting gulls was the shorebird (save Willets and Sanderlings).
I checked the ferry terminal in Hatteras before retiring for the night. Although I couldn’t find any Brant (I missed the last daylight ferry to Ocracoke), I saw a Peregrine Falcon, some Ruddy Turnstones, and a group of Eurasian Collared-Doves.
Day 3: Harbinger, Alligator River, Phelps
Before departing the OBX to rejoin my wife (who, unlike me, actually had to work this week!), I visited the Harbinger Exxon once more and, within 20 minutes of arriving, was honored by the appearance of the illustrious Golden-crowned Sparrow (another lifer). Thus satisfied, I departed without looking back and spent the next hour at Jennette’s Pier, where I had—you guessed it—four more Manx Shearwaters, a couple Razorbill, and the typical Scoter and Red-throated Loon movements.
Leaving the coast, I stopped by Alligator River NWR, where huge numbers of Northern Pintail occupied the impoundments, along with a few other species. On the long bridge across Alligator River, I watched (at 60 mph) a Merlin devour some hapless victim.
Finally, I spent an hour around midday at Pettigrew State Parks on Lake Phelps, where lots of swans, a modest group of Common Mergansers, Canvasbacks, and a few other ducks were visible from the boat ramp. The winter passerine activity was pretty good, including a group of four Purple Finches.
Overall, the trip was a great way to spend some involuntary time off work. Although finding 74, 82, and 65 species each day was fairly unremarkable, they totaled a respectable 120 species. And of these 120, 20 were ducks (my favorite!), and 2 were lifers (boosting my total to 342). While conditions for photography weren’t ideal, I managed to capture a few good shots of waterfowl at Pea Island (my first such attempt with the camera I acquired last February). I look forward to returning over President’s Day weekend in a month and a half. Until then, I’ll have to find something do to for the remainder of the government shutdown…