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OBX Waterfowling #4.2 + Pelagic

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

A week after returning from the Florida everglades and keys, I headed to the Outer Banks for another weekend of birding. This was a relatively tame trip compared to some of my 4-day dawn-to-dusk OBX winter adventures, but that’s not a bad thing. On this trip, unlike most of my OBX trips, I was joined by a local friend and birder. We saw a lot of good birds—especially waterfowl—and had a great time aboard our first pelagic trip (deep-sea fishing for birds). I managed 3 lifers thanks to the pelagic, and 2 additional state birds seen onshore, a surprisingly good yield for an in-state weekend at this point in my birding journey. The weather wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t manage a lot of great photos (notwithstanding the 1500+ shots I rattled off), but I did manage a few interesting flight shots while offshore. If you want to see better pictures, check out my blog from last week.

Day 1 (Fri 2/15): “Classic” Pamlico-Albemarle and OBX Birding

We started the eastward drive just before dawn (a late start by my typical standards) and spent the morning checking a few stops along the Pamlico-Albemarle peninsula. First was the Beasley Road pond. A spectacle of at least 2000 Canada Geese took flight, and we may have seen a Cackling Goose or two in the mix, but not totally sure about that. Next up was Pettigrew State Park on Lake Phelps, where we had a couple flyby Common Mergansers (couldn’t locate the typical large flock(s) over the wind-chopped lake), a handful of Canvasback, and various other expected species. Finally, we dropped by the flooded fields on River Road at Alligator River NWR to see if any of the notable teal were sticking around, with no success (never have I spent so much time sifting through American Green-winged Teal in search of a Common Teal!).

After arriving on the OBX and grabbing lunch, we spent the afternoon birding Bodie and Pea Islands. We first checked the Oregon inlet marina, where a continuing Long-tailed Duck and White-winged Scoter complemented other typical species, including a mixed group of scaup that offered good comparisons between Greater and Lesser. We then scoped the south side of the inlet, in search of the previously-reported Harlequin Duck (to no avail), but did have some very distant looks at a continuing Common Eider and another Long-tailed Duck.

Onward to Pea Island. We stopped by the north dike of North Pond, the photo blind, the south dike of North Pond (with views of New Field pond), the north end of South Pond, and the roadside near the south end of South Pond. Did I miss anything? I was struck by how few ducks were present, especially compared to my early January and even mid-November visits this season. We saw a fair number of duck species (11) at the various impoundments, but the shorebirds were of more interest, in part due to their relative scarcity at all other locations we visited this trip. There was a huge assortment of shorebirds near the south end of South Pond, but lighting conditions and distance made for challenging IDs. Highlights included nearly 200 American Avocets, a handful of Marbled Godwits, some Long-billed Dowitchers, and other more common species. Also noteworthy were overwintering immature Black Skimmer (north end of North Pond) and American White Pelican (a group on new Field Pond, and one on South Pond).

Late in the afternoon, we headed back to Bodie Island, where we saw our first Northern Gannet for the trip at Coquina Beach. The lighthouse pond held a fair assortment of ducks, including a group of 100 or so Redhead, as well as one Hooded Merganser, our 21st duck species for the day (I’m not positive, but that may be a personal daily record for duck species). Also notable was our only Grey Ghost (adult male Northern Harrier) of the trip.

 

Day 2 (Sat 2/16): Wind Delay Day

Our pelagic trip was originally scheduled for Saturday, but strong winds forced a reschedule to Sunday. While this was ultimately very good news in terms of our pelagic experience, it was less ideal for our overall game plan Saturday. We had to figure out something to do. While this usually wouldn’t be a problem on the OBX, the wind was accompanied by a fair amount of rain—cold, windy rain—that stuck around most of the day and made the great outdoors a little less great. Nonetheless, we made the best of our time, as you’ll see if you keep reading.

Given that we were staying in Buxton, we were able to get over to Cape Point just after daybreak (on some trips, I have to skip this trip because it’s so far out of the way from the typical Nags Head/Pea Island locus). This was a good move: although though few seabirds were seen and not much was on Salt Pond, the gulls were prolific. Near the point, we got great looks at an immature Black-legged Kittiwake (state bird) and Glaucous Gull roosting on the beach with the thousands of other gulls. We somehow missed an Iceland Gull that was present at the same time, but that’s aright, as (spoiler alert) we caught up with one on Sunday.

Given the gloomy weather and the fact that we had already exhausted most of the best birding spots the day before, our travels the rest of the day were somewhat haphazard. We saw the continuing Common Gallinule along with 5 Canvasbacks at the Sea Vista Drive pond in Waves. We also rode the ferry over to Ocracoke, departing with a belly full of food and a bird list complemented by hundreds of Redhead and a Eurasian-collared Dove.

In addition to the birds, we also saw a Nutria and some White-tailed Deer at Salt Pond, and a rabbit (either cottontail or marsh) in Waves.

 

Day 3 (Sun 2/17): Pelagic

We arose a couple hours before the sun on Sunday, and made it to the Hatteras docks to begin our pelagic adventure aboard the Stormy Petrel II. The wind delay, while a minor inconvenience for our trip logistics, proved a major boon for our enjoyment of the pelagic itself. Instead of strong winds and hours of cold rain, we had a gentle breeze and an hour or two of sunlight followed by rainless clouds.

The pelagic exposed me to a whole different world: that of the open ocean, without sight of land. It was enthralling, a little unnerving, and undoubtedly humbling. Our trip took us from Hatteras Inlet, past the Diamond Shoals light station, and ultimately to the deep blue waters of the gulf stream, where the warm waters noticeably warmed the air. And although the swells were bigger than I expected (or at least bigger than I’d ever experienced), my breakfast and lunch stayed right where it was supposed to the entire time (a Scopolamine patch and Dramamine probably helped with that). Not all were so lucky.

For many of the 10 hours we spent on the water, it was nothing but gray skies and an endless expanse of green (or blue) sea (and, of course, the dutiful procession of gulls that followed the menhaden chum for the duration of our voyage). I wouldn’t necessarily describe these periods as monotonous, but they certainly made me appreciate the frenzied interruption caused by the arrival (and often rapid departure) of a pelagic wanderer.

The birding was great, and provided some interesting opportunities for photographing birds in flight. I took way too many pictures; most found the recycle bin. The constant procession of gulls that followed the boat made for an interesting study of plumage variation in immature Herring, Great Black-backed, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (maybe I’m a little better now than I was going into it?). As we passed through the nearshore waters at the beginning and end of our trip, Brown Pelicans and countless Northern Gannets joined the mix, the gannets offering another interesting study of age variation. There’s no substitute for a pelagic to appreciate the beauty of gannets up close and personal! We also encountered a few Razorbill sitting on the water (two of which cooperated for up-close looks), as well as numerous groups in flight throughout the day.

We had our most exciting pelagic species early in the morning, when a Great Skua cruised by fairly close to the boat and circled the area before departing back to the horizon. This was a lifer for me, and the ultimate target bird for many (most?) people aboard. But instead of calling it a successful day and turning back, we pushed onward. Two other noteworthy seabirds graced our presence: a Black-capped Petrel (lifer #2) that came pretty close, offering brief looks (I missed a second individual that flew by later), and an incredibly cooperative Manx Shearwater that put on a show around the boat for a solid minute or two. Late in the day, an immature Iceland Gull (lifer #3) joined the feeding gull flock behind the boat, and hung around for a half hour or so. I took 650 pictures of this single bird, which was admittedly excessive. A few shots turned out alright.

We saw few other marine creatures beyond the birds mentioned and some Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins. Nothing wrong with saving the excitement of whales and sea turtles for the next trip. I can’t wait to go back, maybe for a spring/summer trip this year. Our sage captain Brian and his crew were top-notch, and really made the trip what it was.

The downside of our delayed Sunday voyage materialized as we set foot on solid ground and had to begin the 5-hour sojourn back to the piedmont. But wait! On the front end of our drive, we managed a quick stop at the south end of Oregon Inlet, where we successfully saw the stunning male Harlequin Duck (state bird) that we had missed on the front end of the trip, but which had been reported earlier Sunday. Talk about icing on an already well-iced cake! This was our 23rd duck species for the trip (we missed Wood Duck and Surf Scoter somehow, as well as Common Goldeneye and Eurasian Wigeon).

After this brief but productive stop, it was back to the long drive into the sunset, and back to normal life. By normal life, I mean countless hours sifting through about 3,000 photographs and drafting two overly long blogs… Oh, and my loving wife, my job, and (believe it or not) a little bit of woodwork.

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