Updated: Oct 1, 2020
This year’s Dare County Rarity Roundup didn’t feature any true rarities, but any coastal birding trip is a good birding trip! We spent more time on the eastern mainland than the coast proper, but this worked out well—I saw three new state birds and dozens of good species. Photography conditions were less than ideal, but I spiced things up with a rental lens (a prime 300mm f/4, with a 1.4x teleconverter).
Day 1: Mattamuskeet
A friend (an excellent birder) and I headed towards the coast a day before the roundup to check out some areas that aren’t in Dare County and which wouldn’t be officially covered by others over the course of the weekend. Our first stop was an impromptu pullover on Hwy 64 in Edgecombe County, where we were able to scope out a pond with a good assortment of waterfowl, including a Common Goldeneye, some Redheads, 7 other species of ducks, and our first swans of the trip.
Our next stop was similarly spontaneous, this time at a large flooded field off of Hwy 264 in Hyde County. The field hosted 6 species of shorebirds, including a late Pectoral Sandpiper, around two dozen Long-billed Dowitchers, and a Wilson’s Snipe.
Our third stop was planned: Mattamuskeet NWR, beginning at the south end of the causeway and the Wildlife Drive impoundments. The impoundments were filled with thousands of ducks across 9 species, with Northern Pintail being the most numerous. We picked out a Virginia Rail making the most bizarre call notes I’d ever heard—noises that were not in my field guide! Passerine birding was decent, including a cooperative Baltimore Oriole, a few Orange-crowned Warblers, and all 5 species of wren (most heard only). After Wildlife Drive, we headed to Lake Landing with not quite as much daylight as we’d have liked. This made duck ID difficult, but we still managed to see a decent assortment, including a few Greater Scaup. Wilson’s Snipe and Long-billed Dowitchers flushed from the flooded fields, where Virginia Rails and a well-heard King Rail called from cover. Our most surprising bird was a very pale Ipswich Savannah Sparrow, very uncommon inland.
Day 2: Roundup at Alligator River NWR
My friend, myself, and another piedmont birder (whom I was glad to meet) were assigned the western portion of Alligator River NWR as our Rarity Roundup territory. This was great, as I’ve never spent much time exploring ARNWR in any depth, nor given it the credit it deserves. It’s always just been a quick stop on the way to the outer banks—until this day.
We started birding Sawyer Lake Road by car, checking the many impoundments and occasionally stopping for passerines in the forested sections. The waterfowl were generally distant, but we tallied 11 different species of ducks; Pintails were again the most numerous, by far. We also had a small flock of Snow Geese flyover, as well as a Red-throated Loon. Passerines along Sawyer Lake Rd. included multiple Orange-crowned Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, a Baltimore Oriole, and a Rusty Blackbird. A very distant Peregrine began what would become a falcon trifecta.
After driving Sawyer Lake, we walked a portion of Laurel Bay Road headed eastbound. Our best bird was a flyover Trumpeter Swan, fairly easy to pick out among the Tundras flanking it! We also saw staggering numbers of Savannah Sparrows (>100) and a covey of Bobwhite quail before returning to our car.
The third phase of our day centered around River Road, on the far west side of the refuge. The main attraction was an overgrown wet field covered in a mix of grasses and perennial forbs ranging from two to four feet high (no idea what they were; there are regrettably large gaps in my native flora knowledge). This field was absolutely dripping with sparrows—predominantly Swamp Sparrows, but my friend also found both a Clay-colored Sparrow and a Lincoln’s Sparrow. It took me an embarrassingly long time to relocate these birds (both state birds for me; the Lincoln’s was NC bird #300!), but eventually the whole party got decent looks. Sedge Wrens were abundant and surprisingly friendly. Without any artificial stimulus (i.e., playing tape), one wren approached within three feet of me, perching on forbs and checking me out for nearly a minute as I silently gawked; this was probably the highlight of my day. In the same field, we also heard a Virginia Rail doing the same bizarre non-rail-like call that we heard back at Mattamuskeet the day before.
Other birds in the River Road area included numerous Eastern Meadowlarks, an American Pipit, a Merlin (completing the falcon trifecta; Kestrels were everywhere); and another covey of Northern Bobwhite. We also saw a few groups of hunters with bird dogs, as today (November 23) was the first day of quail season….
As the rain began (and did not stop) mid-afternoon, we checked a small impoundment near the intersection of River Road and Laurel Bay Road, where we added a few more shorebirds to our list. All in all, we ended up with 6 or 7 species, including well over 100 Long-billed Dowitchers scattered across the refuge.
Although we didn’t find any rare raptors or flycatchers, our party tallied a respectable 88 bird species at this single location (I observed 84), and I gained a much greater appreciation for the refuge’s potential.
After the roundup, we gathered for dinner, then circled up to tally all the species recorded by the various groups. Nothing super-rare turned up, but there were a couple more birds worth chasing the next day. After a half hour or so hanging out at the hotel (a birder’s version of a hotel party), other birders shared word that they had just relocated a Barn Owl over at Bodie Island. Within seconds, the entire group of two dozen or so began a mass evacuation from the hotel, piling into a caravan of cars. While ultimately unsuccessful, the chase was exciting at the time, and certainly made for a funny story after the fact.
Day 3: OBX
My friend and I spent the next morning birding a few coastal locations on the OBX proper. Our efforts were cut short by a harsh wind—far more inconvenient than the previous day’s light rain—but we made the best of our time. The sunny sky made for some better photo ops, at least.
Starting at the Nags Head Comfort Inn, we added some typical seabirds to the list, including hundreds of Northern Gannets. Our first real stop was the beach across from the Oregon Inlet marina, where we easily located two immature Iceland Gulls found earlier by other birders. They were extremely cooperative, offering close looks and photographs as they foraged in the surf. A Piping Plover also made a brief, but notable, visit (much more interesting than the nearby Sanderlings).
The second (and effectively final) stop was Pea Island NWR. PINWR is one of my favorite places to bird, and to photograph birds, and just to be, so I couldn’t resist a quick trip here before we headed home. At our first stop at the North Pond photo blind, we quickly relocated a continuing Eared Grebe (another state bird for me) within minutes. The other waterfowl were, as always, exceptional, including hundreds of Tundra Swan and thousands of ducks across 13 species, including a Eurasian Wigeon, thousands of Redhead (including a white-headed female), and a Canvasback. The American Avocets and Marbled Godwits complemented other more mundane shorebirds; the flock of American White Pelicans at New Field Pond didn’t disappoint; and we got great looks at an American Bittern flying in to land in some dense vegetation near the photo blind.
Although we tried a quick stop at the sparrow fields of ARNWR to relocate the birds we had found the day before, the wind made additional birding essentially pointless, so we headed home. All in all, another good rarity roundup and a good OBX trip.