I headed to Dare County this November for another “Rarity Roundup” bird count. Over a few days, I covered a variety of inland and coastal habitats and saw lots of birds (though few rarities).
I started my birding adventure Friday morning closer to home with one last trip to the local New Hope Creek mudflats on Jordan Lake. The birding there was top-notch, probably better than any single site at the coast later in the weekend. But that’s the subject of a different blog.
Once I arrived in Dare Co., I scouted various locations around Alligator River NWR—my sector for the next day’s count. In addition to several car stops, I made one trip on bicycle down Jackson Road, adjacent to the Navy’s bombing range. There are supposedly Red-cockaded Woodpeckers here, but I didn’t find any. The 12,000+ American Robins flying overhead and moving throughout the pine forest made detecting other birds difficult.
I set up my tent at the Oregon Inlet campground sometime after dark. This was tough without a headlamp, but I managed.
Saturday was the big day. Me and three other birders were assigned Alligator River NWR. It’s an enormous territory, so we initially split up to cover more ground. I began before dawn at a brackish marsh at the end of Point Peter Road. This was my second-favorite birding moment of the trip. It was primarily an auditory experience; I heard Great Horned Owls, Virginia Rails, and (I think) both King and Clapper Rails. Both Sedge and Marsh Wrens were present in large numbers, and I had one American Pipit flyover.
I spent the rest of the morning covering Laurel Bay Road by bike. I highly recommend birding by bike at ARNWR. You see and hear way more birds than birding by car, and you can cover way more ground than birding on foot. I didn’t find any rare birds on Laurel Bay’s 4-mile course through fields and swamp forest, but it was still a nice morning. Of the 40 species I encountered, the most interesting were 5 species of warblers, and the most numerous were another 2,500+ robins. On the way back, I checked out Beaver Road, where I found a Winter Wren, my fifth wren species of the day (Sedge, Marsh, Carolina, House, Winter). I’ve never had a 5-wren day before!
I eventually joined up with the rest of the ARNWR team. The wind started to pick up around noon, and we didn’t have any luck with songbirds on River Road. A trip down Sawyer Lake Road didn’t yield any rare raptors, but it was nice to see a Merlin. We also didn’t have any luck with waterfowl or shorebirds (save a pair of Wilson’s Snipe), as the normally flooded impoundments were dry.
Beyond birds, we saw a bunch of snakes on the refuge roads, including 3 Cottonmouths and 1 recently deceased Yellow Rat Snake.
I also spent some time photographing an inquisitive River Otter, common in the refuge’s canals.
By mid-afternoon, we called the bird count quits and headed our separate ways. I joined a bunch of other birders seawatching from Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. It was brutally windy. Bird highlights included 2 Long-tailed Ducks, at least 2 distant Parasitic Jaegers, and hundreds of Northern Gannets. A pod of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins also foraged near the pier.
After a fun dinner with the full Rarity Roundup crew, I returned to my campsite. Sleep was hard to come by. Temperatures were fine for camping, but the 20+ mph wind was unbearable. My rain fly made a racket and pulled free from the sand a couple times. Even worse, the wind collapsed my tent twice while I “slept,” with poles and tent wall crashing down on my face. Lesson learned: pay more attention to the wind forecast when deciding whether to camp.
Sunday was my day to chase down all the rarities found by others on the preceding day. No groups turned up anything truly rare, but several parties found Snow Buntings. I’ve tried to find this species basically every winter at the coast, but never had any success. (I’ve only seen them once before: at the very top of Scotland’s highest mountain.) This trip, I started my search in the dunes around the campground on the north side of Oregon Inlet. No luck. Next, I tried wandering the more extensive dunes on the south side of Oregon Inlet. Again, no luck. Shortly after I left, another birder located them in basically the same spot I’d been searching. So, I returned, and after another half-mile of wandering this otherworldly moonscape, a flock of 11 Snow Buntings landed right in front of me. I got some awesome photo ops as the highly mobile flock foraged around the area.
The south side of the inlet hosted numerous other birds, including a small flock of American Pipits, at least 20,000 Double-crested Cormorants, hundreds of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, lots of Black Scoters, a few Surf Scoters, and a big flock of Green-winged Teal.
The wind remained brutal throughout the morning, so I didn’t spend much time surveying the Pea Island impoundments. In between dune searches, I made one quick stop at South Pond. The highlight was a lone, distant, American Flamingo—a remnant from Hurricane Idalia (as discussed in this blog post). At least 13 species of waterfowl were also present, plus the normal large group of American Avocets.
Summary by the Numbers
I covered about 500 miles by car, 14 by bike, and about 3 on foot. I saw a lot of birds: 98 species and tens of thousands of individuals. One species (Snow Bunting) was new to my America list. I didn’t get any other new life, country, state, or county birds, but I added 3 species to my year list (up to 443 species for 2023 after this trip). Waterfowl diversity was already impressive by mid-November; I saw 17 species and likely missed a few more due to limited time spent birding on Pea Island. I also saw 4 species of mammals, 5 species of reptiles, and 5 species of butterflies.