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Flamingos in NC?!?!

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Yes, there are/were flamingos in NC. American Flamingos, to be precise, blown up from the Yucatan or Cuba by Hurricane Idalia.

Non-birders (or, “normal people” as my wife calls them) may not be aware how exciting hurricanes can be. I don’t mean to trivialize the damage hurricanes cause, but I do want to highlight a silver lining: Hurricanes often sweep up coastal and offshore species and deposit them far inland, usually over large reservoirs. For example, on Jordan Lake, I’ve personally seen Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Parasitic Jaeger, Sandwich Tern, and Royal Tern—something that would be impossible without hurricanes. Of course, the birds that are blown off-course probably don’t consider this a silver lining, and I’m sure some lose their lives either to the storm or the return journey. But let’s focus on the positives: this year, it was American Flamingos!

Flamingos ended up everywhere in Hurricane Idalia’s wake. If you want to see a map of all the sightings, check out this site. I’m not sure about the total number of displaced flamingos, but it was likely more than 100. Florida obviously got the lion’s share. Alabama got a few, Louisiana got one, and Texas got a handful. On the Atlantic Coast, flamingos extended all the way up to Virginia. The inland records were even more extraordinary, with big pink birds appearing in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even Wisconsin! North Carolina got a solid deal, with up to 17 seen at once. According to the bird police, this is the first time flamingos have ever naturally arrived in North Carolina. And as of blog drafting (nearly a month later), they’re still on the OBX!

So, naturally, I had to see these birds. They were reported on Friday, and I had the day off work. But did I go? No. Why not? Because I don’t chase birds that are more than 30 minutes away. It’s a rule designed to protect my sanity as well as my marriage. But there’s a big difference between dropping what you’re doing to chase a bird halfway across the state—that’s called “twitching”—and a planned-in-advance day trip to see some good birds at the coast. I’m not sure what the latter is called, but it’s what me and my friend Jon did on Monday.

We got to the coast by mid-morning. Pea Island was littered with hundreds of cars on both sides of the road. Apparently these people weren’t there for the flamingos, but instead for surfing. Go figure. We parked just north of New Inlet and joined my friend Mark and some other birders atop the dunes (yes, climbing dunes is permitted here). From the dune, we were able to pick out 11 flamingo-shaped blobs in the Pamlico Sound—3 pink adults and 8 black-and-white juveniles. They were about a half-mile away, so the looks we got through the scope left something to be desired. That’s why I brought the kayaks.

Before we hit the water, Mark, Jon, and I checked the impoundments at South Pond, New Field Pond, and North Pond. The water was high (owing to the recent hurricane), so there weren’t many birds. We saw a handful of ducks (including Northern Pintails and Blue-winged Teals), a few shorebirds (including some Marbled Godwits and American Avocets), and a couple Mute Swans (a new Dare Co. bird for me).

After that, Jon and I got in the kayaks and made a short paddle along the marsh to get a better vantage of the flamingos. It was an indescribably richer experience than the distant dune box-checking exercise. We slowly inched to within about 40 yards of the flamingos, mindful of their behavior and very careful not to disturb or flush them. During the hour we shared with them in the sound, the birds spent most of the time resting, occasionally waking up to preen, walk around, and interact. This was one of my most memorable birding experiences to date.

The weather was perfect (sunny skies and almost no wind), but it was high tide, so we didn’t see many other birds in the sound. Non-flamingo highlights included Black Terns, a Red Knot, and a Whimbrel (another new county bird).

We capped off the trip with an underwhelming beach walk. Although it was cool to see hundreds of Sandwich Terns and Black Skimmers, it took a bit more effort than it was worth. It’s all about expectations, I guess, and flamingos are hard to top!

With that, we drove back home. I spent twice as much time behind the wheel (9 hours) as birding (4.5 hours), but hey—better a long day trip than a twitch, right?


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