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OBX Kayak/Camping #4: Shackleford

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

COVID derailed my normal spring OBX paddle camping trip this year, so instead I took a solo overnight trip to East Shackleford Banks on the front end of Columbus Day weekend.

Leaving home super early, I hit the water at Harkers Island a bit before 8AM. An inconveniently oriented crosswind plus a fully-loaded kayak made for a challenging 3-mile journey across the sound. Basically, the wind and waves kept pushing disproportionately on my strongly keeled and heavily-weighted back end (like a car trying to put me into a tailspin), making it difficult to tack straight. But after a couple island hops, hundreds of Brown Pelicans, and a bit over an hour of travel time, I made it to the east end of Shackleford Banks with barely a spongeful (not a real word?) of water in my boat.

With the tide pretty low and beginning to rise, I poked around the exposed grassflats, oysterbeds, and sandbars that make this area so awesome. Definitely one of my favorite coastal places, period. The birds were everywhere, and within no time I stumbled across one of my targets: a Long-billed Curlew (quite rare in NC, but reliably found here). I saw 13 other species of shorebirds on this first survey, including lots of American Oystercatchers, a Wilson’s Plover, a single Marbled Godwit (a bit disappointing—see below), and a couple dozen Red Knots. The wading birds put on an equally strong showing, including a whopping 5 Reddish Egrets (a saltwater species more common on the Gulf Coast and Caribbean, but reliably found here). One of the five was an even-rarer white-morph bird, a “morph lifer” I’d never seen before. As you may have picked up from my other blogs, shorebirds and waders are two of my top three favorite bird groups, and among my favorite photo subjects.

Sidenote: This was my first dedicated birding trip since purchasing my new 300mm f/4 prime lens, and I had a great time burning through 900+ frames, some with and some without my 1.4x teleconverter (verdict: without is probably best).

As I circled the east side and headed into the “hidden flats,” I saw a few other good birds, including a nice mix of raptors: Osprey, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. Then, I set up my tent, ate some lunch, and took a much-needed nap.

I awoke to high tide—a very boring time to kayak around the submerged flats. So, instead, I spent an hour or two hiking the island. Horse trails weaved through the dunes, marshy areas, and shrubby vegetation, making for a nice walk through different habitats. Hundreds of shorebirds congregated on the beach, and a very cooperative Seaside Sparrow posed for some photos. The dunes, marshes and scrubby areas also held some interesting insects. Butterflies included more than a dozen Phaon Crescents (lifers, hard to find in NC), a flyby Long-tailed Skipper (my first in NC), Salt Marsh Skippers, Gulf Fritillaries, and other more common species. I didn’t see any unusual dragonflies or damselflies on this hike, but it was cool to see familiar species in a new environment, like Rambur’s Forktails on the beach. And, as predicted in my last blog on Lowcountry SC, I also took a dive into the world of orthoptera (grasshoppers etc.). On this Friday afternoon hike I saw Rusty Bird Grasshopper (lifer), Obscure Bird Grasshopper, and Coastal Toothpick Grasshopper (lifer). Perhaps the most surprising encounter was an Eastern Red Bat that flew overhead around 1 PM! And, yes, there were lots of the feral horses for which the island is famous.

As the tide headed back out, I took one more paddle trip around the east end of the island to check for shorebirds and waders. These birds were constantly on the move, shifting around as the tide exposed more ideal foraging spots, so I figured there was a chance of finding some additional species not seen in the morning. I didn’t see anything unusual, but did get a lot more great photo opportunities of Reddish Egrets and others.

Come sunset, I chowed on a warm meal over my cookstove, serenaded by Clapper Rails and Black-crowned Night-Herons. Then, it was off to bed for an early, and surprisingly restful, night sleep.

As with many camping trips, Saturday morning began with a scramble to set up my tent cover to fend off some unanticipated precipitation. The rain was light and didn’t last long, and I was able to enjoy the gray dawn from my boat. The tide was low, and remained low for hours, exposing lots of interesting habitat as I headed west along the north side of the island. Too much interesting habitat isn’t always a good thing, as the shorebirds had more room to spread out, but I still found some good ones, including a Piping Plover (federally endangered) and a Spotted Sandpiper (not rare, but a bit late on its journey south). At one point, while I was photographing side-by-side dark and light morph Reddish Egrets, a Peregrine Falcon buzzed my kayak in an unsuccessful pursuit of shorebirds. I was too shocked to get my camera up in time, but did get some photos as it nursed its pride on the oysterbeds. As the tide came back in, and after 7 miles of paddling, I headed back to my campsite to contemplate next steps.

My decision to stay another night, or for another tide cycle, or to head back immediately hinged on one of my as-yet-unfulfilled desires: finding the Bar-tailed Godwit seen here earlier in the week. This European species is rarely seen on the East Coast, but for the last 5 or so years, the same individual has spent the winter on East Shackleford Banks. It usually associates with a large flock of Marbled Godwits, which, despite hours of searching, I was unable to locate on this trip (I never saw more than a handful or two at once). Ultimately, I decided to let it go, and save that bird for another trip.

Before departing, I stretched my legs on a final hike, which added a bit of diversity to my wildlife diet. Most notable were two Eufala Skippers (lifer butterflies) and a Marl Pennant (a fairly rare dragonfly, and my first in NC). I photographed what I’m pretty sure is a Longhorned Band-winged Grasshopper and a possible Migratory Grasshopper (I’ve still got a lot to learn about orthoptera). I also saw a large buck Eastern White-tailed Deer, and a couple Six-lined Racerunners. I always wonder how such wingless animals made it to islands like Shackleford, well-separated from the mainland. The horses, we brought. But the rest (or their ancestors) must have had a long swim.

I’m sure glad I didn’t have to swim back to the mainland. On the way out, I grabbed a few last photos of some waders, then stowed my camera in its dry bag before I hit the deep water. Now, the 3-mile paddle back was easier than the paddle there, mainly owing to a tailwind. But in a few places—especially once I got close to Harkers Island—the surf was pretty rough, with competing winds and currents making big wavefields, and I had to really fight to stay upright. I eventually made it back to dry land unscathed, and started the journey westward.

One option—still on the table—was to camp one more night somewhere in the area before returning home on Sunday. I decided to try the Croatan National Forest—specifically, some waterfowl impoundments near Catfish Lake. What a disappointment. The wetlands were dry, and there were few birds, butterflies, or dragonflies of any interest. So, I cut my losses and headed home for a dark, rainy drive. At the time, I really regretted leaving Shackleford, but the next morning brought downpours on the coast, which are much better experienced from a radar screen than from under a tent, 3 miles from the mainland. Still, I can’t wait to go back, and maybe I’ll squeeze in one more trip this year to search for that elusive Godwit.


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