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OBX Kayak/Camping #5: Lookout, Shack

After a 2 year hiatus, my friend Jeff and I finally made it back down to Cape Lookout NS for another 4-day birding/fishing trip. Both my birding and his fishing were successful; I managed to see two somewhat unexpected lifers (and many other cool birds), and he caught some fish. Our playbook consisted of cruising up and down South Core Banks in his truck, kayaking around the sound, chilling and surf fishing on the beach, drinking cold beverages, eating good food, and camping in a palatial tent. We even made a day trip over to Shackleford Banks. It was a little cool and breezy most days; this cut into our paddling time, but gave me a good excuse to use my kayak motor, which was invaluable on this trip.

Day 1

We left the piedmont before dawn Wednesday morning. As we cruised through eastern NC, we saw a roadside Wild Turkey—no surprise, but still exciting. I’m not a hunter but really love game birds, including abundant ones like Wild Turkeys. Nothing against eagles, but I’m definitely in the Ben Franklin camp when it comes to our national symbol.

Once we got to Davis, we ferried our fully-loaded truck and kayak trailer across the Core Sound over to the Cape Lookout cabins. We made our plans on the fly, cruising the beach and scoping out a few options. The skies were sunny but the breeze was starting to pick up, so we abandoned any hopes of paddling the flats at the northern end of the island. Instead, we headed back towards the cabins, put in at Great Island Creek, and made a short paddle to the end of a saltmarsh peninsula that jutted out into the sound, where we posted up for the afternoon. The wind became intense and the birds all hunkered down, so I didn’t see much of interest beyond a lingering Northern Harrier and a few shorebirds. The non-avian wildlife was more interesting, including a Diamondback Terrapin hanging out in the water near the point. The fish also didn’t care about the wind, and the fishing was fantastic. Jeff hooked three handsome Red Drum (the first fed us for two nights, the second put up a better fight, and the third I got to bring in) plus a cantankerous Cownose Stingray, and we saw many more rays and some Mullet.

After a few hours, we headed back to the put-in less than a mile away. Well, I did, powered by my trolling motor. The waves and wind spray soaked me head to foot, but I made it back relatively quickly. This experience alone proved the worth of my kayak motor. I fared far better than Jeff, who kept getting smaller in my rearview, was blown off course, and ultimately made it back to the car in multiple stages. Manpower is no match for Mother Nature (but a motor might be)!

We made a short stop at a soundside beach near the cabins, where I sifted through a nice flock of larids (including a Lesser Black-backed Gull) and Jeff caught some bait fish. Then we headed south to stake out a home base. We found a nice campsite sheltered by a break in the dunes near a pine forest south of the lighthouse. We spent the late afternoon hanging out on the beach and surf fishing. Jeff hooked two sharks (I think Sandbar Sharks), one of which was almost 6 feet long, and I got to share the “pleasure” of bringing it in. Coming in aquatic animal neutral—without any bias towards bony fish—I thought this was at least as exciting as the drum from the sound. But I can see how the time and effort of bringing in and releasing a huge shark isn’t as exciting for someone with other aquatic targets in mind. Sort of like how seeing a Bald Eagle isn’t as interesting to me as getting good looks at an elusive marsh sparrow or a rare shorebird. It’s all about aspirations and expectations, I guess.

After a big drum dinner, we hunkered down in the tent for an early night. I managed to hear a Chuck-Will’s-Widow singing over the howling wind, but just barely. The wind was getting annoying.

Day 2

Thursday started out windy (surprise), so we postponed any kayaking plans. While Jeff fished the surf, I went on a 5-mile hike through the old lighthouse village, over to the sound/bight, and then back along the beach. The birding was pretty good. The village hosted a decent collection of passerines; a flock of Black Scoters lingered in the bight; various shorebirds (including some Wilson’s Plovers and Whimbrels) foraged the mudflats; I got nice comparisons of Eastern and Western Willets, both of which are present this time of year; and I picked out a couple young Northern Gannets in the distance. But the obvious highlight was one (or maybe two) Parasitic Jaeger(s) that flew across the point as I hiked back. Jaegers are badass.

After lunch, we headed back up the beach. I tried to keep track of all the shorebirds we passed, including at least 15 Whimbrels, close to 200 Sanderlings and Western Willets, and some American Oystercatchers. More interesting was a Common Nighthawk calling and flying over the cabins; this was a bit early for them to return to breed, and I wasn’t sure I’d see one during the trip. Glad to be wrong about that!

The breeze slackened around lunchtime, tempting me to kayak, so I did a one-way solo paddle from the dilapidated house back towards the cabins (5.5 miles). I say “paddled,” but the trip was almost entirely motorized. It was high tide, and I didn’t see anything remarkable bird-wise beyond an unidentified sharp-tailed sparrow that flushed as I portaged across a marsh island. Although the wind picked up during the trip, it was still a nice scenic cruise.

I joined back up with Jeff for some late afternoon beach chilling and surf fishing. The fishing wasn’t particularly productive, but our second helping of the Drum from Day 1 was a nice consolation come dinnertime. We called it a night as the sun set and the wind buffeted our tent, and I managed to hear at least 3 Chucks calling from the nearby pine woods.

Day 3

Friday was our best weather day, with sunny skies and less wind, so we capitalized and spent more time on the water than prior days. I put in at the lighthouse and made the half-mile trek across Barden’s Inlet to East Shackleford Banks. There was a bit of current with the falling tide, and I’ll admit it was a bit harrowing to paddle across the shallows right next to a 6’ shark and a school of Cownose Stingrays. But I managed it fine, even without my motor (Shackleford is just too shallow for it to be useful, especially at low tide). Once I arrived, it was well worth it. The east end of Shack is my favorite place in North Carolina, for various reasons. One is bird photography; this is simply the best place to photograph shorebirds from a kayak. I saw 16 species of shorebirds as I paddled up the tidal creek to the “hidden flats.” There were many Marbled Godwits near the creek mouth (one of my all-time favorite birds), plus a few Whimbrels. But it got better. About halfway up the creek, I FINALLY spotted the Bar-tailed Godwit that has been returning to Shack each fall since at least 2016. I’ve looked for it on 4 prior trips, without any luck until now. The bird was resplendent in its rich, rusty breeding plumage and was a delight to observe foraging for invertebrates. Where does this lonely wanderer go during the breeding season—back to Europe, where it belongs? Who knows. Anyway, on the way out, I also spotted a Long-billed Curlew (pretty difficult to find elsewhere in the state), and many other smaller shorebirds I won’t trouble you with. I didn’t run into any Reddish Egrets on this trip, but I did see a decent collection of other waders, including a Black-crowned Night-Heron. I also saw some Eastern Meadowlarks, a species that I somehow missed on South Core Banks, notwithstanding similar habitat.

Shack is a great spot for non-birds, too. The feral horses are impossible to miss. More interesting (to me) were the butterflies; as I hiked around the stunted forest, I found at least 35 Juniper Hairstreaks blanketing the Southern Red Cedar. This is close to the high count for this species in North Carolina, and I probably could have found dozens more if I had hiked a bit farther.

After lunch, Jeff joined me to fish in the tidal bay, where he caught lots of Mullet. Then we paddled back to South Core Banks, posted up near the point, and had a relaxing evening. The wind picked back up (surprise!), and I only heard one Chuck as the sun set.

Day 4

Our final full day began with a blessedly windless morning, and I finally got up before sunrise. I did a little nocturnal birding along the adjacent pine forest, where I heard at least 4 Chucks calling within a couple hundred yards. There must be dozens scattered throughout the pine woods stretching up to the lighthouse; maybe one day I’ll do a more thorough survey. As much as I love Chucks, even better (and far more unexpected) were two American Woodcocks! No nighthawks on the south end of the island, yet.

As the sky filled with color, I posted up on the beach for some pre-sunrise landscape photography. I made a few traditional images, but spent most of my time experimenting with what I call abstract impressionist seascapes. See what you think.

Saturday wasn’t as sunny as Friday, but it was even less windy. I can’t stress that enough. I have never, ever, seen the Atlantic Ocean so flat. As we cruised up the beach, we saw dozens of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins. I also spotted one or two big Bluefish jumping in the surf. Shorebird diversity was also pretty high on the beach. I could have hung out on the beach all day if I didn’t have an itch that still needed scratching.

So, Jeff and I parted ways, with me taking off to paddle the sound and him surf fishing. This worked out well for both of us; Jeff caught a bunch of Bluefish, and I had a great time birding the north end of the island—something I’d been wanting to do since Day 1.

I put in at the dilapidated house north of the cabins and headed up to Ophelia Inlet for a 9-mile round trip. I used the motor as much as I could, but the low tide meant I had to paddle and drag my boat across the shallow sand flats at the far northern end. I developed a pretty good system for quickly raising the motor when I hit sandbars, paddling a bit, and then dropping it back down once I hit deeper water.

The birding was great, rivaling Shackleford Banks. En route to the northern shallows, I stopped at a nice stretch of saltmarsh and saw the trifecta of marsh sparrows: Seaside, Nelson’s, and Saltmarsh—all in one place! One of the Nelson’s was singing and was very photo-cooperative, which was icing on the cake. As I paddled onward, the falling tide exposed a lot of interesting habitat, covered in shorebirds. I saw 17 species, including a Red Knot, a Piping Plover, a couple Wilson’s Plovers, and some Western Sandpipers in fresh breeding plumage. Lots of larids were present too, including a few hundred Black Skimmers and a handful of Gull-billed Terns, plus dozens of the ubiquitous Least Terns (which I’ve somehow neglected to mention until now).

After my paddle, I was treated to two stunning male Baltimore Orioles at the dilapidated house as I briefly waited for Jeff to pick me up. When he arrived, he said he thought he saw a pheasant as he turned down the long driveway to get me. Sure enough, as we made it back to the “main road,” there one was—a spectacular male Ring-necked Pheasant! This is a remnant of a barely self-sustaining population introduced many decades ago for hunting. Cape Lookout NS is basically the only place they still exist in the wild in North Carolina (and perhaps the entire Southeast). I had presumed they had all died off, as it’s been half a decade since any had been reported from the island. Glad I was wrong! Anyway, despite their origins, they still “count” as wild birds, and I certainly counted this one as a lifer (#441 overall, and #324 in NC).

A big storm was forecast to come through Saturday night. We had wisely decamped first thing in the morning, so we used Jeff’s truck as home base and found a good place to shelter near the cabins for the night. The storm wasn’t as bad as predicted, but it was still nice to be out of the tent and close to our departure point in the morning.

Day 5

We awoke on Sunday just before dawn to the sound of a Common Nighthawk overhead. The ferry boarded at 6:30 AM, and we were back in human civilization before we knew it, for better or worse (definitely worse).

I picked up a few more birds as we departed Davis (including a Eurasian Collared-Dove), bringing my trip total to 91 species. This is a decent count for barrier island birding, and reflected quality over quantity. There were definitely more birds than other types of animals (6 species of fish, maybe 5 leps, 2 mammals, 1 herp, and 0 odes); that’s one reason I like birding. I took over 1300 photos on the trip—again, mainly of birds—and some turned out pretty nice.

In addition to all my existing hobbies and interests, I left Cape Lookout with a renewed itch to take up saltwater fishing, something I’ve been thinking about for a couple years. We’ll see whether I add that to my plate…. Either way, I’m already looking forward to next year’s OBX paddle camping trip. We may switch it up and stay on North Core Banks (Portsmouth Island), which could be interesting.


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