Updated: Oct 31, 2022
My second coastal kayaking/ camping adventure of the year involved my go-to formula: two nights by myself on East Shackleford Banks. Similar to this year’s spring trip to North Core Banks, this trip featured not only excellent birding (and wildlife photography), but also excellent fishing. This was my first fishing trip with my own tackle, and a good trial-and-error learning experience. The weather made for a perfect fall trip: it was sunny, with highs in the 70s and lows around 60, and never more than a light breeze (well, until the last day).
I unintentionally woke up around 3:30 AM and figured I might as well hit the road instead of tossing and turning. This head start got me to the put-in at Harkers Island around 7:15 AM. It took a while to load a weekend’s worth of gear into my kayak, and I took a break or two to photograph Western and Least Sandpipers foraging in a grass puddle. A nearby Merlin was another good addition to the early-morning bird list.
The water was pretty calm as I slowly motored across Core Sound towards Shackleford. En route, I passed by the spoil island I call Pelican Island (I can’t find an official name anywhere)—as usual, it was loaded with hundreds of Brown Pelicans and smelled strongly of guano.
Sealife was unremarkable until I got to the back side of Morgan Island and stopped to untangle a mess of twisted fishing line (note to self: don’t troll a weedless spoon at max kayak speed without a swivel). Moments after I stopped, a large sea turtle surfaced 20 feet away from my kayak, taking a noisy breath before departing. I’m 90% sure it was a Loggerhead, but in theory it could have been a Green Sea Turtle.
I reached the sandflats on the northeast end of Shackleford Banks just as the tide began to fall. This is the ideal time for birding this area from a kayak, as groups of shorebirds leave their high tide roosts (some from the beach, some from origins unknown) to forage on the newly emerged sandflats, mudflats, grassflats, and oyster beds. Birding this area at high tide is pointless (it’s all underwater) and low tide is frustrating (it’s difficult to navigate, and the birds tend to spread out). I saw 15 species of shorebirds and a variety of waders; the most notable were a Long-billed Curlew and a Reddish Egret—rare birds, but not unexpected on Shackleford this time of year.
American Oystercatcher, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Piping Plover, and Wilson’s Plover were the silver-medal species of the day.
As you can probably tell, this is one of my all-time favorite places to photograph shorebirds, waders, and other birds.
The waters immediately around Shackleford were teeming with aquatic life. Early in the morning, a group of 8 Cownose Stingrays cruised along a submerged sandbar, right next to my kayak. (I’m glad I didn’t catch any rays while fishing.) My first fish of the day—hooked while photographing birds and trolling a paddletail—was an enormous (~16”) Inshore Lizardfish. Upon release, this bizarre fish buried itself in the sand to await a more digestible meal. As the tide went out, I moved to deeper channels surrounding the Island and landed a handsome little Bluefish while casting the paddletail. After I made my way into the bay near my eventual campsite, I also caught two nice sized Red Drum while sight casting from the shore. Either would’ve made several terrific meals, but I didn’t bring the equipment to clean and cook them, so both lived to swim another day. I also caught a small Pinfish, saw loads of Jumping Mullet, and saw an unidentified Needlefish. Apart from fish, I encountered a variety of marine invertebrates, including Eastern Oyster (ubiquitous), Marsh Periwinkle, Eastern Mudsnail, Atlantic Sand Fiddler Crab, an unidentified Hermit Crab, and several Pleated Sea Squirts (new for me).
By mid-afternoon, as the tide bottomed out and the sun peaked, I set up my tent, took a nap, and then hiked the island’s horse trails in search of terrestrial invertebrates. Of the 10 species of butterflies I encountered, Phaon Crescent, Long-tailed Skipper, and Eufala Skipper were the most interesting, though Gulf Fritillaries were undoubtedly the most beautiful. I also saw several dragonfly species, but nothing noteworthy from order odonata.
Most of my mental energy this afternoon was focused on order orthoptera; while hiking, I flushed hundreds of grasshoppers from the horse trails. I’m still learning these taxa, but I’m fairly sure the majority were Rusty Bird Grasshoppers, with Obscure Bird Grasshoppers in second place. Longhorn Band-winged Grasshoppers were fairly common and offered a nice comparison to a single Seaside Grasshopper. I also saw several (I think) Red-legged Grasshoppers. Not all the grasshoppers survived our encounter. Several that flushed collided with the webs of waiting Yellow Garden Spiders; some kicked their way free, but I watched a couple grasshoppers (and one cicada) taken and silk-wrapped by these impressive arachnids.
Feral horses were the only mammal I encountered on the island, and a Six-lined Racerunner was my best and only reptile. I also saw some birds, including Black-crowned Night-Heron, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Savannah Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and lots of Gray Catbirds.
I spent the late afternoon and evening relaxing at my campsite, eating a dehydrated meal, and photographing distant horses against the setting sun. The horses stayed away from my tent, so we were on good terms this trip.
Few things can match waking up at a campsite on East Shackleford Banks, surrounded by wildlife (and no people), with a full day of perfect weather to explore. Having a full day is the key, as the tides often dictate the adventure sequence. This weekend, high tide was at dawn and dusk, and low tide at noon.
That meant early morning was a good time to hike the island in search of migrant songbirds. I didn’t see anything rare; basically the same birds as the preceding afternoon (including a couple Black-crowned Night-Herons). I also searched the high tide shorebird flock on the beach, which included a sizeable group of Western Sandpipers. There weren’t many invertebrates active in the early morning, but I saw an Ornate Bella Moth, an unidentified Scaly Cricket, and several not-fully-identified Spotted Orbweavers.
I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon on the water, paddling (with an actual paddle, not a motor) and hanging out around the flats at the north end of the island. What a day! The cast of shorebird characters was similar to the preceding day, with the addition of a Whimbrel, at least 82 Marbled Godwits, and a second Long-billed Curlew.
I spent a considerable amount of time in waist-deep water photographing the second Curlew foraging on small fiddler crabs.
A pair of Cattle Egrets joined the Reddish Egret atop a small grassy marsh island early in the morning. It’s pretty wild to see these two species together in North Carolina! I spent some time studying the Reddish Egret. This species comes in two color morphs (dark and light). This individual looked like a classic dark morph, but it had several solid white feathers—one flight feather, three tail feathers, and some chin feathers. I’m not sure how that happens or how common it is.
Off the water, the raptors also made an impressive showing. I saw the falcon trifecta—Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, and American Kestrel—among other good birds like Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, and Osprey.
I spent the low-tide midafternoon hanging out on sandbars and fishing the deeper channels around the north end. I hooked three Summer Flounder—a big one while trolling a paddletail jig, and two small ones while casting. I also hooked another Lizardfish and a Pinfish. I saw lots of Jumping Mullet, a couple Red Drum (landed by another angler), a Needlefish, and an unidentified ray.
As the tide came in, I returned to my campsite and enjoyed another low-key evening. A Clapper Rail made an awkward flight into the rushes near my tent, but the horses kept their distance for the second night in a row.
I packed up camp and hit the water just before sunrise for the 3.7-mile journey back to my car.
A moderately strong headwind and choppy seas made me thankful for my trolling motor. Of course, I still stopped for several encounters with photogenic wildlife, including a White Ibis, a Great Egret, and a couple Piping Plovers and other shorebirds.
After arriving back at my car on Harkers Island, I was treated to a Marl Pennant perching right next to my car—a nice end to the trip!