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OBX Kayak/Camping #7: South Core Banks

Updated: May 24

Me and Jeff headed down east for another installment of our annual OBX camping, kayaking, fishing, and birding trip. We’ve tried out various locations over the years; this year, we returned to South Core Banks (Cape Lookout). It’s really the best spot for this type of trip, for multiple reasons: ease of access by ferry; driveability (both beach and dune road); access to ice, gas, and bathrooms; several soundside kayak put-ins; unique features like including Cape Lookout point, the jetty, and the forested village and lighthouse area; and proximity to East Shackleford Banks.

 

We repeated the same activity formula for the first three days: mornings and afternoons kayak fishing the northern soundside marshes, then evenings at the southern point. We switched things up on our fourth and final full day (I went over to Shack).

 

The wildlife was as interesting as ever, with lots of birds and a variety of other animals. We spent a lot of time fishing, with limited results—lots of bluefish, but not much else.  We never brought home dinner, surviving on hotdogs, wraps, and rice.

 

The weather was a mixed bag; it was gloriously sunny and calm for parts of three days, but a bit breezy and cloudy for the rest of the trip, and a big weather system forced us to head home a day early.



Day 1 (Weds 4/17)

 

We set a new record for departure time this year, leaving my house at 3:30 AM. We made it to Davis by 7, and the ferry had us crossing Core Sound by 7:30 AM. This gave us a full day to enjoy the island.



The ferry dropped us off at the Great Island Cabins, around the middle of the 21-mile-long island. We spent the morning motor-kayaking the soundside marsh immediately north of the cabins (the north side of Great Island Bay and Fortin Bay). Conditions were great, with partly cloudy skies, temps in the 70s, and not too much wind. Fishing was the main objective. Jeff was more successful than I was; he caught a 30+ inch Red Drum (too big to keep) and several mid-size Bluefish. I got to reel in a big 30+ inch Bluefish he hooked up.



Of course, I also kept track of all the birds flying around the marsh. Highlights included a raft of lingering Red-breasted Mergansers and a Whimbrel. Other interesting animals included scores of Pleated Sea Squirts (a tunicate, a primitive chordate that’s more closely related to vertebrates than invertebrates) and the standard assortment of mollusks, including Atlantic Ribbed Mussel, Eastern Oyster, and Marsh Periwinkle, and Knobbed Whelk.



After lunch, the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. We headed south and set up camp in a washout about halfway between the cabins and the point. The location gave us the flexibility to head north to the cabins (near the best kayak put-ins and ice refills) or south to various other attractions. The surf near our cabins was pretty quiet, but it was nice to see a few Northern Gannets.

 

We spent the afternoon and evening cruising the beach and hanging out at Cape Lookout Point. We had the point almost all to ourselves. The point looks different every year. This year, the point was bisected by an inlet separating the accessible portion from another mile of sand extending out into the Atlantic. The inlet seemed like a prime spot for fishing; Jeff hooked a big shark, but we struck out on bony fish. As we started heading back, I saw the rarest bird of the trip: a Glaucous Gull. I’ve only seen this bird two other times (once in 2017, and once in 2019), so this was an exciting find. Also, on the back side of the point, we came across an enormous whale carcass. Though sad to see, it was awe-inspiring.


 

Day 2 (Thurs 4/18)

 

Day 2 started sunny, warm, and breezy. I stretched my legs around the campsite, admiring the Eastern Willets and Eastern Meadowlarks displaying in the dunes. I also saw a White-tailed Deer. I wonder how large the island’s population of deer is, when they arrived, and whether any make the 3+ mile swim to/from the mainland.



After breakfast, we drove back north for another full morning of kayak-based fishing in the sound. We put in a half mile north of the previous day’s launch and cruised up Great Island Creek (really a small bay). The bay was loaded with fish. Jeff caught some Bluefish; I had 4 unsuccessful Bluefish hookups; we saw some Redfish but didn’t hook any; and we also saw lots of stingrays. We spent a lot of time at Great Island Point; this was relaxing, but the fishing was a dud.



Notable bird sightings included a Northern Harrier, a pair of American Black Ducks, and some Seaside Sparrows. I also saw a couple Diamondback Terrapins, one of my favorite coastal animals. We ran into a group of researchers with the federal government that were surveying for terrapins. These were essentially the only non-fishermen we encountered the whole trip. Basically everyone that ferries over and camps on Lookout is there to fish. It’s an interesting crowd, with some interesting camping/fishing vehicles, like the converted schoolbus pictured below.



The breeze died down in the afternoon. (This was generally a good thing, but it also meant biting deer flies.) We spent the afternoon and evening on a road trip down to the point. We didn’t catch any fish, but the guy just down the beach from us brought in a nice Red Drum. I didn’t pay much attention to the birds, save for some Laughing Gulls dancing with the moon.

The most memorable part of the trip was watching the sun slowly set over the ocean. This was a rare treat, only possible on a few west-facing beaches in NC.



After an exciting night drive along the dune road, our campsite activities echoed those from the point: unproductive surf fishing mixed with celestial observation. Although neither Saturn nor Jupiter were visible this early in the night, my spotting scope offered incredibly detailed views of the moon’s heavily cratered surface. I also heard a Common Nighthawk flyover our campsite, a bit early in the season.



Day 3 (Fri 4/19)

 

The conditions on day 3 were rough, with overcast skies and a 20 mph wind. So, we took our time and enjoyed a low-key morning around the campsite. We made it out after noon, repeating our daily pattern of kayak fishing around the Great Island marshes (same bay as Day 2: Great Island Creek). I hooked up an Atlantic Stingray—my only new animal (lifer) of the trip—but other than that, the fishing was weak. The bay featured some other cool wildlife, including a Sedge Wren (new to my Carteret Co. list), another Diamondback Terrapin, and an unidentified snake (either Carolina Watersnake or Banded Watersnake).



 On our southbound journey back along the beach, we passed an incredible northbound stream of at least 4,500 Double-Crested Cormorants. It’s always exciting and humbling to see wildlife on the move in huge numbers. Also present were a handful of beached Common Loons, presumably waiting until the next high tide.



As the day progressed, the sun occasionally emerged. With the wind coming from the NE and slackening somewhat, conditions were decent for kayaking the jetty on the south side of the point. This was a unique and exciting open-water experience. Despite the apparently calm seas, piloting our kayaks around the jetty was a real challenge, with strong currents and swells much larger than they appeared from shore. Jeff landed (and released) a big Southern Flounder, rescuing an otherwise unproductive day fishing. I also saw a large and colorful Fiery Searcher beetle.



It was about dusk before we headed back to the campsite. We made a brief stop to hear a Chuck-will’s-widow singing near the lighthouse, then made another night drive home along the dune road.

 

Day 4 (Sat 4/20)

 

Day 4 involved a different rhythm than the three prior days. Jeff continued the fishing trend, but I broke off and focused more energy on birding and photography.

 

My day started with a drive down to the forest and village near the lighthouse, where I covered about 4 miles on foot. The weather was dismal (drizzling) and the bugs were prolific, but the birding was great. Highlights included a handful of Sedge Wrens, a few Baltimore Orioles, a Northern Waterthrush (rare on the island), some Swamp Sparrows, and a couple Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The last 3 species were new additions to my Carteret Co. list.



After briefly returning to camp, Jeff and I headed back south. On the drive, we saw our only Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins of the trip. They’re a lot easier to see when the surf is calm.

 

By mid-morning, the drizzle and clouds gave way to perfectly sunny skies and—even more importantly—almost no wind. I spent the rest of the day motor kayaking around East Shackleford Banks while Jeff surf fished and cruised around Lookout.

 

My journey got off to a good start. On the trip across the bight, I brought in a nice Bluefish while trolling a new topwater lure. Unfortunately, this was the only fish either Jeff or I caught all day. I had no luck fishing around Shack itself.



Over 6 hours, I witnessed nearly a full tide cycle, dropping as I arrived and rising before I headed back. The habitats around Shack change rapidly with the tides: partially submerged grassy marsh islands yield to massive sandflats and then to hundreds of acres of oyster beds. The shorebirds love this dynamic habitat, as do I! Although I didn’t find any particularly rare species (no Reddish Egrets, Long-billed Curlews, or Bar-tailed Godwit this time), the expected species were as numerous and diverse as always, including 17 species of shorebirds. The shifting habitats meant the shorebirds are constantly on the move, offering a variety of different photo opportunities. If anyone was disappointed with the lack of wildlife photos elsewhere in this blog, this section should make up for it.

 

My favorite photo subjects were, as usual, the Marbled Godwits that frequent this area.



I also got some fantastic images of Short-billed Dowitchers on the same ephemeral sandbar as the Godwits.



Both Piping Plovers and Wilson’s Plovers cooperated for photos, and I managed a couple shots of the ever-present and ever-goofy American Oystercatchers. Interestingly, there were more Western Willets (a winter visitor) than Eastern Willets (a summer breeding bird) on Shack.



Of course, no trip to Shack would be complete without mentioning the feral Horses, which were as abundant as ever.



After I rejoined Jeff back on South Core Banks, we cruised back north. We realized that the tire tracks on the dune road are so deep that it’s unnecessary to hold the wheel, even around most turns. It’s like a train on train tracks. It’s hard to beat the freedom of driving around a nearly deserted island; this is undoubtedly one of the best parts of these trips.

 

After a quick and unsuccessful fishing attempt near the Great Island cabins, we spent the rest of the evening at the campsite. The wildlife highlight was an impressive collection of shorebirds on the beach, including a flock of 26 Whimbrels. This was a personal high count for me; usually I see only single-digit numbers of this species. Another fly-by Common Nighthawk made for a good end to the day.


Day 5 (Sun 4/21)

 

We had originally planned to stay on the island a full 5 days and nights. However, a big storm system was forecast to come through on Sunday, so we made last-minute plans to grab an earlier ferry back. We got a little wet while packing up camp Sunday morning, but staying an entire day and night would’ve been a lot worse!

 

The final day included only one interesting wildlife encounter. As we approached the ferry dock at the Great Island cabins, I spotted a stunning male Ring-necked Pheasant in the roadside brush. The population introduced many decades ago for hunting is apparently doing well, and this is one of the only areas in the state where you can see naturalized wild populations of this interesting Asian gamebird. Interestingly, the last public report of this species from the island was from Jeff and my trip in 2021. That goes to show how few birders make it over to the island; like I said, it’s mostly fishermen.

 


We waited at the dock for a few hours before the ferry could squeeze us on, but we still made it back home before dark. Well, at least I did; Jeff had to drive a few more hours after dropping me off. Still, better than being trapped in a tent on an island during a day-long storm!

 

Summary by the Numbers

 

We drove 390 miles by car (paved roads) and 14 miles by ferry in order to reach and return from Lookout. Once there, we covered 124 miles by car (split roughly evenly between the beach and the dune road), 13 miles of kayaking, and I covered about 5 miles on foot.

 

I encountered 78 species of birds, including 18 taxa of shorebirds and 12 species of larids. Other vertebrates included 8 species of fish (caught 7), 3 species of mammals, 2 reptiles, and (maybe) 1 amphibian. Invertebrates included 7 arthropods (pretty weak insect showing this trip) and 5 species of mollusks. We also saw 1 tunicate.

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