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OBX Summer Birding/Fishing

Against my normal inclinations, I’ve been visiting the coast during the tourist season more in recent years. I blame unpredictable rare bird sightings, along with my increasing interest in fishing. My second beach trip this summer (link to first) involved a two-night camping trip based out of Cape Hatteras. The specific targets this year included: (1) a Pacific Golden-Plover reported at Hatteras for a few weeks prior, and (2) kayak fishing around Oregon Inlet. Both were failures. Nonetheless, it was a fun trip, with lots of other good birding moments and a beautiful day on the water. And I eventually caught one fish.


Friday


As usual, I had trouble sleeping day-of, so I hit the road long before dawn. My first bird of the trip was a Wild Turkey on US-64 near Columbia. Before going purely coastal for the next couple days, I spent the morning kayaking Milltail Creek at Alligator River NWR. This was my second time on the creek; my first and only other time was with Jeff back in 2015 (as detailed in one of my earliest blog posts). This was a different stretch of water, but the cypress swamp had a similar prehistoric vibe. It was pretty quiet; I heard more frogs than birds—mostly Northern Green Frogs, with a few Southern Cricket Frogs and Carpenter Frogs. The best bird species included Wood Duck, Solitary Sandpiper, Anhinga, and Hooded Warbler; the latter three were new to my Dare Co. list. I was also surprised to see dozens of dragonflies on the wing under the cool, cloudy morning skies, though no species of interest. The calm was occasionally interrupted by military jets that quickly disappeared into the clouds. I can’t imagine flying in formation through such dense clouds! My own maneuverability was occasionally limited by grasses and other vegetation, so I didn’t go too far from the put-in.


I made it to the OBX by mid-morning. My first stop was the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, where I scoped out conditions for the next day’s kayak fishing adventure. While there, I enjoyed close looks at a Stilt Sandpiper continuing in a dumpy little 10x20 ft pond (another new county bird for me).


After crossing Basnight Bridge, I hiked the jetty on the south side of the inlet. I spent most of my time scanning a large flock of terns, searching in vain for a Roseate. This was good exercise for my tern ID skills, with several species present in an array of different plumages (summer, winter, molting, and juvenile). It was also nice to see a Piping Plover and a dozen Red Knots, among other shorebirds. Interestingly, all or nearly all the Willets were of the western subspecies, which apparently leave their breeding grounds fairly early. The most abundant animal species was Seaside Dragonlet; I saw at least 60 in the dunes. The friendliest animal was a Raccoon that posed for photos in the parking lot.


Next up was a quick stop at Pea Island’s South Pond. Most of the shorebirds were too far to ID, so I moved on after picking up a couple American Avocets.


I made it to Cape Hatteras by late afternoon. I don’t always make it this far down the Outer Banks, but two reasons made this my home base for the weekend: First, the Oregon Inlet campground was full, so this was the next best option. Second, a Pacific Golden-Plover has spent a few weeks each summer at Hatteras for the last several years. Although the bird was seen from 7/16 to 8/1 this year, I was three days late this year!


After searching for the plover (in vain) in the rain, I took a nap in the car during a particularly heavy downpour. When I woke up, nearly the entire campground was flooded, and the formerly shallow freshwater ponds were all full of water. There weren’t too many birds present, although it was nice to see a wet King Rail and a Black-crowned Night-Heron. A windy, drizzly walk out to Cape Point yielded a large group of 60+ Black Terns, some shorebirds (including Pectoral Sandpiper), and a few beached Common Loons, but no Roseate Terns.


During breaks from the rain, I managed to see a few good dragonflies, including Seaside Dragonlet, Four-spotted Pennant, Marl Pennant, and Halloween Pennant. Also present around Hatteras were White-tailed Deer, Eastern Cottontail, and Nutria.


The rain let up enough for me to set up my tent around dinner time. The campsite was unremarkable but for a nice group of Common Nighthawks (another county bird for me) and a neverending chorus of Fowler’s Toads, Green Treefrogs, and Squirrel Treefrogs. And … some campers playing obnoxious music well past my (early) bedtime. And … even more rain, some of which made it into my tent.


Overall, Friday was a bit of a wash, but not without some nice moments.


Saturday


The precipitation fortunately didn’t extend into Saturday. Cloudy skies in the morning gradually gave way to full sun and very little wind, making for a glorious day. This was important, as I spent most of the day on the water, ostensibly fishing.


En route to Oregon Inlet, I made a quick stop at South Pond, where the highlight was a dozen Black-necked Stilts.


I was on my kayak by 8:20, slowly motoring around the north side of the inlet. The tide was moving (at least in the morning) and the habitat seemed great for fish, with crustacean-covered bridge pylons, huge grassflats, sandy channels, and marshy tidal creeks, all right next to a major inlet. A fair amount of baitfish were present, including mullet (probably Striped Mullet), Striped Killifish, and a couple Pinfish. I also saw an unidentified ray. But I saw no predator fish, and I hooked a total of zero fish all day. Skunked! I had no luck with artificials, and my lazy-man approach of soaking cut mullet yielded nothing but crabs and huge globs of seagrass. Even worse, when crossing a rather fast-moving channel to reach a sandbar in the inlet, I somehow lost one of my rods. I feel terrible about the marine debris that got sucked out into the ocean. So, overall, my second motivator for this trip (fishing) was a bit of a bust.


I didn’t have much better luck with birds. The tide came in throughout the morning, covering up most of the interesting habitat. High tide is a boring time to look for birds on the water. Of the ~39 species I encountered, the most interesting was an unidentified Night-Heron (probably Yellow-Crowned), a Clapper Rail out in the open (plus many more heard), and a Seaside Sparrow.


I did see a lot of other wildlife around the inlet. The vertebrate highlights included a couple of Diamondback Terrapins, an unidentified watersnake (either Carolina or Banded), and a Muskrat cruising the saltwater marsh. Crustaceans included dozens of Thinstripe Hermit Crabs, followed by Atlantic Blue Crabs and an Atlantic Ghost Crab. Mollusks were well-represented by perhaps 100,000 Eastern Mudsnails, dozens of Marsh Periwinkles, and a fair number of Eastern Oysters on the bridge pylons. The only cnidarians I encountered were new to me: an unidentified species of sea nettle (meaner than your typical cannonball jelly). Insects were limited to a handful of dragonfly species.


I was off the water by 5 PM. When I got back to my Hatteras campsite, I did some birding around the ponds and beach. The conditions were much better than the previous day, but there still wasn’t too much to see. The best bird was an out-of-season Ruddy Duck on Salt Pond.


As the sun set behind the dunes, I positioned myself in the middle of an extraordinary insectivore feeding frenzy. Common Nighthawks, Barn Swallows, and Common Green Darners were in constant motion, swirling all around me. That, plus a music-free and rain-free night camping under the stars, was a nice way to end the day.


Sunday


The weather on Sunday was even better than Saturday. I enjoyed a gorgeous sunrise while birding and fishing on Salt Pond. Without much effort, I was able to land a small—but very handsome—Red Drum. So, at least the trip wasn’t a total loss in terms of fishing! The early morning birding was great. The highlight was a Least Bittern (another new one for my Dare Co. list), and I may have heard a King Rail and a Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron. I saw 7 species of odonates around Salt Pond; the best being Big Bluet, Marl Pennant, and Four-spotted Pennant, and Spot-winged Glider.


On my way out of town, I made one last survey of the Pea Island impoundments. There weren’t many birds to see on North Pond, but a quick stop at the photo blind yielded some great photo moments with dozens of Seaside Dragonlets.


After that, I headed home. The only thing notable about the drive was a Mississippi Kite over US-64 near Rocky Mount.


Summary by the Numbers


I drove about 640 miles, motor kayaked 4 or 5 miles, paddled another 2 or 3, and walked 1 or 2. Overall, not my most physically active trip.


I saw between 86 and 88 species of birds. 6 of those were new for my Dare Co. list, bringing me to 242 species. During this trip, my Dare County list eclipsed my home county (Chatham) list, then at 239. Of course, later in the summer, Chatham pulled ahead once again, only to be retaken by Dare in late September (the subject of a future blog post). If you haven’t guessed, this last bit of commentary is included for my own (future) benefit. I obviously don’t expect anyone else to care about my county bird lists.


Beyond birds, 14 species of odonates wasn’t bad. I basically ignored butterflies on this trip, something I find myself doing regrettably often. Maybe next year I’ll get back into leps. I saw 30 other species of animals.

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