Updated: Oct 1, 2020
I didn’t make any long birding sojourns to the coast this winter, but instead took a couple quick day and overnight trips in January and February that (mostly) sated my cravings for waterfowl and other coastal birds. Both trips were, for better or worse, somewhat target-oriented, with mixed results. This is why I don’t chase rare birds….
Trip 1, Day One and Only (1/2/20):
Fresh off the plane from California, with a few more days before I returned to work, I was forced to squeeze in a new years OBX trip to stave off any jealousy from the good ol’ Atlantic. Though exhausting, after a full day of birding and an equal number of hours of driving, a friend and I ended up with 75 species for the day, and I got one new state bird.
Our early morning departure landed us in the OBX around 8:30. We spent our first two hours (too long) in a rather unremarkable birding spot: the old Coast Guard station on the south side of Oregon inlet, unsuccessfully looking for an elusive Ash-throated Flycatcher that had been intermittently spotted over the previous few weeks. A handful of not-unexpected but interesting birds were present (e.g., Surf Scoter, American Oystercatcher), but overall this was an inauspicious start.
Luckily, we were able to turn the day around with multiple stops at Pea Island, which never disappoints. Starting with a roadside stop at South Pond, we had a good sampling of the ever-present waterfowl and large shorebirds (Avocet, Godwit) that make these impoundments so attractive (to birds, or humans?), plus a predictable-but-awesome American White Pelican. Although the duck numbers were a bit underwhelming, we tacked on more good ducks as we progressed north, including thousands of Redheads on New Field Pond, a continuing Eurasian Wigeon at the SW corner of North Pond, and a continuing Common Teal (Eurasian Green-winged Teal) at the photo blind. The last species was essentially a lifer, but is currently considered a subspecies of Green-winged Teal, so didn’t “count” for our life list, at least for now. Lots of Avocets (225) and a handful of other shorebirds were also present at the north end of North Pond.
We spent the lunch hour stomping around the salt flats just north of North Pond—something I’d never done before. Of interest, we had a Wilson’s Snipe, a couple Marsh Wrens, good looks at a Sedge Wren, and a handful of Sharp-tailed Sparrows (only one of which we were able to definitively ID as Nelson’s).
After lunch, we began our slow march back home, stopping first for a comically quick 10-minute stakeout at Alligator River NWR in hopes of seeing the Rough-legged Hawk observed occasionally throughout this winter. Unsurprisingly, no such luck, but we did see unbelievable numbers of Turkey Vultures—maybe 45 at once. Yeah, pretty sweet.
Pungo was our last stop. A few miles north of the refuge, we did an emergency pull-over to witness thousands (15,000?) of Snow Geese flying overhead and cycloning down to forage in a roadside field. Our timing couldn’t have been better, as we didn’t see a single one by the time we reached the actual refuge. Nonetheless, Pungo was as awesome as expected. On the drive in, we got amazing looks at 6 continuing Sandhill Cranes, identified by naked eye the second we stepped out of the car to look at the swans foraging in a field. What a great way to get a new state bird (and a major target bird for this trip)!
Also on the drive in, we sat in awe for 15 minutes as roughly 100,000 Red-winged Blackbirds (with maybe 1,000 Common Grackles mixed in) streamed by close overhead close in a veritable river of birds. Had they been Starlings, I would have been no less impressed.
The impoundment at the SW corner of Pungo was also pretty good; it held more shorebirds than waterfowl. Three Long-billed Dowitchers, an astounding 40 or so Wilson’s Snipe, and a few other shorebirds were present (and the Cranes landed towards sunset). As dusk settled in, hundreds of unidentifiable ducks flew by overhead. An Eastern Screech-Owl called, a worthy substitute for the previously-reported Barn Owl we couldn’t find. And that was that. The long, dark, drive home wasn’t fun, but the trip was an overall success, and a good start to the New Year.
Trip 2, Day 1 (2/16/20):
My second trip to the OBX in Mid-February was a two-day effort, this time solo. I tried to cover different territories than those visited in January, and ended up with one lifer and three other new Dare County birds.
Given my overnight plans, I wasn’t tempted to wake up unreasonably early. A bit after sunrise, I pulled over somewhere in Martin County to view a sizeable flock of Wild Turkeys foraging in a field off of US-64. If you don’t know where Martin County is, that’s not surprising, but I’ve got to say it has some interesting habitat (see my Roanoke River paddle camping trip for more details).
My first real stop was the Nags Head Wood Ecological Preserve. This expansive TNC property is shielded by towering dunes, allowing a rather large forest to thrive, the likes of which aren’t to be found elsewhere on the OBX. I’d never been there before, and figured this would be a good opportunity to pick up some landbirds I don’t usually see on an OBX trip. It was; I saw two new county birds (Fox Sparrow and Winter Wren), plus a decent assortment of other species and some interesting scenery as the mixed hardwood/pine forest blended with soundside salt marsh.
Next was Jennette’s Pier to scratch my seawatching itch, which went unfulfilled back in January. The conditions were PERFECT; sunny to partly cloudy skies with zero wind resulted in a still surf and visibility for miles. Three (not-so-) Common Eiders loafed very close to the pier, and three White-winged Scoters were out in the surf a bit farther off. But most of the good birds were hundreds to thousands of yards offshore. Moderate numbers of Black Scoters were headed south, but the birds heading north stole the show. I estimated roughly 850 Razorbills and 2500 Red-throated Loons passing by over the course of an hour. These numbers are probably conservative. Wow! It was a challenge to keep track of so many birds, and that night I ordered some tally counters on Amazon (which I still haven’t used).
After the seabird show, I spent the entire afternoon at Alligator River NWR, again hunting—unsuccessfully—for two more Ash-throated Flycatchers seen in recent weeks. Both birds were undoubtedly present, and I missed seeing one by about 30 seconds. Oh well. Although this seemed like the winter to see them in NC, with an unusual number of coastal records, maybe I’ll find one on my own next winter. I didn’t even try for the recent raptors. Overall, ARNWR was interesting, but far from spectacular. I saw a Spotted Turtle basking (among the Painted Turtles and Sliders); this was probably the most exciting animal overall. The best birds were probably a handful of Rusty Blackbirds, a Palm Warbler, a Hairy Woodpecker (county bird), a few ducks and swans, plus heard-only Barred and Great Horned Owls (no Short-eareds that I could see).
Speaking of owls, my last effort took me back to the OBX. I figured I’d give the Northern Saw-whet Owl that has overwintered at Bodie Island the last few years one last shot, (I’ve missed it on the last 4 or 5 attempts in prior years). This time, I had no trouble at all, and was treated to a nearly continuous 17-minute serenade of toots from this tiny, secretive owl, a long-expected lifer!
Ending on this high note, I ate a gourmet Taco Bell dinner and headed to my one-star hotel in Nags Head (the campsites aren’t open in winter, I’m getting too old to sleep in my car, and I’m still as stingy as ever despite my wife’s best efforts).
Trip 2, Day 2 (2/17/20):
I awoke at dawn to search for rails/bitterns at Bodie Island, without any real success (I did see some White-tailed Deer). A trip to the Oregon Inlet fishing center proved similarly unremarkable, with construction blocking off the prime birding spot. Luckily, Pea Island’s North Pond was predictably more interesting, and my favorite place to spend the early morning light. A group of 4 Snow Geese and a couple overwintering Blue-winged Teal complemented 9 other duck species, which were present in much smaller numbers than January. The massive flock of American Avocets (around 205) was as spectacular as always, and made the visit worthwhile.
By mid-morning, I joined a few other transient birders back at Jeannette’s pier for some more seawatching. A mild wind made the effort more challenging than the day before, and far fewer birds were on the move (during the half hour I observed). However, I was able to pick out two Manx Shearwaters heading south, a very nice (but not totally unexpected) treat.
My OBX craving satisfied, I headed back west for one more late-morning try for the flycatchers at Alligator River, again unsuccessful. A Merlin and an Orange-crowned Warbler were probably the best birds present.
My last stop was Lake Phelps (Pettigrew SP), where I wrapped up the trip with a single female (not-so-) Common Merganser; the huge flock of mergs was either too distant or already departed for the year. And zero Canvasbacks were to be seen.
All in all, it was a good, short trip, with an even 100 species (and remember, one lifer!). Although my OBX birdlust bubbled back to the surface a few weeks later, my two short January and February trips certainly helped satisfy my craving for coastal birds and biomes.