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OBX Waterfowling #6.1, Bears & Birds #2, & Washington

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Our last trip was a bit shorter than anticipated and didn’t quite sate my hunger for a coastal NC trip. So, mid-week, my wife and I concocted a nice “hybrid” adventure for another long weekend. By hybrid, I mean that it included a healthy mix of dedicated birding and non-birding activities—this is known as a “compromise” to the married folks out there. In both of our opinions, this was our best-executed hybrid trip to date.

I struggled with the title to this blog, as it was in part an OBX birding trip focused on waterfowl (like #1, #2, #3, #4.1, #4.2, #5), in part a replacement for the Dare Co. Rarity Roundup (which took a different form than the past two years, #1, #2), in part a bear-oriented trip (like this), and in part a trip to explore a new small town.

Day 1: Some biking, some birding

We left home Friday morning by 8:00 AM—well after sunrise, and significantly later than a dedicated OBX birding trip would begin. As we neared the coast, we made a last-minute stop at the J. Morgan Futch Gamelands to check out the waterfowl impoundments. I’ve passed the entrance countless times, but never stopped here before. It was worth a quick look. Although there weren’t any ducks present (yet?), we did see our first Tundra Swans of the year, along with good numbers of White Ibis, Dunlin, and Eastern Meadowlark.

Our main planned stop for the late morning/ early afternoon was Alligator River NWR. I’ve always struggled to find the most efficient way to explore this sprawling refuge. On foot, the birding can be a bit slow and monotonous, and you can only cover a fraction of the available territory. By car, trying to figure out the best places to stop and bird for 10 minutes leads to a choppy experience, and you miss the bird action between stops. I’ve always wanted to try biking the refuge as a happy medium. So, we brought our bikes on this trip and pedaled a 6.5-mile gravel/dirt loop on the east side of the refuge. Biking was indeed a great way to explore the refuge in a general sense, soaking in the different habitats—cultivated fields, weedy fields, swamp forest, pocosin swamp (we didn’t bike past any of the impoundments). Far more intimate than viewing from a car. But it was difficult to do any serious birding while biking (and my bike isn’t currently outfitted to carry all of my birding gear), so I’m not sure this is a perfect solution to my ARNWR exploration problems. As usual here, we struck out on seeing our target species (Black Bear and Rough-legged Hawk), but still had a great time. The weather was perfect, and we stopped for a picnic lunch along the way. My wife spotted a gigantic (~5”) caterpillar of a Banded Sphinx moth crossing the road—the biggest, and most striking, caterpillar either of us have ever seen. A few dragonflies and butterflies remained, capitalizing on the warm weather, but the most abundant invertebrates were grasshoppers. We saw dozens, maybe hundreds, most of which were 3-inch-long American Bird Grasshoppers (I think).

After heading to the OBX and setting up our tent at the Oregon Inlet Campground, we spent the afternoon hanging out on a small oceanfront fishing pier in South Nags Head that also featured a restaurant/bar—another spot I’ve surprisingly never visited on my numerous OBX trips. It’s hard to beat watching the birds cruise by over a beer or two! Our table’s name at the top of our bar tab was “Birdwatchers”! Next time I’ll have to remind them I’m actually a birder.

We enjoyed sunset at the Bodie Island lighthouse pond, a tradition I was glad to share with my wife (who rarely accompanies me on my bird-focused OBX trips). The duck numbers were still pretty low this early in the season, but the birdlife was still interesting. The highlight was an American Bittern seen in flight over the pond; I also heard a Virginia Rail, a probable King Rail, a few Clapper Rails, and a Sedge Wren amongst the many Marsh Wrens.

Dinner was served at my favorite local Mexican restaurant (another tradition I usually do alone), followed by a return to our campsite for a less-than-great night’s sleep (not entirely our fault).

Day 2: Lots of birding, and some bears

The morning started better than the night ended, and I was treated to a flyover American Pipit before we left the campsite. Our first stop was just a few miles away: Pea Island NWR. I wanted to try out my new lens—which involves a pace even slower than normal birding—so my wife split off and went on a hike while I stopped at various vantage points around North Pond. The number and diversity of ducks was far better here then Bodie island (~1000 individuals across 14 species), and included two (not-so-)Common Mergansers and a Canvasback.

But the highlight of the morning was a large group of American White Pelicans. Although they can usually be found on Pea Island, I don’t usually see them on North Pond, and certainly not in such numbers. Even better, they put on a spectacular show of synchronized feeding—something I don’t think I’ve every seen before, and certainly not so close. My wife rejoined just in time to see this spectacle.

After a quick (and successful) trip down to South Pond to find a Brant that another birder reported, we stopped by the old Coast Guard station on the south side of Oregon Inlet to look for recently-reported rarities like Purple Sandpiper and Snow Bunting. No luck there, but we did get intimate looks at a Merlin devouring some lesser avian prey, and I saw a Queen butterfly—the first reported in the OBX in over a decade!

Departing the coast, we picked up some Duck Donuts and other supplies, and once again headed to Alligator River NWR for a short picnic. Another birder spotted the Rough-legged Hawk soaring miles overhead while we were there, but I missed it, and so we moved on. Rare hawks at ARNWR are, in my repeated experience, beyond my luck level.

Our main destination for the afternoon was Lake Pungo (part of Pocosin Lakes NWR). With warm, sunny weather, our first item on the agenda was North Road—by bicycle—to look for bears. Success! We saw one crossing the road in front of us, and 8 more foraging in a harvested corn field, pretty far away. In case you didn’t know, this is the #1 spot to see bears in the state; far better than the better-known Alligator River or anywhere in the mountains.

After the bear-focused bike ride, we headed to the impoundments at the southwest corner of the lake for the sunset swan show. This is another tradition of mine, and a first for my wife. Although we were a few weeks too early to see the 100,000+ Snow Geese (we saw only 6), there were enough Tundra Swans to make it interesting (we saw roughly 1,000), and a distant Peregrine Falcon provided a momentary distraction from the waterfowl. With the sun setting over the fields behind us, the lighting was (as usual) perfect for swan photography, and I got a little carried away, as you can see below.

Night 2/ Day 3: Washington

Departing Pungo around dark, we headed to Washington to enjoy some civilization for our final leg of the trip (remember, this is a hybrid/compromise trip). I enjoy civilization as much as the next guy, but this is a nature blog, not a travel blog, so this part will be short.

Although I’ve driven through Washington countless times on the way to Mattamuskeet, I’d never actually set foot in it before this weekend. This historic waterfront town is situated at the headwaters of the Pamlico River. We dined at The Hackney—hands down the best dinner out we’ve had in recent memory, and a pretty darn good gin distillery too. We lodged at the Elmwood 1820 B&B Inn—my favorite of the three B&B’s we’ve visited this year. And in the morning , we walked around the neighborhoods, waterfront, and downtown, much as we did on our recent Edenton trip. By way of comparison, I’d say Edenton has more charm and is in better shape, but Washington clearly has the advantage on dining options.

Overall, this was a satisfying weekend getaway to the coast, with an ideal balance of birding and non-birding activities that both me and my wife could enjoy.


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