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OBX Waterfowling #6.2

A friend and I had initially planned on big OBX adventure in January, complete with a pelagic birding trip, but we scrapped that plan earlier in January due to bird fatigue (among other reasons). Basically, I was birded-out from my recent Florida trip. However, a few days away from the 4-day MLK weekend, I regained the urge to hit the NC coast for at least one night, as my wife was heading out of town anyway. My friend was able to join the last-minute plans and we packed in two solid days of birding. The trip featured more rare bird chasing than usual. But the fact is, every trip to the OBX involves some amount of chasing. As I told another friend before the trip, I’d be happy if I saw half of my target birds. And that I did.

Day 1:

En route to the coast, I stopped by a farm in Williamston that has been generously hosting lots of birders, and a Vermilion Flycatcher (a southwestern vagrant), for a month or so. Almost as soon as I walked in, I got great looks at the bird with essentially no effort. (Other birders will appreciate how rare this is; perhaps even rarer than the bird itself!) Lifer #1, check.

Feeling good, I hit the road for another wild bird chase: a Black-throated Gray Warbler (another western species) that had been hanging around the north end of Manteo. This one took slightly more work, but after searching for about 20 minutes with a couple other birders, the bird appeared, right as my friend showed up. New state bird, check.

After going 2-for-2 on bird targets, I figured my bird luck was running out. Apparently not yet! Shortly after arriving at Jennette’s Pier to do some seawatching, my friend spotted a Dovekie sitting in the water not 50 yards away. Lifer #2, check! A few of these adorable alcids were chilling surprisingly close to the pier, along with plenty of other seabirds. We saw well over a hundred Razorbills, 5 not-so-Common Eiders, and a flock of Snow Geese flying over the ocean (perhaps the strangest sight). We also got close looks at a pod of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins.

And with that, our bird chasing luck finally ran out. A strong west wind developed by mid-day, so by the time we got to the Duck boardwalk to search for the MacGillivray’s Warbler and Ash-throated Flycatcher (more western birds), virtually every songbird was hunkered down out of sight. We did see a handful of American White Pelicans fly overhead, an uncommon sight this far north. Duck is a nice place, with much more charm than the strip mall paradise that blankets much of the OBX. I could probably convince my wife to join a trip to the OBX if we stayed in Duck.

The cold wind was nearly unbearable by the time we got to our final stop of the day. As we hiked along the rock jetty on the south side of Oregon Inlet, it threw sand at our face and threatened to knock us into the sea. And we couldn’t find any Purple Sandpipers (I’m batting 0 for 8 there). We did see some American Oystercatchers, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and thousands of cormorants streaming into the inlet. Huge movements of even the most common species are awe-inspiring and provided some consolation. Also a photogenic Willet.

And despite the windy ending, Day 1 was still a success. Starting the day with 3 wins under my belt took a lot of pressure off the rest of the trip.

Day 2:

On Sunday morning, I greeted sunrise from the oceanfront hotel deck, experimenting with my new landscape lens.

Day 2 began in earnest with a trip down to Pea Island’s North Pond, with an emphasis on photography. It was a beautiful day (if a bit cold and breezy), and the morning light hit the birds just right. There were far fewer ducks on the pond than usual (not a single Redhead!), but we still saw 15 different species, including 6 Canvasbacks and good comparisons of Lesser and Greater Scaup. A large group of at least 350 Snow Geese were also present (I don’t often see them on North Pond), plus the expected—but always exciting—American Avocets and American White Pelicans. And like I mentioned, we took a lot of photos.

First, a bunch of photos of ducks and non-ducks sitting on the water.

Second, more photos of non-ducks not sitting on the water.

After Pea Island, we attempted to ditch the wind by heading inland to Alligator River NWR. It was still fairly windy, and we struck out on the Rough-legged Hawk that’s been hanging around all winter (as I have on every trip), but we still enjoyed counting ducks on Sawyer Lake Rd. We even thought we were having a great time photographing a cooperative Orange-crowned Warbler, until ...

... my phone lit up with a Rare Bird Alert. RBAs are a gift and a curse. There’s always someone else seeing a better bird than you. FOMO is a big problem in the birding world. I expect that birding a few decades ago in blissful ignorance must have been a far more peaceful and intrinsically rewarding experience. But when you’re close by, and able to drop what you’re doing, I’ll admit it is pretty nice to have instantaneous knowledge of a rare bird’s whereabouts.

Anyway, this particular RBA compelled us to abandon our posts and scurry 45 minutes back to the banks. As we arrived at the Rodanthe pier, a flock of birders stood gawking at a subtly striking hen King Eider (a Queen Eider?) foraging under the pier pylons. I had wished aloud for one of these birds the previous day, but it was still a bit unexpected (not technically on my “target list” for the trip). These close range looks made for a very memorable experience. Lifer #3, check! We also saw at least one more Dovekie sitting in the surf, as well as some Razorbills.

At this point, I was content to call it a trip and head home. (I wisely decided it wasn’t worth the long trek down to Ocracoke to see the continuing Snowy Owl.) On the way back, I made one last stop at ARNWR, where I joined an impromptu assortment of other birders for a sunset vigil waiting for Short-eared Owls to emerge over the fields. We saw one (my first since 2017) and heard an American Woodcock and some Great Horned Owls. A nice finale to the trip!

Overall, the trip was short but sweet. I saw only 97 species of birds, but this included 19 different ducks, and, more importantly 3 lifers (new total=437) and 1 new state bird (new total=321). Although I have no complaints about the short format, I will say that I’d like to get back in the habit of doing a more extensive 3- or 4-day coastal birding trip at least once a year. Always something to look forward to!


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