Updated: Oct 1, 2020
A friend and I took an overnight late-spring kayak camping trip on the Roanoke river in northeastern NC. The experience was one of a kind, with warblers, Barred Owls, and Mississippi Kites everywhere!
Part 1: Sparrow Hunting
Although we left the piedmont before the crack of dawn in order to hit the water around daybreak, we decided to call an audible once we got into eastern NC and began an (inefficient but ultimately successful) attempt to locate the reclusive Henslow’s Sparrow. Any non-birders reading this may want to skip to the next chapter!
Henslow’s are well-established breeders in North Carolina, but are one of the most habitat-specific birds in the state and, accordingly, are almost impossible to find outside of several known locations managed specifically for the benefit of this species. Being a relatively casual birder not overly obsessed with my life list, I had never before made the effort to locate this species in the last 4 or 5 years I’ve been birding. But this year, I’m making an effort to get to know all of the species that reliably breed in the piedmont/coastal plain, and this is one of the few remaining species for me—the others include(d) Cerulean Warbler (not yet), Swainson’s Warbler (saw a few weeks before this trip), and Bachman’s Sparrow (saw the day after returning from this trip).
So anyway, Henslow’s are known to be found at an old Voice of America (VOA, the American government’s foreign media arm) site in eastern NC. The problem is, there are 3 old VOA sites in the same general area, and we didn’t exactly do the research beforehand to figure out which one was the right one (and we didn’t check eBird, because it was early and we weren’t thinking clearly). We first stopped at “VOA Site C,” which is now part of an ECU operation near Greenville. The site was an interesting but fairly homogenous carpet of early successional species that hadn’t seen a fire or a bushhog for at least 5 years. It was absolutely loaded with Yellow-breasted Chats and Field Sparrows (plus great looks at a Northern Bobwhite), but the habitat was way too overgrown for Henslow’s to find it attractive. So, we figured we had the wrong VOA site, and headed to the next one we found: VOA site B, on the other side of Greenville. Well, this site was basically nothing but open grassland with a handful of forbs, and it turned out to be even more of a dud than site C. Getting wise to the fact that there are 3 VOA sites in this area, each managed quite differently, we finally headed to VOA site A in Bear Grass. Upon arriving, we knew we had found the goldilocks habitat: the perfect mix of grasses, sedges, forbs, and a few woody plants at a very early stage of succession. Basically, C was overgrown, A was undergrown, but B was just right for Henslow’s. To get to the end of my long story, we ended up getting fantastic looks at a male Henslow’s singing about 15 feet from the road. Mission accomplished, we headed to Williamston to begin our paddling adventure on the Roanoke.
Part 2: Roanoke River Kayak Camping
We arrived at the WRC boat ramp in Williamston around noon, promptly unloaded our boats, and headed downstream. I’d never been on the Roanoke before, and despite having done a bit of research, wasn’t sure what to expect. At our port of departure, the Roanoke is a fairly wide river (50-100 yards across) with brown water, a slow but noticeable current, and a mix of hardwood swamp, bottomland forest, and a few fields defining its margins. We did more floating than paddling as we headed downstream, and were only bothered by a handful of boats all day. Notwithstanding the less-than-ideal mid-afternoon timing, birdsong still filled the air, and we racked up a pretty serious count of expected warblers (e.g., >86 American Redstarts and >56 Prothonotary Warblers) over our 6-mile float. The big birds also didn’t disappoint, with abundant Mississippi Kites (the true highlight of the trip), a few Anhingas, and a lot of Barred Owls. Interesting non-avian species included a Brown Watersnake (brief looks at this lifer), tracks from a Black Bear in the muddy riverbank, and an American Snout and Spike-crowned Clubtail that landed on my boat.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at our campsite: the Conine camping platform managed by Roanoke River Partners (https://www.roanokeriverpartners.org). What an amazing place to relax and camp! Nestled in a swampy forest about 20 yards off the river, this elevated platform featured a sizeable open deck as well as a 20x20’ screened-in porch. I’m not aware of any other river kayak camping accommodations this ideal in North Carolina.
After relaxing at the campsite in a bit, we took one last short paddle up Conine Creek, just across the river from the campsite. The creek offered a more intimate look at the almost-blackwater swamp adjacent to the river, and a good preview of the next day’s journey. We also had a flyover group of 4 White Ibis, unusual for this location. Heading back to the platform before sunset, we retired just after nightfall and studied a massive snapping turtle that hunkered down, almost invisible, in a small stream near our platform. A near-constant barrage of barred owls singing right on top of the platform made sleeping a challenge, but that’s hardly something to complain about.
Part 3: The Paddle Back
Dawn came Sunday morning, and with it another great morning of birding. We bid audieu to the campsite and began our journey home. So how do we get back to our car parked 6 miles upriver? Luckily, some friends with experience on the Roanoke had previously advised me that we’d be hard pressed to paddle straight up the river on the return journey. Instead, they said, various creeks that cut between wide, sweeping curves of the river might offer a more blackwater (i.e., low-current) journey between downstream river and upstream river. While a bit counterintuitive, the advice held true. I expect it’s because these blackwater creeks include drainage into expansive swamps, where the large volumes of upstream water were allowed to disperse slowly downstream over a large area, rather than being channeled through a narrow creek with a lot of current. Anyway, heeding this advice, I planned a triangle for our trip: downstream on the Roanoke from Williamston to Conine Creek (headed NE); upstream along the length of Conine Creek (headed W); then downstream on the Roanoke back to Williamston (headed SE). I’ve traced it out on a map below.
Executing the plan went off without any human-caused hitches. After an intimate encounter with a cooperative Brown Watersnake at the mouth of Conine Creek, we headed up the creek for about 3.5 miles against a relatively mild current. Early in our journey, we got soaked by a very severe thunderstorm, which we rode out on a narrow sliver of dry land in the swamp. Other than that, it was smooth sailing and we were serenaded by warblers, Mississippi Kites, Anhingas, and a perched Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. After rejoining the Roanoke River later in the morning, the birds seemed to quiet down, but our downriver journey nonetheless featured a pretty steady procession of songbirds. A Red-breasted Merganser was our rarest find, and a few more Mississippi Kites really secured their place as the most iconic bird species of this memorable trip. This more than made up for the lack of any of the rarer breeding warblers we had hoped to find (Ceruleans, Swainson’s, Kentucky, and Black-throated Green), all of which must have been just upriver or downriver from us!