Updated: Jun 2, 2022
I most often explore the NC coast during the off-season, and often do it alone (e.g., #1, #2, #3). However, I’m not one to turn down a summer beach trip. Summer trips predictably feature more social time, but I usually manage to squeeze in some nature time too. As the pandemic waned and then waxed again in the summer of 2021, I managed three trips to the coast—one fishing trip, one family trip, and one work trip.
Part 1: Crystal Coast Fishing (5/19-5/21/21)
I took a couple days off work in late May to join my step-brother-in-law David for a fishing trip based out of Morehead/Atlantic Beach, my second trip to the Crystal Coast this year. This was my first dedicated saltwater fishing trip. I’m still really bad at posing for pictures with fish, so please forgive me.
I got in Wednesday night, and we hit the water relatively early Thursday morning. After gassing up, we ran into a local selling live bait and offering free advice. Both proved essential to our success. Based on the intel, we ditched our initial plan to try for Cobia in the Cape Lookout bight, and instead headed offshore to fish over an artificial reef created from a half dozen sunken ships. “Offshore” is a bit of an exaggeration; we were technically in “nearshore” waters, about 65 feet deep and 8 miles from land . The winds were calm, the sun was shining, the fish were biting. Barely 10 minutes after anchoring, David brought in a beautiful Red Snapper, which we released.
Next up was a shark or 10 (I lost count), some of which we brought up to the boat, but most of which made off with our tackle. I started to realize why some fishermen aren’t particularly fond of sharks, but I still admire their strength and tenacity. Sharks are badass, primitive monsters. (“Primitive” is more of a compliment than an insult; these animals evolved such a successful body plan 400 million years ago that they haven’t had a reason to change much since then.)
In addition to fish and sharks, our menhaden chum slick also attracted a half dozen Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (a lifer for me, though a relatively common bird out at sea). These robin-sized seabirds were captivating to watch as they danced on the water, picking morsels of prey from the surface.
Around lunchtime, we moved a few hundred yards to try our luck over a different wreck. Our chum was nearly depleted thanks to a mishap with the motor, so the storm-petrels became infrequent. But all was not lost: 5 Sooty Shearwaters flew by during the afternoon—another life bird!
The fishing here was just as good as the birding. David landed a Greater Amberjack, and then let me bring in a Cobia, our target fish! Both were keepers, and we harvested a lot of excellent meat. We also watched an 8’ Tiger Shark circling our boat near the surface. I wouldn’t have traded places with the scuba divers swimming a few hundred yards off; we obviously don’t fear the same things.
After a successful day out at sea, we made our way to the inshore waters off Atlantic Beach and trolled for Spanish Mackerel. We hooked two and brought one in, as well as an Inshore Lizardfish. A Parasitic Jaeger flew right by our boat, probably the closest I’ve ever been to one. Of course, I didn’t get my camera on it until it was flying away. Nice butt shots.
After a low-key night on Atlantic Beach (bird highlight: a Common Nighthawk flying by the house), I headed out first thing in the morning. On the way home, I stopped at two new places in Carteret County. First was the North River Wetlands Preserve, a former farm turned restored wetland managed by the NC Coastal Federation. It’s thousands of acres and only accessible on foot, so it was a long (and occasionally monotonous) 8+ mile hike, and I only covered a fraction of the property. Birdlife was dominated by farmland/successional species like Northern Bobwhites, Yellow-breasted Chats, Prairie Warblers, and a singing Dickcissel (they apparently breed here, quite rare in NC), plus some cool waders like Cattle Egrets, a Glossy Ibis, and a Black-crowned Nigh-Heron. I also saw a few Cottonmouths, plus a few leps and odes, including some Twin-spot Skippers (lifer butterflies) and a Seaside Dragonlet (surprisingly far from its salt marsh habitat, over 1/2 mile away).
My final stop of the trip was the Patsy Pond area within the Croatan NF, which is also managed by the NC Coastal Federation. This was an odonate-focused trip, and I saw a respectable 19 species (including 1 lifer), but I’ll save those details and photos for a separate blog post. The birds were decent for a hot afternoon visit, and included some longleaf pine specialists like Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Bachman’s Sparrows. I’m also fairly certain I flushed a Least Bittern, but it flew out of sight before I could get my bins on it. I stumbled across an astounding 39+ Six-lined Racerunners while I was there; they were enjoying the heat more than I was! After that, I headed home to enjoy the rest of the weekend with my wife.
Part 2: Debordieu Family Trip (6/4-6/6/21)
My wife and I left the Old North State for a weekend with my wife’s family on the SC coast. We saw some cool birds on the Friday morning drive, including a Loggerhead Shrike in Robeson County, NC, followed by a few Mississippi Kites in Marion County, SC. As we arrived at the coast, we had a nice lunch on the waterfront in Georgetown. Swimming underneath our table was a small American Alligator, along with a half dozen cooters and sliders and some Long-nosed Gar. After arriving at our beachfront rental on Debordieu Island, we took a drizzly hike on the beach. The Squirrel Treefrogs enjoyed the wet weather more than us; they were vocal throughout the afternoon (really, all weekend). We settled down for an early night after catching up with the fam.
On Saturday morning, I woke up before the others and hiked (walked?) the trails near the golf course and adjacent marshes. The birdlife was great: Mottled Ducks; a Wood Duck with a lone duckling (I have to assume gators got the rest); a couple Common Gallinules; multiple Least Bitterns (one of which cooperated for a photo); an assortment of wading birds feasting on American Eels; a small Great Blue Heron rookery with some young; a flyby Gull-billed Tern; a handful of Anhingas; some Painted Buntings, and many others. Besides birds, I saw a dozen young American Alligators, some turtles, frogs, rabbits, and rats (a good kind—native Hispid Cotton Rats), among other things.
My wife and I paddled about 5 miles of tidal creeks in the afternoon. Weather was a mix of sunshine and drizzle, par for the course this weekend. Nature highlights included a flyover Black-necked Stilt duo, a bunch of Clapper Rails and Green Herons (one of which was eating a Northern Puffer), a singing Seaside Sparrow, a Diamondback Terrapin, and a Regal Darner.
I spotted a Southern Fox Squirrel (posing right next to an Eastern Gray Squirrel) near the boat ramp on a visit later that afternoon. Closer towards evening, the young guys all headed out in my step-brother-in-law’s boat for another venture into the marsh. We struck out on Red Drum, but any time on a boat is a good time. After a fun shrimp dinner with the family, we called it a night.
On Sunday, I was inspired to explore the marshes by kayak again, this time alone and motor-powered. As I neared the inlet (about 3 miles from the put-in), I got absolutely drenched in a deluge. The storm eventually slackened, and occasionally even stopped, only to begin again. But the birding at the inlet was worth the soggy skin. I saw 13 taxa of shorebirds, including Black-necked Stilt (flyover), Wilson’s Plover, Red Knot, and others. The larids were good too, with big colonies of Black Skimmers and Least Terns and at least 9 (!) Gull-billed Terns. Common Nighthawks, Painted Buntings, and Seaside Sparrows rounded out the rainy trip.
After a nice lunch with the family at the beachside club, we departed for home. You know I can’t conclude a trip without some good road birds—this time it was a group of Cattle Egrets in Horry County, SC. And that was that.
Part 3: Atlantic Beach Work Trip (6/17-6/20/21)
My third trip to the Crystal Coast this year featured a 3-night Atlantic Beach work retreat with my wife’s office. On the way in, we stopped at Haywood Landing (part of Croatan NF) for a paddle on the White Oak River—a first for both of us. As rivers go, this one is pretty short from its swampy headwaters near Maysville to its estuarine outlet near Swansboro. The short length makes for a diverse array of habitats, and we’ll be sure to try a different segment next time. The Haywood Landing section we paddled was great; it was basically blackwater, 50 yards wide, fringed with swampy cypress forests and marshes covered in Sawgrass and Pickerelweed. In addition to the expected bird species, there were a decent number of butterflies; I saw a couple Palatka Skippers, a lifer and a new record for Jones County. Of the 14 odonate species I encountered, none were unexpected, but it was fun for my wife to hold a Prince Baskettail that I netted.
Once we arrived at Atlantic Beach, we had a nice drizzly beach walk, then spent the evening hanging out with the rest of the (small) office, a routine we repeated each night.
On Friday, we spent most of the morning kayaking around the Rachel Carson Reserve across from the Beaufort waterfront. This ~1000 acre island tucked back in the sound is a compact mix of vegetated dredge spoil islands, beaches, dunes, sandbars, mudflats, oyster beds, and salt marsh. It’s basically a miniature version of the nearby Shackleford Banks. Our 7-mile paddle around the western half of the preserve provided a nice mix of scenery and some interesting birds. The most surprising was a male Surf Scoter that presumably forgot to head north once winter ended. A couple Western Willets were similarly delayed in their northbound flights (I’m starting to pay more attention to the Eastern/Western Willet subspecies divide this year). Not unexpected but still quite a treat were Wilson’s Plovers; I counted 9, including 2 adorable hatchlings, the first I’d ever seen. Whimbrels, Red Knots, and other expected shorebird species were also present. Unleashed dogs kept flushing the shorebirds and the Least Tern colony at the eastern end of Bird Shoal, but most birds seemed to manage the disturbance okay. Clearly, not everyone visiting the island (by boat) has the same mindset.
Ok, a handful more nature notes: One, we got great looks at a cooperative Black-crowned Night-Heron, a first for my wife. Two, we quietly floated amidst at least 20 Diamondback Terrapins congregated in a marshy channel. Three, I saw a few coastal odes, including a Four-spotted Pennant and a Seaside Dragonlet. Four, I saw a Purple-brown Urchin and some unidentified fiddler crabs (marine invertebrates are a “next step” in my naturalist journey). Five, I might as well mention the famous feral horses. We were able to observe them in all phases of life—from a foal drinking its mother’s milk, to adults making the next generation. Last note, not about the wildlife: I got to really break in my new kayak paddle, a huge upgrade from my old one (which snapped the previous weekend).
After the paddle, we had lunch in Beaufort at the Moonraker, a great restaurant with a panoramic view of the town plus every inch of waterfront you could imagine (including the Rachel Carson Reserve, Beaufort Inlet, and basically everything else to the Atlantic). We spent the afternoon and evening back on AB hanging out with the crew on the beach and at the house.
On Saturday, the winds picked up a bit, so we ditched our kayaking plans and instead took a nice 3-mile hike through the marshes, maritime forests, and dunes at Fort Macon State Park. We got back to the fort just in time to see a live firing of one of the cannons, which was pretty cool. The heat was hot, so we headed indoors for our next adventure, this time to the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. It was packed full of people, but it was nice getting to know some of our local aquatic species that are typically out of sight, and too often out of mind.
After these two outings, it was rinse and repeat—more beach time and more socializing. Sunday brought a big group breakfast and a long drive home. Two weeks later, we were in Maine!