I don’t often visit the beach during summer, and when I do, it’s a different kind of trip than most might expect—well, unless you know me. This summer, I joined two birding friends (Mark and Jon; we need to find a Luke) on a bird-focused Gulf Stream voyage to look for birds (i.e., a “pelagic”). This was my third pelagic birding trip, and my first in the summer (see a summary of my winter trips here and here). The weekend was extremely productive from a birding standpoint, with 6 lifers. It also featured a wide variety of other wildlife, including a lot of coastal insects that were new to me. The first two days involved a nonstop marathon of birding and natural history pursuits, so bear with me on the lengthy, nerdy blog.
I headed to the coast after work on Thursday and camped at the Oregon Inlet Campground. After a dark pre-dawn shower, I squeezed in some morning birding before Jon & Mark arrived. My first destination was the Bodie Island lighthouse and pond—probably my favorite place to watch the sun rise over the OBX. The sunrise was particularly spectacular this morning, with a perfect reflection on the still waters of the pond.
The birding was okay; the best birds of the morning were a Great Horned Owl and a Black-crowned Night-Heron. Since I’ve never really birded the OBX during the summer, I also saw some common species that were new to my Dare County list: Blue Grosbeak and White-eyed Vireo. I also encountered a group of 5 Nutria, one of which was quite photogenic, brazenly showing off its distinctive orange teeth. I have mixed feeling about Nutria, a relatively disruptive exotic species. Insect life at Bodie was also interesting. I saw a Marsh Orbweaver (Neoscona pratensis)—a spider with very few recorded observations in NC. That was perhaps the rarest animal I encountered on the whole trip! I also saw at least 80 Seaside Dragonlets, many covered with early morning dew.
Next up was Run Hill SNA, a real gem of public land adjacent to the Nags Head Woods Preserve. This was my first trip to the SNA, and I had a blast exploring the area. The dunes were enormous covered by a mosaic of vegetation, windblown sand patterns, and the tracks of various animals (and windblown plants). The steep dunes met forest in dramatic transition zones—standing atop one dune, I could almost reach out and touch the tops of trees growing dozens of feet below. The geology within the forested zone was just as dynamic, with dramatic topography (imagine a forest built atop a hilly dune system) and scattered ponds.
The wildlife took a backseat to the scenery, but still offered some interest. The birding was similar to Bodie from a quality perspective; although I didn’t encounter anything rare, I added a couple more birds to my Dare Co. list (Field Sparrow and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher). The herps were more exciting. I nearly stepped on a Cottonmouth, then spent a relaxing photo session with a friendlier individual at one of the ponds. Other good herps included Eastern Box Turtle, Bronze Frog, and Southern Leopard Frog. Spiders were everywhere; the most exciting was a Golden Silk Spider, approaching the northern limit of its natural range. Other interesting invertebrates included lots of Needham’s Skimmers and several lifers: Black Stink Bug, Restless Bush Cricket, and Exoprosopa fasciata (a type of bee fly without a common name).
I made a quick stop at the adjacent Nags Head Woods Preserve, hoping to find some Duckweed Firetails (damselflies) on the duckweed-covered ponds. No luck with the damsels, but I did see some interesting insects nectaring on Spotted Horse Mint (Monarda punctata) at the reserve’s native pollinator garden. Lifers included: Brown-winged Striped Sweat Bee, Four-toothed Mason Wasp, and Tachytes guatemalensis (a type of square-headed wasp).
Heading south from Nags Head, I stopped for a hike (and a nap) at the Oregon Inlet jetty. Birding highlights included Spotted Sandpiper (new to my Dare Co. list) and a nice colony of Least and Common Terns, some of which were relatively recently hatched.
Around lunchtime, I finally met up with Jon at the north end of the North Pond at Pea Island NWR. Avian highlights included a Clapper Rail bathing in the nearby salt marsh, plus the following freshwater finds: a Black-necked Stilt, a Marbled Godwit, a couple Piping Plovers, and 9 other species of shorebirds. Nonavian highlights included a Six-lined Racerunner and more Seaside Dragonlets. A brief stop at South Pond yielded more Black-necked Stilts and a bunch of Black Simmers.
As the afternoon wore on, we checked into our motel in Buxton, joined by Mark. Then, more birding—in the rain! We made our first of three forays to the “Salt Pond” at Cape Hatteras NS. En route, we stopped at a few ponds and saw more Nutria, Yellow-bellied Sliders, Wood Ducks, and a Green Heron (another new Dare Co. bird). The main attraction—Salt Pond—featured a solid 43 species of birds, including White-rumped Sandpiper (county bird) and 14 other shorebird species. We also saw 13 species of gulls and terns, including a huge group of 40+ Black Terns (yet another county bird) and an untimely Bonaparte’s Gull (usually a winter visitor). Nonavian notables included a few Big Bluets and numerous Squirrel Treefrogs (heard-only).
After a very long day (for me at least), we grabbed tacos and called it an early night.
Saturday brought the raison d’être of the trip: an all-day pelagic birding boat ride, from Hatteras, through Hatteras Inlet, out to the Gulf Stream, and back. As previously mentioned, this was my first summer-season pelagic, so I was essentially guaranteed to see a number of new-for-me species that are only—but almost always—found in offshore waters this time of year. This took a lot of pressure off the trip; even if we had a comparatively crummy day in terms of rare birds, I was certain to come away with several lifers. As it happens, we had an excellent day in terms of both common and rare birds!
After an initial bout of rain at dawn, most of the trip was warm and mostly sunny, without much wind or swell. This made for a pleasant, sickness-free voyage. That said, some wind would’ve been welcome, both for comfort (it got hot) as well as birding (wind would’ve attracted more birds to our chum slick). As expected, there were large portions of the day where we didn’t see anything but ocean, punctuated by exciting bird encounters and occasional taggers-on that followed the boat. The heat, periods of inaction, and back pain led me to an excellent mid-afternoon nap in a bean bag chair on the top deck. You get the picture—on to the birds:
First, the common birds. We saw Great Shearwaters, Cory’s Shearwaters, and Audubon’s Shearwaters throughout the trip, usually in solos or small groups. Several Great Shearwaters (new for my US list, though I’d previously seen them in Canadian waters on a Maine trip) foraged in the boat’s chum slick for a while, offering the best photo ops of the trip.
Cory’s Shearwaters (lifer) were somewhat less photo-cooperative, but I was able to distinguish both Cory’s and Scopoli’s subspecies from photos of the underwing pattern.
The Audubon’s Shearwaters (another lifer) were cute in comparison to the two aforementioned bruisers; a couple came close enough for decent photos.
Black-capped Petrels (which I’d seen on my prior winter pelagics) put on a pretty good show. These tubenoses have a more badass vibe than the shearwaters.
Storm-petrels are probably my favorite pelagic bird family. I was happy to see not only several dozen Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, but also several (distant) Band-rumped Storm-Petrels (another lifer). I didn’t get many photos of these robin-sized seabirds this trip; to see these birds up-close, see this blog post from last year.
That covered most of my “easy” targets for the trip. Everything else was a bonus. First, we saw two species that were not unexpected, but also not guaranteed: Bridled Tern and Sooty Tern (both lifers). Distinguishing these two tropical species was much easier than I expected. The handful of Bridled Terns we saw had molted most of their head feathers and were considerably paler overall. We also saw a Bridled perched on flotsam—something Sootys apparently don’t do.
The Sooty Terns were more plentiful; we saw a couple dozen during the trip, including one big group foraging together. Most were adults, but we saw one chocolate-colored juvenile that circled the boat while vocalizing. This striking bird is my new favorite larid (gull/tern) species.
We also saw two relatively rare birds. First was a handsome adult Brown Booby foraging with the large group of Sooty Terns. This was the first adult I’d seen, and the also the first in its appropriate habitat (open ocean, as opposed to an inland reservoir).
Last but not least, my favorite bird of the trip was undoubtedly the White-tailed Tropicbird that appeared out of nowhere, circled the boat once, then departed into the horizon. This bird just looks like the tropics.
In addition to birds, we saw a variety of other pelagic life, including a pod of offshore Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, hundreds of flyingfish (several species, including Sailfin Flyingfish and a couple others I haven’t been able to identify), Common Dolphinfish (Mahi-mahi) hunting the aforementioned flyingfish, and a Cloudless Sulphur butterfly many miles from land! Others aboard the boat saw Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (!) and a large billfish, but I missed those.
After spending literally the entire day birding at sea, we decided to—you guessed it—spend the evening birding on land (after a brief dinner detour). We headed back to the Cape Hatteras Salt Pond for our second shorebird survey of the trip. Of the 16 species present, the best was an Upland Sandpiper (county bird), followed by a Long-billed Dowitcher and a Piping Plover. Nonavian encounters around Hatteras included: an unidentified ray jumping from the water, some White-tailed Deer, two Cottonmouths, a Fowler’s Toad, many Squirrel Treefrogs, Four-spotted Pennants, and an Obscure Bird Grasshopper.
Another long and rewarding day enjoying the natural world!
Given its close proximity to our motel (and its awesomeness), we made one final trip to Salt Pond on Sunday morning. We didn’t see anything new (beyond a second Upland Sandpiper), but it was fun photographing the birds seen previously.
Salt Pond also held a decent assortment of odonates; of 6 species present, I particularly enjoyed photographing a female Marl Pennant and a brilliant male Needham’s Skimmer.
After Salt Pond, we took a brief hike through Buxton Woods, an enormous and well-preserved maritime forest. We observed zero birds! However, as usual, there were several interesting invertebrates, including a Starbellied Orbweaver (lifer), a Golden Silk Spider, and a Common Wood-Nymph.
As temperatures climbed, we parted ways and headed back to the piedmont, where I spent the afternoon and evening writing this blog. Just kidding—I put off this writeup until late November!
Summary by the Numbers
Over the weekend, I traveled about 600 miles by car, 90 miles by boat, and several miles on foot.
I saw 96 species of birds, all in the Dare County outer banks (or offshore). This trip brought my life list to 469 species (6 new), my NC list to 347 (7 new), and my Dare County list to 236 (18 new). Although pelagics aren’t cheap, my dollar-to-lifer ratio was pretty good. I don’t think I’ll ever again see 6 lifers (or 7 new state birds) on any single trip within the state. Instead, future pelagic trips will likely involve hoping for 1 or 2 rarer birds.
Beyond birds, I saw a variety of new animals. I was able to identify 2 new fish species, with 2 other unidentified flyingfish that I might one day identify. One mammal species was sort of new, although offshore Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins are technically just a distinct population (not a distinct species or subspecies) from the familiar coastal population. Invertebrate lifers were plentiful—not surprising given that I’ve just started learning these taxa: 4 new bees/wasps, 2 new spiders, 1 new fly, 1 new bug, and 1 new cricket.