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Sunset Beach Christmas

Updated: Mar 25

This year’s Christmas vacation was a bit shorter and closer to home than my typical Florida trips (examples: 2022, 2021, 2020 part 1 and part 2). My parents and I ventured back to our old stomping grounds at Sunset Beach, just north of the NC-SC border. In addition to good family time, we were graced by excellent weather and enjoyed a lot of nature time—the subject of this blog. The only disappointing part of the trip was fishing: I got skunked every day. This seems to be a trend on my winter fishing attempts….




I made it to the coast by mid-morning on Saturday. Before leaving the mainland, I made a quick stop at Twin Lakes. The freshwater ponds hosted an impressive array of ~150 ducks across 7 species, a dozen not-so-Common Gallinules, similar numbers of Black-crowned Night-Herons, and an Anhinga. The birds, plus a couple American Alligators, reminded me more of Florida’s (or at least South Carolina’s) fauna than what you’d normally see on the NC coast. Also present were several Southern Fox Squirrels—more on those later.


I checked in to our marshfront house around noon and walked around the neighborhood. A strange sound had me scratching my head until I saw a huge Scarlet Macaw perched a neighbor’s porch. Wild birds were abundant; the low tide attracted a big group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers to the marshy mudflats. The standard herons/egrets, Clapper Rails, and Northern Harriers were also present. Low tide also exposed hundreds or thousands of Eastern Oysters and Eastern Mudsnails.


After lunch on the Calabash waterfront, my parents and I took the scenic way back to the beach. We saw a bunch of Fox Squirrels on one of the local golf courses. Alas, I didn’t have my camera on me during this outing.


A nice kayak trip with my dad later in the afternoon (at high tide) featured a few Seaside Sparrows and no luck fishing. The sunset views of the marsh and ocean from our house were idyllic.




My dad and I made another marshy kayak trip Sunday morning (again at high tide). The weather was perfect, and the lack of wind made it easy to spot uncommon marsh sparrows, including at least 4 Seaside Sparrows, 2 Nelson’s Sparrows, and 3 more unidentified sharp-tailed sparrows. It was also nice to see a flyby Ruby-throated Hummingbird and some vocal Cooper’s Hawks.


Later in the morning, I brought my kayak back to the mainland for a short trip around Twin Lakes. Although the species list may have been similar to Florida, the birds behaved differently—flushing quickly and avoiding most of my attempts at photography (as a general rule, birds in Florida seem much more tolerant of humans). I still managed a few nice shots of various birds.


I had hoped to get some on-the-water gator photos, but the only one I saw was wary of my 14-foot boat and stuck to the shore.


After lunch, I took a driving tour around one of the local golf courses, in search of Fox Squirrel photo-ops. Squirrels get a bad rap, and I’ll admit that our standard Eastern Gray Squirrels aren’t my favorite animal of all time. But I am fascinated by Southern Fox Squirrels. They are big and badass, and come in multiple color morphs. Of the dozen or two I saw around Sunset Beach, they were split evenly between gray and black morphs. One particularly accommodating individual was mostly black, but may have been an intergrade form. I’m not entirely clear how the different color morphs of this species work.


We hung out on the beach Sunday evening, much like normal people do. My spotting scope was the only giveaway that I’m not entirely normal—whatever that means! I didn’t spot anything unusual in the surf, but it’s always nice to see Black Scoters, Northern Gannets, etc.


Monday (Christmas)


Christmas Day began with another glorious morning. Sunrise turned the marsh golden, and the birds were plentiful.


My dad and I made a short kayak trip out to a small island in the middle of the marsh. Although we saw the remains of past attempts at human habitation, it was obvious that deer and coyotes were the only mammals to set foot on the island for quite some time. There are few things I enjoy more than exploring wild, (relatively) untouched land. The island was home to impressive collections of lichen, prickly pear cactus, and lots of other interesting plants. It was also nice to see Atlantic Ribbed Mussels and Marsh Periwinkles along the adjacent marsh. 

Despite the arrival of clouds and wind, I made one last kayak voyage in the afternoon. This time I ventured out solo and covered more distance with the help of my trolling motor. I put in at the public boat launch on the mainland and cruised up the main tidal creek on the east side of the island. Low tide exposed enormous expanses of oysters and sandflats, attracting hundreds of shorebirds. Of the 7 species present, Short-billed Dowitchers were the most numerous, with at least 170 individuals. Although I made a substantial effort to find fish, I again came up empty handed. That’s why it’s nice to have 2 saltwater hobbies: the birding was good, even though the fishing wasn’t.

The wildlife highlight of the kayak ride was a pair of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins that approached fairly close to my boat. It’s always a treat to encounter these curious cousins while on the water.




We took off Sunday morning. A Bald Eagle joined my parents in seeing me off; I don’t think I’ve ever seen this species perch atop a house!


On my way home, I saw a Loggerhead Shrike near the town of Bladenboro—the only one I’ve seen in NC this year. That’s it for this year’s Christmas vacation!


Summary by the Numbers


I covered 350 miles by car, about 9 by kayak, and less than 1 mile on foot. I saw 80 bird species; 41 were new to my still-modest Brunswick County list, 1 was new for my year list, and 1 more was new to my NC year list. Comparing my overall year list (446 species worldwide in 2023) to my state year list (254 species in NC) shows how much I’ve traveled this year. And comparing my personal NC year list to the total number of birds reported by others (388 species in NC this year) sheds some light on my personal birding style: I cover a lot of ground, but I generally don’t chase far-flung rare birds, and I’ve never attempted a “big year.” This year’s numbers are also similar to prior years—averaging 248 species per year for the last 7 years, with a personal high of 268. OK, back to this trip: beyond birds, I also saw 4 species of mammals, 2 reptiles, 4 mollusks, 1 butterfly, and 1 grasshopper. That's it for this year's blog posts.


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