I used to call my annual winter birding trips “waterfowling” trips, since the main draw to the coast in the winter is the incredible numbers and diversity of waterfowl (my favorite family of birds). This year, my two late-winter trips were less fowl-focused. First was a mostly successful half-day bluebird chase at Wrightsville Beach. Second was a three-day OBX trip with a pelagic (deep sea birding cruise) thrown in. The latter was especially memorable. Where else can you see Black Bear, Humpback Whale, and record-setting numbers of alcids in one weekend?
Part 1: Wrightsville Chasing
I’m a serious birder, but not so serious that I’ll drop what I’m doing to chase a rare bird found halfway across the state (called “twitching” in the birding community). My personal rule—built for personal sanity and marital harmony—is to avoid chasing birds more than half an hour away from home. But rules exist to be broken, right?
On Friday 2/11/22, a friend of my friend found a Mountain Bluebird at Wrightsville Beach. This was only the second state record of this western species, and the first one documented with photos. As the word spread, birders quite literally flocked to Wrightsville to see the bird. I had some FOMO, but was fine sitting this one out. But then, on Saturday, some of the flocking birders found another, significantly more interesting, bird: an adult Heermann’s Gull, arguably the most handsome of all American gulls, and a first state record for NC. This is commonly called the “Patagonia Picnic Table effect.” Anyway, the Heermann’s tipped the scales, and I made some last-minute plans to visit the next day.
I arrived at Mason Inlet, the last known location of the Heermann’s, just after “sunrise” on Sunday. “Sunrise” is in quotes because I never saw the sun; it was overcast and/or lightly raining all day. The Heermann’s didn’t like the weather, either, and was nowhere to be found, to the disappointment of myself and many other birders. However, there were many other birds at the inlet, which is always a spectacular place to visit.
My second chase of the morning involved a soundside parking lot near a kayak rental and an abandoned building. I saw the famed Mountain Bluebird before I even set foot in the parking lot. State bird #330! As it turns out, my success was inversely proportional to the beauty of the surroundings (beautiful Mason inlet: no rare bird; crappy parking lot: rare bird). Batting .500 on a rare bird chase is pretty typical, and I’d like to think it depends more on the bird’s whims than personal merit. Here, the Heerman’s wasn’t ever seen again at Wrightsville, where as the bluebird stuck around that same parking lot for weeks.
Freed from the stress of chasing rare birds, I spent the rest of the morning enjoying some no-pressure Wrightsville birding. First was a quick stop at Johnny Mercer’s Pier. The sea was dead flat, offering great viewing conditions of birds (and Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins) on the water. While there, I spotted a lone Razorbill and the continuing Long-tailed Duck.
Next (and last) was Masonboro Inlet, where I had a fantastic time watching 6 (!) more Long-Tailed Ducks, at least 27 Purple Sandpipers, and 2 Great Cormorants, among the more common species.
I was back on the road before noon, and arrived home in time to join my wife and friends for a Super Bowl party. Not too shabby for a half-day chase!
Part 2: OBX Birding
In late February, my friend Mark and I made what I consider an obligatory winter sojourn to the OBX in search of birds. Yes, waterfowl were (and always will be) a big part of the trip, but it was pretty late in the season and we didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on fowl. Here’s the 3-day rundown:
Day 1: Mainland Hyde & Dare Counties
We left well before dawn on Friday, and spent basically all day birding the Pamlico-Albemarle peninsula. Our first interesting bird was a Eurasian Collared-Dove just down the road from Lake Mattamuskeet NWR. Despite the waning season, thousands of ducks and swans (of 11 species) still filled the refuge’s main impoundment. Gadwall were the most numerous, followed by Tundra Swans and Northern Shovelers. The road leading to the boat ramp also held a nice flock of singing Rusty Blackbirds (I’ve rarely heard them sing), plus Savannah Sparrows and Marsh Wrens.
We took our time exiting the refuge via Wildlife Drive, soaking in the coolest wildlife spectacle of the trip. At the SW corner of the impoundment, roughly 300 White Ibises and 40 Great Egrets foraged for prey in the shallow water. I should say the ibises foraged, while the egrets watched. Every time the probing bill of the ibis came up with a warm meal, an egret was hot on the chase, invariably forcing the ibis to surrender its prize. We watched this sequence play out at least a dozen times. So, what was the unfortunate prey? We are pretty sure they were Two-toed Amphiumas—the nation’s largest species of salamander, affectionately known as a “ditch eel.” This was a lifer herp for me, and one that would be pretty hard to find without the ibises’ help!
Speaking of herps, we also saw a bunch of turtles at Mattamuskeet, including a handsome Spotted Turtle, some Florida Cooters, and Yellow-bellied Sliders. Our lone mammal was a Nutria.
After Mattamuskeet, we made a short detour to the Wysocking Wildlife Sanctuary to see my first target species of the trip: a family of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (state bird #332). The birds apparently showed up a year ago, bred, and now frequent an open-air enclosure protected from Coyotes and other predators, slowly becoming more and more tame. I’d rather see them in a wilder place (like, some other part of the sprawling sanctuary or nearby refuges), but I guess I can’t blame the ducks for preferring a free meal and a safe roost.
Following a drive along one of my favorite NC roads (the eastern end of US-264), we spent the afternoon at Alligator River NWR. First was combination of driving, stopping, scoping, and walking along Sawyer Lake Road. After a bit of effort, we finally got great looks at a continuing Ash-throated Flycatcher, another target bird, and a lifer for me (#454). Individual(s) of this species have spent prior winters in the same area, but I’ve never been able to locate one until this trip. Other notable birds included a continuing Sandhill Crane, an Orange-crowned Warbler, a flock of Cedar Waxwings, and more than a dozen Wilson’s Snipe. No sign of any rare raptors, but that’s how it usually goes at ARNWR….
We spent the late afternoon around Link and Bear Roads, again hoping for an interesting raptor sighting. No luck, but we did get up-close looks at a Merlin devouring a European Starling (hell yeah!) atop a roadside snag.
In addition to birding, we spent much of the afternoon herping. We saw dozens of turtles, including two Spotted Turtles, many Painted Turtles, at least two Northern Red-bellied Cooters (a lifer for me), many Yellow-bellied Sliders and Florida Cooters, and even more confusing sliders/cooters that went unidentified. We also heard countless Southern Leopard Frogs (no sign of any chorus frogs). I saw one snake, which was probably a Ribbon Snake (a would-be lifer), but it got away before I could get a clear visual.
Sunset prompted an owl hunt, which was largely unsuccessful apart from some calling Great Horned Owls. Forget owls, though. We heard a half dozen American Woodcocks displaying, and I saw a Black Bear in a distant field (the first I’d seen at ARNWR, somehow).
Day 2: Windy OBX
When it comes to birding, wind is arguably worse than any other weather condition. We were supposed to hit the open ocean on Saturday, but strong winds from the NNE bumped the trip back a day. So, we passed the time birding from various sheltered locations.
Our go-to spot was the hotel room; we went big on an ocean-facing room, and it was well worth it. Both the balcony and the large window offered excellent seawatching with little to no exposure. Early morning featured a variety of gulls (including a seasonally uncommon Laughing Gull), a few dozen Razorbills, hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers, and at least 1,600 (!) Red-throated Loons flying north, into the wind. Later in the morning, nearly 500 mergansers loafed in the surf in front of the hotel, and the loon flight died down. In the afternoon, the Razorbill flight really picked up, and at least 300 passed by in one hour. Even more exciting were 3 Manx Shearwaters that offered relatively good views.
We also braved two ventures into the wild. First up was the Nags Head Wood Ecological Preserve, a marvelous site with miles of hiking trails through a lush pine-hardwood forest growing atop ancient dunes. The combination of vegetation and steep topography offered a respite from the wind, and at times, it felt like we were in the mountains, or at least the foothills. This is one of the best OBX locations for typical mainland species, and we saw Brown Creepers, a Winter Wren, Fox Sparrows, and a Black-and-white Warbler. A Merlin perched on a power line and a Red-shouldered Hawk eating a squirrel were also pretty cool. We spotted a distant trio of Raccoons foraging along a marsh; these coastal raccoons are paler than their piedmont cousins.
We also made an obligatory trip to Pea Island, where we spent most of our time sheltered in the North Pond photo blind, sifting through Green-winged Teals. An American White Pelican was arguably the best bird there. A quick (and brutally windy) stop at South Pond yielded nearly 100 American Avocets, always a treat to see. Overall waterfowl numbers on the impoundments were relatively low—numbering in the hundreds, not thousands—but we didn’t spend much time duck watching, given the wind.
Day 3: Pelagic
Sunday was nearly windless and offered good conditions for our pelagic adventure offshore. “Good conditions” is a relative term; temps were in the low-40s with on-and-off drizzle, and we were on a boat for 9.5 hours and 85 miles. Pelagics aren’t for the faint of heart. Luckily, Mark and I aren't particularly faint-hearted, and the birding was well worth it.
As we cruised from Wanchese Harbor to Oregon Inlet, we started picking up birds, including an Osprey, an American White Pelican, a half-dozen American Oystercatchers, dozens of Black-bellied Plovers, 150 Bonaparte’s Gulls, 200 White Ibis, and thousands of Double-crested Cormorants.
But the real show began after we crossed the Oregon Inlet bar and made it out to sea. We saw an overwhelming number of pelagic target species (i.e., birds impossible or extremely difficult to see from land). I’ll list them out in taxonomic sequence, along with some notes.
1. Great Skua—An extremely badass bird sent the gulls in the chum slick flying, then departed into the distance.
2. Common Murre—We saw between 25 and 27 over the course of the day, a new high count in North Carolina for this extremely uncommon alcid. I photoed one “bridled” type bird, which was even rarer! This was a new state bird for me (#334).
3. Thick-billed Murre—We saw 5, also a record high count in North Carolina for this uncommon alcid. This was a lifer for me (#455).
4. Razorbill—These attractive alcids were constantly flying by the boat in the nearshore waters. The spotters on the boat counted an extraordinary 2,838. I’m glad I got to sit back and enjoy the show, instead of keeping a tally.
5. Atlantic Puffin—Yeah, we saw puffins! They aren’t quite as handsome in the winter as they are when breeding (e.g., in Maine), but still a treat to see. This was a state bird for me (#336).
6. Little Gull—Two passed by the boat in the distance, one of which I found. This was only my second encounter with this uncommon species.
7. Northern Fulmar—Apparently, we saw 5 of these handsome tubenoses; I remember at least 3. This was a bit unexpected, as none of the other pelagic trips this winter had found any. This was another new state bird for me (#337).
8. Manx Shearwater—We saw a handful of these dynamic fliers.
The vast majority of good birds were found within several miles of shore. However, we eventually made it to the Gulf Stream about 24 miles offshore in search of additional species; the en-route puffins were the only real fruits of that labor. During the less exciting stretches of open water, I enjoyed photographing the gulls and gannets that followed the boat. Most were Herring Gulls.
We also had Great Black-backed Gulls and Northern Gannets follow the boat at various times.
Our only non-avian sightings of the pelagic were a couple dozen Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins and a Humpback Whale fairly close to the inlet. Oh, and several balloons.
Our day at sea was as exhausting as it was exciting, and the Sunday night drive home was rough. But overall, the trip was a resounding success.
Summary by the numbers
Between both trips, I saw 125 species of birds, including 2 lifers (bringing me to 455), 7 new state birds (bringing me to 337), and 9 new Dare County birds (bringing me to 217).
7 Mammals included Humpback Whale, Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, Black Bear, Raccoon, Nutria, Eastern Gray Squirrel, and a bat.
8 Herps included Two-toed Amphiumas (lifer), Southern Leopard Frog, 5 species of turtles, including Northern Red-bellied Cooter (lifer) and Spotted Turtle, and a snake.
It was too early and too cold for most invertebrates, and although we saw one or two odes and leps, they went unidentified.