I almost let the winter of 2022-2023 pass by without an outer banks birding trip. As the season progresses, the number and diversity of waterfowl species—the primary motivation behind these annual trips—tends to decline. By March (truly the worst month of the year for birding in NC), it’s almost not worth visiting. This year, I managed to pull together a last-minute trip towards the end of February, which worked out just fine. I saw 21 different species of waterfowl, albeit in relatively low numbers. And, although my annual winter OBX trips are usually waterfowl-driven, the impetus for this year’s trip was slightly different: kayaking. I’ve always wanted to kayak the Pamlico Sound marshes behind Pea Island. I finally made it happen this year, thanks to an unusually warm February and relatively wind-free conditions. I also saw an extremely rare lifer mammal on the way home—you’ll have to read to the end to learn about that (spoiler in the title).
As often happens on this kind of trip, I woke up earlier than planned and hit the road before dawn on Saturday. I made a several stops on the way to the coast. First was Lake Phelps, where I saw zero ducks and quickly moved on. Next was a pond along US-64 where an interesting hybrid goose was recently reported. Due to poor viewing conditions, I didn’t have any luck, so I kept moving to Alligator River NWR. As is always the case when I go looking for a recently-reported-rare-raptor at ARNWR, I struck out. At least I wasn’t alone this time; I ran into many other birders that were similarly unable to locate the elusive Swainson’s Hawk. Of course, many other raptors were present, including Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and a Merlin. Rusty Blackbirds were the most interesting songbirds.
Saturday was fairly windy, so I spent the afternoon catching up on sleep in my Kill Devil Hills hotel. By late-afternoon, I headed to Jennette’s Pier for some obligatory sea watching. Birders outnumbered anglers on the pier. The usual (bird) suspects were out on the water, with a couple Razorbill and a skein of Black Scoters providing the most interest. It was also nice to see a pod of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins close to the pier.
As I drove south down NC-12, I saw an American Mink scooting around in the grass before disappearing into the marsh. Another good mammal!
Next up was a quick stop at Pea Island NWR’s North Pond. This is always a good barometer for waterfowl, holding thousands of ducks and swans at times. This late in the season, I only saw about 300 total waterfowl across 9 species (including a pair of Canvasbacks). It’s always nice to see American White Pelicans and American Avocets here. The best bird of the outing was a not-so-Common Gallinule near the visitor center, hanging out with a Pied-billed Grebe.
The last birding venture of the day was another dependable spot: Bodie Island. The birding was okay, but I (and other birders) spent more time observing and photographing the local Nutria. These cute—but terribly invasive—giant rodents sat within arm's reach of the boardwalk, literally consuming the marsh one root at a time. I’m surprised the Parks Service hasn’t taken action yet, but I hope it will before it’s too late.
Sunday was my big adventure day. As previously mentioned, I’ve always wanted to kayak the marshes behind the Pea Island waterfowl impoundments, mainly to look for ducks and marsh sparrows, but also just to explore the habitat. This year I added fishing as another motivator to get on the water.
I couldn’t help but make a few stops en route to the put-in. After a quick photo session with the Common Gallinule on North Pond, I spent a few minutes admiring the shorebirds and waterfowl on South Pond. Highlights included Long-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Northern Shoveler admiring his reflection in the water.
A short drive later, I arrived at my put-in just south of New Inlet (which isn’t an inlet anymore). Conditions were excellent for a winter paddle: almost no wind, with temps in the 40s and 50s. I’m using the term “paddle” loosely; most of my 14.5-mile journey was motor-assisted, though I did paddle some when it got too shallow, and walked the kayak when it got even shallower. The habitat was great. I meandered around sandflats, grassflats, marshes, and small tidal creeks, progressing behind New Inlet, South Pond, and North Pond, before finally arriving at the so-called Salt Flats.
Along the way, I attempted to fish, hoping to find some redfish or trout. I saw, and caught, zero fish all day. Although the habitat looked pretty good, with lots of grassflats, some deeper channels, and some nice tidal creeks and basins, I saw zero baitfish, crustaceans, or oyster beds. So, maybe this just isn’t the best area to fish. That, or winter fishing is just no good. That, or I don’t know what I’m doing (yet).
Luckily, fish weren’t my only attraction. The birding was about what I expected. I encountered 54 total species, including 10 species of ducks. Bufflehead were by far the most numerous (> 300), followed by American Black Ducks (>150), with a scattering of other species. I only saw 7 species of shorebirds; most were at New Inlet, but I didn’t spend much time there. The marshes held some interesting passerines, including a Saltmarsh Sparrow (a target species), some unidentified Sharp-tailed Sparrows (either Saltmarsh or Nelson’s), Seaside Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, an Orange-crowned Warbler, etc.
Overall, it’s hard to think of a better way to spend an 8-hour day. After my aquatic adventure, I grabbed Mexican food at my go-to-spot and then hung out on the beach at the hotel, where surf fishing was uneventful as always. The consolation was a big group of 12 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which are becoming more and more common in recent years.
I left the OBX early Monday morning, budgeting just enough time for a few stops before I returned to real life. This was a reverse-order-repeat of my stops on the way to the coast.
First up was Alligator River NWR. I had planned to arrive before sunrise, with the hopes of seeing some Short-eared Owls. I forgot how early the pre-dawn sun lights the coastal skies, and despite arriving before “sunrise,” I was way too late to see owls. I did, however, see something far more interesting: Red Wolves. Yes, real Red Wolves, not Coyotes. This once-native species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The 4 individuals I saw are part of an extremely small reintroduced population in eastern NC that has declined precipitously in the last decade, now numbering under 20 individuals. I feel fortunate to see those I did, as I’m not sure how many other chances I’ll have. On a lighter note, the group I saw included 2 pups born last spring—the first wild litter since 2018! Several hundred more wolves are currently bred in captivity in an effort to prevent this species from permanent extinction. See this page for more information.
Also notable were several playful River Otters foraging in a roadside ditch.
After ARNWR, I stopped once more at the pond off 64 near Creswell, with much better luck than before. Among the 650+ Canada Geese foraging in the field, I managed to locate at least 3 Cackling Geese. This was only my second time observing this species, and a much better experience than the brief glimpses of my first sighting. Even more exciting was a previously-reported Barnacle x Cackling Goose hybrid. Of course, a pure-blooded Barnacle Goose would’ve been better for a list-obsessed birder like myself (only full species count towards a life list). But this hybrid goose was certainly rarer and more interesting.
My final stop involved a nice hike through the forest on the north shore of Lake Phelps (Pettigrew SP), to the moccasin overlook and back. The forest is dominated by enormous baldcypress trees, draped with Spanish moss at the lakeshore. The lake didn’t seem to hold any Common Mergansers or Canvasbacks this year, but I did see the largest flock of Green-winged Teal I’ve ever seen—at least 870!
That’s it for this year’s winter coastal birding trip.
Summary by the Numbers
3 days/2 nights, ~600 miles by car, 14.5 by kayak, and several on foot.
Birdlife was as good as usual, with 104 species, including 21 species of waterfowl. I added 1 species (Saltmarsh Sparrow) to my Dare Co. list (now at 236), but otherwise didn’t see much “new.”
Mammal-watching was particularly productive, with 1 lifer (Red Wolf) among the 5 species observed.
Basically zero fish (not for lack of trying), zero herps (I could have found some turtles if I’d tried harder), and zero terrestrial invertebrates. Mollusks were well-represented by thousands of Atlantic Ribbed Mussels, and crustaceans put up a nice showing with thousands of to-be-identified barnacles.