Sunday, March 9, 2014

Winter Birding on the OBX

The first time I ever went "real" birding was with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. I spent a weekend at Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina's largest natural lake, gazing over the horizon to watch the myriad of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans that winter there. I was enthralled when we saw an American Bittern immersed in cord grass, and I was amazed at how the museum educators could tell apart species of ducks through the eyepiece of a scope. By the end of the trip, I had caught a bad case of the birding bug and the only treatment was birding itself. After a full year of birding, I returned with the museum this time farther East to North Carolina's crystal coast, the Outer Banks. The museum group I go with is a teen volunteer program I am apart of called the Junior Curators.

Day 1
"Thank goodness" is what I thought as I stepped out of the van, a Saturday morning birding on the coast had finally arrived after a long week. We had birds to see and places to be! That first place was a stroll at Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. We took a stroll down gravel roads beside the preserves shrubby, maritime forest and ponds under mixed species flocks of common eastern passerines. Towards the end, we took one last loop around a pond and encountered a mixed species flock with endless quantities of the prosaic Yellow-rumped Warbler that winter here. Then Brian, our trip leader, pointed out a warbler with a drab color wearing an inexpressive plumage, an Orange-crowned Warbler!  The whole group had amazing views from a close distance for a few minutes. It felt great to start the trip out with a view of an uncommon year bird I was not expecting to see.

Next, the whole group piled into the vans, and we headed over to Jockey's ridge State Park. Jockey's Ridge is home to the largest sand dunes on the East coast that appear like a small mountain range on the beach, an interesting site that I always forget NC has. Our Target specie were Snow Buntings, a brave songbird that breeds in the high arctic, and its southernmost range in winter is the OBX . However, we did not see any Snow Buntings, but getting to explore the largest sand dunes on the East coast made up for it!
 I did spot some wild Junior Curators, a very gregarious species.

Hmmm, where are those Snow Buntings?
After Jockey's Ridge, the whole group took a midday break from birding. The weather held crisp blue skies without a foreboding cloud on the horizon so far today. We eagerly returned back to birding in unexplored territory farther south. Our first stop was at the Bodie Island Lighthouse & Pond that is a reliable spot for waterfowl. As we walked up to the observation platform, we quickly spotted a noticeable shorebird, the American Avocet.
American Avocet
The American Avocet is a unique shorebird because it has an upturned bill it skims across the surface of the water to feed. They are a personal favorite of mine and never get tiring to encounter! The pond was most numerous in Tundra Swan along with the gorgeous Green-winged Teal, Pintail, Gadwall, and Widgeon.
Northern Pintail
Me holding a scope at Bodie Island.

Bodie Island Lighthouse
Another interesting sighting was a Great-horned Owl. The owl had taken over an old Osprey nest at a Marina nearby and would roost there for the day offering great views to the whole group.
You can just barely see his ear tufts sticking out.
 The next stop was one we had all been waiting for, Oregon Inlet. This spot has been very productive all winter long: Harlequin Ducks, Red-necked Grebes, Scoters, and even a Snowy Owl found by my friend Lucas last December. I had been itching to get a scope on out there all day. The conditions were perfect: a setting sun shedding light to the east with mild winds from the NE and a crisp, blue sky. Harlequin ducks would be a lifer for me, and their elaborate plumage that made them one of North America's beautiful birds was a sighting I didn't want to miss. They are unusual this far south to North Carolina and winter commonly along the rocky shores like those of the Northeast states. Luckily, the group of six Harlequins had chosen the rocky jetty at Oregon Inlet to spend their winter.

The moment I walked onto the catwalk my friend Sam shouted and pointed across the water. I pressed my eye up to the scope. Six ducks that seemed to have applied to much makeup is what identified them as Harlequins. One-by-one they dove under the surface and popped back up again. Finally, a lifer for the day! After the ducks, a Red-necked Grebe emerged from the water. This was my second sighting of this species and by far better when I barely saw it fly over the Oregon Inlet Bridge last fall; it felt like lifer. White-winged Scoters emerged, a first for the year in NC.

As we were wrapping up scoping from the bridge, Brian and I noticed three little shorebirds with dark rumps fly and disappear into the rocks of the jetty. No doubt that these had to be Purple Sandpipers. The whole group shifted out onto the jetty and scoped out into the choppy waters of the inlet. I got one last glimpse of a Red-necked Grebe flash its white secondaries and land behind the choppy waves. As we made our way back to the vans, we stopped to clarify the Purple Sandpipers. Soon enough, we found them foraging on the rocks. An NC lifer at last!
The not so Purple Sandpiper.

The group checking out out the PUSAs
Lucas photographing the PUSAs.

Purple Sandpipers winter along rocky shores of the east coast. Hence their name, they don't ever appear purple. However, it is difficult to see this bird appear because its slate gray color blends into the rocks. I saw this sandpiper about a year ago hiding in a jetty in South Carolina. After the inlet and an unproductive trip to Pea Island, we treated ourselves to pizza and pasta at a go to restaurant called Gidget's that has fed us many meals after previous birding at the OBX. We ended our day with a night walk around Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. You really notice the powerful lights of a lighthouse at night!

Day 2
Sunday Morning brought another new day and new birds. As we drove the van in Cape Hatteras, Sam and I noticed a chicken-like bird scurry across the road and into the marsh grass. The only small, chicken-like marsh bird I could think of was the secretive, Virginia Rail. We walked down the gravel road and soon the rail flushed out of the grass and everyone got a quick look, another NC lifer to begin the morning! My second sighting this year. Our target location was the salt pond that lay behind the coat on Hatteras. The short path to the salt pond was covered in 3-inch deep puddles as usual, thank goodness I brought my boots. As our feet sloshed through the saturated ground, we flushed an American Bittern. A secretive species of wader related to the more common Great Blue Heron, the bittern was another new year bird. Once the salt pond came into sight, it was filled with Double-crested Cormorants, gulls, and waterfowl. By the end of our morning there, we had tallied nearly 10,000 Double-crested Cormorants. There seemed to be an endless amount from the horizon East to West.
Swamp Sparrow by the salt pond.
However, the trip was not over yet! We still had to see the 3rd state record Band-tailed Pigeon roosting in a front yard in Manteo, NC; another lifer I didn't want to miss! This is a notable pigeon that is a denizen of coniferous forests of the mountains in the West. The Band-tailed Pigeon is native unlike its closely resembled cousin, the Rock Pigeon. We arrived to the home where the Pigeon has been reported. A large oak tree that towered over the yard is where it had been previously reported. We strained our necks trying to see through the thick branches. As we walked into the yard, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flushed from the tree put the thought in my head the Band-tailed Pigeon had been the hawks last meal. Luckily, the pigeon was soon located by Lucas obscured in gnarly branches.
The very well hidden Band-tailed Pigeon in Manteo, NC. My second lifer of the trip.
While we were in the yard, we got a call from an employee at the aquarium who knows one of the trip leaders saying there was a deceased dolphin that washed up on the beach back on the OBX. So, we took another break from birding to observe a local species of marine mammal, the Common Dolphin.
The Common Dolphin, a close relative of the Bottle-nosed Dolphin.
Apparently, dolphins have been suffering from a virus that might be the cause of this ones death. However, I don't think I'd ever realized the beautiful pattern on a dolphin, so it was worth driving back. Now, we were home bound. We made a quick trip to Alligator River National Park on the way. It's a great spot for Short-eared Owls in the morning and an Ash-throated Flycatcher was here earlier in the year. We were not there early enough for Short-eareds, but I did see one more a Gray Catbird putting me at 157 species for the year. 11 birds to add to my year list, 3 NC lifers, and 2 lifers. That itself spells satisfaction to me. Now, I'm ready for spring to arrive through the colorful plumage of a warbler.