rotating banner

Monday, August 15, 2011

Birding the ‘Banks: Part I – An Unexpected Journey

Being on Ocracoke has its pluses: because it can only be accessed by ferry, so there are fewer tourists than you’d expect, and the relatively small island means you can bike anywhere in a matter of minutes. But as Outer Banks go, it doesn’t necessarily have the birding you can find elsewhere, which is why as soon as this trip was a-go, James and I made plans to visit the holy grail of Outer Banks birding sites: Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve been to Pea Island twice, and I have fond memories of each time I’ve been there. The first time was chock-full of ducks, white pelicans, avocets, and pretty much anything else you can think of (Merlins, Cackling Goose, etc). And even though I got caught in a rainstorm the second time, there were still plenty of swans, terns and shorebirds around to slake my thirst. I just had to show James the majesty of Pea Island, it’s really a kind of birding Mecca (or Medina?). Which is why it was slightly disappointing when we finally showed up and visibility was somewhere around a couple hundred feet even though the weather report said it should be cloudless. You see, for the past couple months there’s been a raging wildfire at Alligator River NWR on the mainland, but usually the winds blow the smoke towards the center of the state. For whatever reason, the winds shifted, and the smoke was now blowing out right towards us. I mean, check out this Nutria – it couldn’t’ve been more than 50 feet away!

What? It's not awful! It's a "record shot." Of a Nutria.

Luckily, as soon as we'd made it to the nice two-story observation deck, the winds shifted again and the smoke suddenly cleared, giving us great looks at whatever was present. Unexpectedly, there wasn’t too much to see  – numerous Tricolored Herons, a couple Greater Yellowlegs, and Dowitchers a-plenty. None of the birds I’d hoped to show James, so we decided to head on to another near-legendary site to try our luck.

But not before this Eastern Kingbird put on a hell of a show!

There’s an old Coast Guard station near Oregon Inlet that, for whatever reason, seems to host a lot of nice, confiding birds. In the winter you can find jetty-loving species like Purple Sandpiper, Great Cormorant, and even an odd Long-tailed or Harlequin Duck. Today, however, became quite content with amazing views of a Semipalmated Plover that didn’t seem to mind James shooting it from behind an old dock piling.

This photo is misleading - Semipalmated Plovers are really quite small,

While James was busy with the plover, I noticed a nearby peep which was conspicuously pale and sported black legs. It probed the mud closer and closer to James, and he ended up getting a really fantastic shot of it, complete with a hind toe to separate it from the (possibly) similar Sanderling – the second semiplamated bird of the day, a nice Semipalmated Sandpiper. I encourage you to zoom in on that pic, you can even see the serrated webbing between the toes that gives the bird its name. ::EDIT:: Apparently, the bird is actually a Western Sandpiper.

Definitely the best looks I've ever had of a Semipalmated Western Sandpiper.

And so it was time to continue down the jetty. To the right is a large saltmarsh and sand flat that’s roped off to function as a breeding area for Least Tern and Piping Plover, and luckily it’s totally off-limits to ORVs. That’s really why I chose to visit this place – with the breeding colony so close, I hoped a couple of Piping Plovers would still be hanging around on the beach area, and I wasn’t disappointed. Soon enough, we ran into the nicest plumaged Piping Plover I’d see all trip! James managed to coax a nice pic of this guy by employing a stealth technique we’ve dubbed the “Jackal mode”. Not a bad pic for his lifer, and ordinarily a bird that’s quite skittish too!

Tastes like chicken? This wouldn't even amount to a drumstick!

The next step was to search the bridge spanning the inlet for the Gull-billed Terns that were reported to frequent it. Walking back along the jetty, we managed a couple of Spotted Sandpipers, with a pair of Seaside Sparrows hanging out along the marsh side. Most excitingly, however, was the apparently saltwater-loving Banded Watersnake James found lounging along the reeds, a truly unexpected find for us.

I was hoping for a Cottonmouth, but eh, I'll take it.

Crossing Highway 12, we made our way for the catwalk along the bridge. It’s supposed to be used for fishing, but we decided to use it for watching terns! None of the Gull-billeds we’d hoped for, but we got some close passes by an acrobatic Common Tern, and that would just have to be close enough. We had a schedule to keep to, and it was already past noon!

One good tern deserves another.

Tune in Wednesday for Birding the ‘Banks: Part II – There and Back Again!

No comments:

Post a Comment