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Friday, December 30, 2011

Go East, Young Birders!

Between Christmas and New Years, the best birding in North Carolina can be had along our famous Outer Banks, those narrow strips of land that could scarcely be considered sandbars, and yet represent a major hub of tourism in our state. However, once all the tourists have left for the season, waterfowl flock to our shores in numbers only found in a few select sites around the country. As birders, it’s our job to count them.

The morning before the legendary Pea Island Christmas Bird Count, James and I headed out with local and international birder extraordinaire Norm Budnitz and his friend Patsy to try and cram another day of birding into our Outer Banks excursion. The weather, however, had other plans, and as we left the Triangle fat drops of rain already splattered across the windshield. Thankfully, as we cruised eastward, we began to outrun the storm system, and as we reached Greenville the rain had ceased altogether. In the overcast sky, we found the first sign that we were nearing our target – on the side of the road, a large pond abounded with a flock of enormous Tundra Swans, home now from their summering grounds in the high Arctic. We pulled over, and as James leaped out of the car to photograph them, the murmuring din of a hundred swans vocalizing at once spread through the air, and I knew I was back for another year of fantastic winter birding!

I only get to see these guys once a year, and I love it every time!

Once we viewed the swans to our hearts content, we decided to stop at a random agricultural center run by NC State. Normally it wouldn’t be anything special, but part of their research involves finding better fishery techniques, and the large pool of fish this research hinges on is frequented by scores of majestic Bald Eagles two score, in fact, as the numerous adult and immature eagles we saw totaled almost forty individuals! While the American Kestrels perching atop the nearby telephone wires were cool, and the Northern Harriers dancing low over the fields were awesome, nothing quite beats seeing Bald Eagles up close and personal, and this young bird put on quite a show in a small pine right next to the gravel road.

He's giving us the "evil eye" - or, would that be the "eagle eye"?

Alas, as we left the fishery, rain began to drizzle once again on our car’s windshield, quickly whipping itself into a downpour before we reached the highway. Nearing our hotel in Nags Head, we decided to visit Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife drive that on good days can house bears and bobcats, not to mention Short-eared Owls and a whole host of rarities. But today, the pouring rain and the frequency of gigantic Dodge Rams full of hunters meant that a couple Song Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers were all we could muster out of this legendary site.

The rain couldn’t stop our lust for birding, however, and soon enough we were driving down to the marina at Wanchese to look at gulls roosting atop the pylons and moorings. Once there, we spotted a whole flock of Red-breasted Mergansers just off the dock, and James dashed out of the car to photograph them before they could sidle away. I grabbed an umbrella to keep the rain off his camera, but the winds proved too much, and before long a gust had turned the umbrella inside-out. We reached the dock’s edge just as the mergansers began to swim too far out of range for photography given the conditions, when with a sudden quick splash a whole cadre of beautiful males jumped out from under the dock and paddled in the ocean waters just in front of us.

The Red-breasted Mergansers gave us fantastic looks all three days!

I’ve seen Red-breasted Mergansers many times before, but seeing them so close up was a real treat, especially when the males looked their breeding best. Having had our fill and a little too much rain, we retired to the car and our hotel room. As darkness neared, the clouds broke and a little twinkle of sunset shone upon the adjacent beaches. Tomorrow we’d have much better light, but with it came its own slew of birding highlights and disappointments.

Come back Monday, when our Outer Banks adventures continue with Part II - The Stop Short!

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