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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Prequel

Although the Dovekie James and I found was by far the highlight of our trip up the Outer Banks, we certainly had our fair share of awesome birds beforehand. The first day started out slowly – before we even crossed the Pamlico, we stopped at Alligator River NWR to try and find the previously reported Golden Eagle. No dice, I’m afraid, and the strong winds kept most of the waterfowl far out and hunkered down. Not much to do at this point but continue on our journey.

We decided our next stop would be Bodie Lighthouse to check out the ducks. James especially was hoping for a lifer that should have come his way by now, and sure enough out among the swans were hundreds of Green-winged Teal. It’s a species we’d magnificently missed seeing this winter, but the teals at Bodie stayed too far abreast to photograph. On our way out of the parking lot, however, we spotted a couple Eastern Meadowlarks foraging under some nearby pines. Normally meadowlarks flush at the first sign of a birder, or even a birder’s vehicle, but by using the car as a blind we were able to watch these pudgy blackbirds feast to their heart’s content.

Meadowlarks are ungainly, waddling birds... but they sure are pretty!

Just as we were leaving the parking lot, we ran into a pair of birders who’d just been to our next destination, Pea Island’s North Pond. The water level’s down, they said, so there aren’t any ducks, but we did find the bittern. Bingo! Last time we were at North Pond, we missed the accommodating American Bittern that likes to hang out at the turtle pond there, probably because of the insane winds. But today, even the winds couldn’t keep him down. We raced over, walked towards the boardwalk and… he was gone. No bittern once again. Disappointed, we walked a little further to find North Pond nothing but a huge sand flat, when a birder alerted that the bittern was in fact present. Quickly, we noted that tucked away in a little cove, invisible from almost every angle, the American Bittern hunkered against the howling gusts. We were able to flank him and watch him at point-blank range. As we did so, in typical bittern fashion, he scarcely moved a muscle.

"The birder's visual acuity is based on movement, like a T. rex - they can't see me if I don't move!"

The sun began to set, so we retired for the night. The next morning, we awoke to a glassy Pamlico Sound, and we knew the winds that plagued us the day before had diminished to barely a whisper. We hit up Bodie Island again to find all the ducks much closer than they had been, and the Green-winged Teal began to stir from their peaceful roosts and started foraging near the observation deck. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a raptor zooming across the nearby field of reeds – a “gray ghost”, a beautiful male Northern Harrier. The ducks paid him little attention, so he flew off into the sunrise, but man; what a bird! Walking along the boardwalk one last time, I heard the chatter of Sedge and Marsh Wrens, but none would perch upon the reeds for us. Too bad; we had places to go and birds to see.

I looked through all these ducks for a Eurasian Wigeon or a Common Teal... no luck!

Not a mile down the road, we pulled into the Oregon Inlet Marina, that random little spot where James got his lifer Red-necked Grebe on the Christmas Bird Count. Hoping for a good assemblage of sea ducks, we instead found the waters of the sound looked much like North Pond – one big sand flat, filled with shorebirds, egrets, and ibises. Instead, we focused our attention on the loons that would surface quite close to us inside the marina itself. James was attempting to photograph one when he spotted another American Bittern, our second for the trip! As he approached it, the bittern flew off to a small mud bank on the far shore, away from meddling humans. James was checking out the bittern’s new hiding spot when he noticed a second bird making its way along the bank, and he yelled out with excitement – “Rail!”

No, it's okay, you can stand there preening for like five minutes. I don't mind.

Quickly, I swiveled my scope around, and sure enough a beautiful Clapper Rail foraged out in the open, not a yard from the statuesque bittern. The rail ran up and down, and around the bittern, pausing every so often to probe its beak into the soft mud. It’s the most active Clapper Rail I’ve ever seen (granted, I’ve only seen one other), but it seemed so focused on its early morning hunting that it didn’t bother noticing James sneaking up behind the dock pylons to snap the shot you see above. After drinking in his lifer Clapper Rail, James made his way back around towards the car, only to find one of the Common Loons surfacing not twenty feet offshore. James managed to snap this one perfect picture before the loon realized what it had done and dove back underwater to escape the gaze of the watching birders.

That look in his eyes says, "I've made a huge mistake!"

And you know the rest of the story already. After enjoying some great birds at the marina, James and I headed off to the old Coast Guard station at Oregon Inlet, found a struggling Dovekie, and returned it to the sea. Because we were on a time crunch (getting James back to college, etc), we only birded the Outer Banks for a good six or eight hours. But that’s all the time you need to see some great birds at one of the best birding spots in the Carolinas

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