Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Birding My Way Through Northeast NC

Mackay Island NWR is one of the most remote points on the map of North Carolina.  It is located in the far northeastern corner of the state in Currituck Sound, a brackish estuarine body of water dividing the northern Outer Banks from the mainland.  Visitors have two options to get there:  take a 45-minute ferry ride or drive up through Virginia.  Not coincidentally, Mackay Island (actually called Knotts Island, but the refuge is Mackay Island - I don't know why, just go with it) is a fantastic place for spotting the elusive Least Bittern, King Rail, and enough "peeps" to make any birder go mad.

Upon arrival, we promptly began a kayak trip through the Great Marsh, the focal point of the 8,320 acre refuge. Five minutes into the paddle, I flushed a Least Bittern from the reeds, my first lifer of the weekend.  I saw at least three more later during the paddle.  One bittern was incredibly cooperative - I observed the petite heron skulking through the marsh grass, then perch itself up high so it could watch my every move.

This photo sums up my experience observing this Least Bittern - he peered at me for several minutes through the reeds as I watched patiently.

When we were finishing up tying the kayaks back down to the car, I spotted a Tricolored Heron in a distant snag and pointed it out to my dad.  As we were observing the heron, I spotted movement along the road.  I snatched my binoculars and held them up to behold a King Rail, my first in North Carolina, and a lifer for my dad.  Rails are some of my favorite birds, and this particular one gave us great views, especially for such a secretive species.  While we were eating lunch, we heard two more calling to each other, but they remained hidden deep in the marsh.

We made our way down the dike on foot, since the gate prohibited any vehicles from entering. I began sorting through the flocks of shorebirds in the impoundment, hoping for something new.  Spotted, Solitary, Least - nothing I haven't seen already this year, but still fun to spot.  A Merlin flew out of the trees, its pointed wings beating fiercely. This was a big surprise - these small falcons are usually all but gone by May, so it popped up as "rare" when I reported it to eBird (the first of 8 "rarities" this weekend for me).   I looked out on the mudflats and spotted my first Glossy Ibis, my second lifer on the day.  I scanned again for shorebirds, and this time had a little more luck - Semipalmated Sandpiper, my third Calidris this year!  Peeps can be quite a challenge, and luckily I managed to snap some photos to help me ID them.

 The Merlin we saw at Mackay Island NWR - kind of a bad photo, but hey, it was pretty far away!

We opted to take the ferry back to Currituck, then head out to the Outer Banks to visit Corolla, the northernmost point accessible by actual roads.  On the ferry, I spotted several Bonaparte's Gulls, and my first Black Scoter this year - a female floating out in the sound.  It seemed pretty late to still be in NC, but just about everything has been late this year.

The long drive up to Corolla proved to be uneventful.  We pulled up to a small parking area for the Currituck Estuarine Reserve and set off down a short boardwalk.  I heard a distinctive song I had memorized but never heard in the field - a Warbling Vireo, a rarity on the Outer Banks.  It was presumably blown in by the storms that day, and just goes to show how significant weather is for birding.  We also visited the Corolla Lighthouse as the light was fading - closed, but I did hear (and see) a Blackpoll Warbler at the rest area, another lifer.  A great way to close out the day!

Lake Mattamuskeet NWR was the destination for the next morning, and it certainly did not disappoint.  We arrived around 10 AM and were immediately greeted by 15 American White Pelicans, highly unusual for NC at this time of year.  White Pelicans have one of the largest wingspans of any North American bird, and are quite a sight.  Out on the mudflats with the pelicans were a few Semipalmated Plovers (year-listers), some peeps, and several Caspian and Forster's Terns.

Some of the American White Pelicans present at Lake Mattamuskeet

We decided to walk down another boardwalk, this one through a cypress swamp.  Almost immediately after we stepped out of the car, we heard what had become one of my nemesis birds - Northern Bobwhite.  One was whistling his bob-WHITE!!! call from a grassy area near the pump station.  The timing was unusual - I had just explained to my parents the decline of the Bobwhite in North Carolina, and it was good to hear at least one.  Also along the boardwalk, we heard several Prothonotary Warblers, a few Pewees, and some noisy Great Crested Flycatchers.  Two American Woodcocks flushed from a brushy area near the trail; I have to admit I didn't realize how loudly they can beat their wings when they take off.

I finished the weekend with 217 birds on my year list and 195 in North Carolina.  Least Bittern was probably my favorite sighting this weekend - there is just something about the way they prowl the reedy marshes that fascinates me.

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