Saturday, December 28, 2013

Outer Banks Bonanza: Day 1 (or How I Found A Snowy Owl At Oregon Inlet)

The year is quickly drawing to a close, and I figured some year-end birding was in order to round out 2013.  And where would any self-respecting Carolina birder go for good birds? The Outer Banks.  I made the trip with my dad and my grandpa.  Little did I know, this would be my most epic two days of birding to date.

The first destination was exit 548 off US-64, near Creswell, NC.  It's home to a massive flock of Canada Geese - but I wasn't looking for these.  I was looking for their pint-sized cousin, the Cackling Goose.  One, two.  Their short, stubby bills and smaller size made them surprisingly easy to pick out.  It's always nice to get a lifer from an offramp!  Now on to the next stop: Lake Mattamuskeet.

Mattamuskeet is one of my favorite places to bird.  On this day, however, things were slow.  No Snow Geese were to be seen, and most of the Tundra Swans were hunkered down on the far corner of the lake barely in sight.  I spent a while scoping the waterfowl, looking through flocks containing hundreds of beautiful Northern Pintail and Northern Shovelers.  Nothing unusual, but still fun to see. We continued down the wildlife drive.  All the usual suspects were present.  We were pleased to see a group of a dozen or so Black-crowned Night-herons roosting in the trees - always a good sight.

Black-crowned Night-heron
We left Mattamuskeet and drove over to the Outer Banks.  A group of Harlequin Ducks, rare visitors to NC, had been reported from the south end of Oregon Inlet under the Bonner Bridge - so naturally this was our first stop.  

We walked up along the bridge.  No birds.  A few other visitors were also looking for the Harlequins, and they hadn't seen them yet either.  I looked on the other side of the bridge, and saw four ducks swimming along in the sound.  Harlequins!  I had last seen them in Massachusetts back in March, and these were my first in NC.

Harlequin Ducks feeding near Bonner Bridge
Above the ducks on a concrete pylon, I picked a Great Cormorant out of a flock of Double-cresteds.  Their larger size and distinct plumage help distinguish Greats from other cormorant species.  My second lifer of the day!  I was getting on a roll...
The Great Cormorant is the largest one, at center.
Dad recommended we walk out to the end of the jetty, and I agreed.  I figured we would only see a few gannets and a gull or two, but at least we could give it a shot.  We were about three-quarters of the way to the end when a white lump caught my eye.  I half-jokingly said "Is that a Snowy?" to my dad, and we both haphazardly raised our binoculars just to check.  We both said a few expletives and became giddy with excitement.  We had found a Snowy Owl right here in North Carolina!

Oregon Inlet Snowy Owl
I honestly think that, even if I saw a Snowy Owl every day, I would never get tired of them.  They are absolutely stunning birds, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to observe this owl for upwards of an hour, alone on the beach.  The Hatteras Snowy, which I saw exactly one month earlier, did not give me such great views.  My dad and I couldn't get enough of this bird's beauty.  We watched it preen and rest on the side of the dune, and even hop just a few feet.  I love Snowy Owls.

We decided we should head back - Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was still on the agenda for the day.   Back towards the parking lot, we found two other birders who were looking for the Harlequins.  We told them about the location of the Harlequins and the Snowy Owl, and they got to see both too.  Oregon Inlet proved more productive than we initially thought - it was one of, if not the, highlight of my year.  Amazing.

The Snowy Owl in all its glory
The target at Alligator River NWR was another species of owl - this time of the Short-eared variety.  The only one I had ever seen was back in 2005 in Denali National Park - far from the coast of NC.  I wanted this bird both for my year list and for my state list (and just because Short-eared Owls are downright cool).  These owls are supposed to come out just before dusk and patrol the massive fields along Alligator Rivers' Milltail Road.  So that's exactly where we went.

It was still about an hour until sunset when we pulled in, and we didn't really know what to do.  We started scoping some ducks.  Pintails, pintails, more pintails...  I pulled up my phone and checked the Carolinabirds listserv.  "Ash-Throated Flycatcher... Milltail Road".  The words jumped out at me.  It said that the flycatcher was close to the maintenance buildings.  Wait, the maintenance buildings just behind me!?  I was only 300 yards from a rare Southwestern flycatcher!

We high-tailed it down the road, and almost immediately heard this little Myiarchus calling.  But where was it?  It was too deep in the trees to see.  Aghhh!!!  I hate heard-only's.  We eventually gave up and slowly drove back down the road.  A flycatcher shape caught my eye from the roadside.  Wait - was that it?  It was!  I grabbed my camera and bolted out of the car.  The little guy proved quite cooperative, landing just a few feet from me at one point.  Definitely an unexpected surprise!

Ash-throated Flycatcher

The flycatcher flew back into the forest, and we started patrolling the road for owls.  Northern Harriers were seemingly everywhere.  The sun slipped behind the horizon.  We were running out of time.  On our way out, a large bird slipped across the road in front of us.  A Short-eared Owl.  It glided smoothly over the field right next to our truck.  An incredible end to an incredible, rarity-filled day.  What would the next day bring?


  1. Replies
    1. Awesome! I went to the OBX this summer. While we were there, my dad, brother, and I went on our first pelagic trip! I loved trying to seperate the storm-petrels and after a short time, I got the hang of it. It was awesome! Can't wait to go back sometime in the future.

    2. Glad to hear you had a great time! I have yet to go on a pelagic, but hopefully this will be the year.