Sunday, December 29, 2013

Outer Banks Bonanza, Day 2 - Sandpipers, Say's, and Sandhills.

I went to bed happy Friday night.  I had seen 6 new NC birds and 3 new lifers.  And most of all, I had self-found a Snowy Owl in my home state.  I thought there was no way the next day would be nearly as good.

My predictions of a slow day seemed to be panning out as I trudged down the beach toward Cape Point on Hatteras Island.  I had high hopes for Iceland Gull, but there wasn't one to be seen.  Just lots of trucks, everywhere.  I started making my way toward a large flock of gulls, but before I could scope it, someone walked into them, scattering the birds everywhere.  So much for that.
A decidedly bird-less Cape Point.  As I was standing here, Neil Hayward was just offshore breaking the ABA big year record with a Great Skua sighting!  
I left Hatteras dismayed.  Not a single noteworthy bird.  At least I had the rest of the day - maybe, just maybe, favor would turn my way.  Our next stop was Oregon Inlet to find the Purple Sandpipers I missed the day before.  They would be a new bird for my North Carolina list, so I figured it was worth a shot.  The parking lot for the jetty and bridge looked entirely different on this day.  It was nearly full, compared with the three cars present on Friday.  And everyone there was a birder looking for the Snowy Owl.
The most crowded I've ever seen this parking area.
We made our way along the bridge walkway.  I looked down onto one of the concrete supports to see two Purple Sandpipers.  Another easy tick - my first of the day.  We saw many birders scoping in the same general direction in the distance, so we raised our binoculars to see the (very distant) Snowy Owl resting on a dune.  I couldn't resist seeing the owl one more time, so we headed up to join the others.

Where everyone was standing, however, was not within sight of the bird.  Most of the other birders had seen it fly in from the sound and land in the dunes - but had lost it almost immediately.  We all scanned the sandy expanse before us, to no avail.  The owl obviously wanted to remain hidden, but at least they got it for the Pea Island Christmas Bird Count.

We began the long drive back home, but with two more stops planned.  A Say's Phoebe had been reported from the same exit off US-64 where I had seen the Cackling Geese the day before.  It was too close to the highway to resist stopping.  We pulled off the highway and looked around - nothing.  It seemed like this would be our first miss of the trip, but we decided to drive down the dirt road just a little further.  We reached a chain-link gate blocking the road, and a small flycatcher flew out of nowhere and perched on it.  It was the Say's Phoebe!  I had seen one in Utah last year, but this bird is very rare in NC - only 9 have been seen in the state.  This was my 270th life bird in North Carolina!
9th state record Say's Phoebe
The cinnamon-colored belly of the Say's Phoebe helps distinguish it from the Eastern Phoebe.
One more stop to make - this time a field in Edgecombe County, north of Tarboro.  Two Sandhill Cranes had been seen there associating with a large flock of Tundra Swans.  We arrived as the sun was slipping behind the trees, but the huge flock of swans was hard to miss.  After a few minutes of scanning, I finally picked out the two Sandhill Cranes in the back of the flock.  These birds aren't extremely rare in North Carolina, but most sightings are flyovers of birds migrating south, making them hard to pin down.  Therefore, this made an excellent NC bird for me.
Two Sandhill Cranes behind the Tundra Swans.
This was an amazing two-day trip.  I went 100% on all the birds I chased - Cackling Goose, Harlequin Duck, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Say's Phoebe, and Sandhill Crane, and I even got the incredible bonus of my self-found Snowy Owl!  My year list stands at 321, much higher than I ever thought I would get this year.  I wonder what amazing adventures 2014 will bring.

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