Saturday, March 15, 2014

Outer Banks Birding with the Junior Curators

I apologize for neglecting this blog recently.  Despite my absence, I have been doing some birding lately -  I recently went to the Outer Banks with other NC Museum of Natural Sciences Junior Curators and some staff from the museum: Brian, Liani, and Kathryn.  It was a pretty productive trip, and we got good views of several excellent birds.

We started out Saturday morning birding Nags Head Woods, a tract of native forest north of Jockey's Ridge.  I had relatively low hopes for this patch, and it definitely exceeded my expectations.  The highlight was an Orange-crowned Warbler in a flock of a hundred or so Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Orange-crowned Warblers are scarce winter residents in the Southeast, and it is always a treat to find one.  The forest was also full of Cedar Waxwings, and there were dozens of ducks on the sound side of the park.
Birding at Nags Head Woods
Next up was Jockey's Ridge State Park, home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast.  I always love visiting this park, the dunes are quite a sight.  But there was one reason in particular we were visiting the area - Snow Buntings.  They are rare but regular along the northern coast of North Carolina, and a small flock had been recently sighted along the northern end of the park.  We searched and searched, traversing several ridges and dipping down into basins.  Walking on sand can be pretty tiring, especially when there are no birds around.  Despite our best efforts, we ended up dipping on the buntings.

We were forced to go to Corolla (Sam and I wanted to spend more time at Oregon Inlet and Pea Island instead).  Up there we did manage to spot a flock of five Wilson's Snipe flying around, as well as hundreds of Tundra Swans feeding in the sound.  So I guess it was alright.

The next stop is the undeniable highlight of any winter birding trip to the Outer Banks - Oregon Inlet.  First on the to-do list was to see the Great Horned Owl that had been chilling in an abandoned Osprey nest at the fishing center.  It's not every day you get to see a nocturnal, forest-dwelling species sitting in the middle of the sound - but Oregon always yields something interesting.
Great Horned Owl - it's that feathery lump in the middle, I promise.  See, there are ear tufts!
But on to the south side of the bridge - where I found the infamous Snowy Owl back in December (yes, I have to keep bragging about that - it was pretty cool).  It didn't take long for us to spot the six Harlequin Ducks and one Red-necked Grebe that were hanging around.  Harlequins are my favorite ducks - I guess they're pretty much everyone's favorite ducks - so I was pretty excited to see them again.  And this was the first Red-necked Grebe I had gotten a decent view of (though soon surpassed by my Harris Lake sighting about a week later).  The highlight for me, however, was watching three Purple Sandpipers feed along the edge of the jetty.  This was a lifer for Brian and a state bird for Sam and Edward (and a year bird for me).  Shorebirds are some of my favorites, and I always enjoy watching them.
Six Harlequins and one White-winged Scoter
Purple Sandpiper
The sun was going down, so after Oregon and a quick stop at Pea Island's North Pond, we went to eat at my favorite restaurant on the Outer Banks - Gidget's.  I've eaten there every time I've visited the area since the Big Day back in September - the Snowy Owl chase, the crazy winter birding trip a month later, and now with the JCs.  It's always a satisfying place to warm up (especially when they're serving chicken and dumplins).  After checking into the hotel, we went out to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to do some night photography, and to just hang out.  It was pretty sweet seeing the lighthouse beam at night - and also a little eerie.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at night.
We started the next day bright and early, visiting the Salt Pond at Cape Hatteras.  Right beside the parking area, in a flooded field, Sam and Edward spotted a rail sp. fly into the tall grass.  I jumped into the marsh clapping my hands, trying to flush the bird.  I heard a rustling just two feet from me - the grass parted and a little Virginia Rail flew out.  A new bird for North Carolina, and a cool experience.  We also flushed an American Bittern a few yards down from the rail spot - this was already a productive day!  Thousands of cormorants were flying overhead, and innumerable gannets were streaming by, all migrating north.  It's always amazing to see such vast numbers of birds in flight - and makes me wonder how incredible bird migrations were just two hundred years ago.  Sam and I seawatched for a while, but failed to turn up anything unusual.  It was nice to see birds returning northward, a sign that spring is finally on its way.

Next, we visited the Band-tailed Pigeon stakeout in Manteo.  I had seen the pigeon several weeks earlier - but everyone else still hadn't.  I had a general idea of where to look for the bird, and I spotted it roosting just a few minutes after arriving.  We all watched it preen and rest for a half hour, before heading back to the beach to look at a dead Common Dolphin that had washed up on shore.  After that, we drove to Alligator River NWR, the last stop on the trip.  The refuge consists of swampy pocosins adjacent to extensive fields.  Harriers were pretty common, as were Kestrels.  The highlight of our visit was one Rusty Blackbird, a new Dare County bird for me, that was hanging out in a swampy thicket on the side of the road.

Any trip to the Outer Banks is a good one, especially when you get to go with a group of your good friends.  I'm sure I'll be back down there soon!

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