Outer Banks Field Trip November 30–December 1, 2013
The Outer Banks of North Carolina provide birders with year round opportunities to enjoy birds in one of the state's most spectacular natural settings. But winter arguably shines as the brightest of the seasons. Flocks of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese replace crowds of sun-seeking tourists. Mosquitoes take a short break before returning in spring to greet visitors. Yes, the period from Thanksgiving to Martin Luther King Day may be the best of the best on the Banks.
Members of the Carolina Bird Club gathered at the Bodie Island Lighthouse early in the morning of November 30th to see what avian bounty could be found on the impoundments, ponds, puddles, sound, ocean, shore, and dunes. Saturday was devoted to visiting areas near Oregon Inlet, birding locations that need little in the way of introduction. We sorted though ducks on the Lighthouse Pond, enjoyed the “large white bird trio” of American White Pelican, Tundra Swan, and Snow Goose at Pea Island, and scanned the ocean from several locations including Jeanette's Pier.
Highlights at Pea Island included five Brant arriving with skeins of Snow Geese, rafts of Redhead on South Pond, a Merlin perched nicely for viewing through our scopes, Bald Eagles resting on pilings, and a mink crawling out of the water. Ocean watching from the pier produced some of the day's best sightings, including wavy lines of scoters buzzing southward just beyond the waves, a handsome drake White-winged Scoter bobbing on the sea, and a Western/Clark's Grebe near the scoter. For some, the ability to watch a Humpback Whale feeding within sight of the pier was the non-avian highlight of the day. The whale's frothy blow could be seen on and off for more than thirty minutes as the “long winged New Englander” chased schools of baitfish with groups of Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins in attendance. At one point the whale's lunge feeding brought the massive jaws out of the water, and the low, bumpy back that gives this whale its name was often visible.
Sunday dawned overcast, but without the fresh north-northeast breeze that made conditions on Saturday somewhat challenging. With reports of a Snowy Owl just 45 minutes away by car, the group overwhelmingly voted to change the scheduled itinerary and head south to Cape Hatteras. On the broad, sandy beach just south of the cape's point, a miniature, white R2-D2 was picked up in spotting scopes scanning the shore. Yes, that rotund character was the almost-famous Cape Hatteras owl. Not wanting to add undue stress to the majestic northern visitor's morning, the group remained well back from the bird, but constant traffic on the nearby public beach eventually convinced the owl to move to more private surroundings. Nearby, a trio of Snow Buntings put on an aerial exhibition for a few lucky birders.
On the drive back north, a stop alongside Highway 12 opposite South Pond produced a lingering White-rumped Sandpiper, a life bird for several in attendance.
The trip ended in the early afternoon at Alligator River NWR. Here a trio of upstart River Otters threatened to push aside the rafts of ducks as swans for top billing. The trip ended with just over 100 species observed, which is not too bad considering that very few woodland birds made their way to the list. We may not have seen a cardinal, but we would gladly trade that sighting for those Snow Buntings!
Species observed during this trip were:
American Black Duck
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
Great Horned Owl
Inshore Bottled-nosed Dolphin