Saturday, March 28, 2015

Hatteras Island: The Land-Birding Perspective

    After several months of impatient waiting, our family's vacation to Hatteras Island, North Carolina, finally took place! It also ended too quickly, but my brother and I, along with our dad as transportation, filled up the week with loads of birding. It would be impossible to cover all the details, so I'll stick with the highlights!   
    All of us were worn out after Sunday's day-long drive, and we only checked a few local spots briefly Monday afternoon. Yet Tuesday, March 17th, began with an early start at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, then a scan at Oregon Inlet, and finally a stop at Bodie Island. At all stops we saw several species of waterfowl, ready for their flight North, and at Pea Island and Bodie Island there were gatherings of American Avocets. Oregon Inlet yielded three Purple Sandpipers and seven Brants (both lifers for Nolan). The three of us also got our first-ever sighting of a Mink here! 


     Our energy was zapped after those stops, so we decided to head back to our house in Avon. I'm not sure what I was doing - probably skimming through photos from the day on my camera - but my head shot up as Nolan said, "Dad, turn around! That was a Swallow-tailed Kite!!" We were in Rodanthe now, just a couple of towns from the house, but we immediately turned around to re-find the bird. There it was! Or rather, there they were! Instead of one there were two, and we began following them as they traveled North along the sound. Dad thought they might fly over Pea Island, so we hurried to a pull-off at the refuge. We waited for no more than five minutes before two dark specks in the sky started to approach us - the kites! Flying swiftly and swooping gracefully, these birds certainly used the wind in their favor. We held our breaths as the first bird got closer and closer and...right over our heads!

Swallow-tailed Kite #1

Swallow-tailed Kite #1

     To our delight, the second bird passed over eating its meal on the wing!

Swallow-tailed Kite #2

    Although our whole Outer Banks vacation was unforgettable, the Swallow-tailed Kites will always stick out in my mind.

     I had planned to spend the next morning birding Palmetto-Peartree Preserve and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, but those plans were shattered when I heard the wind howling throughout the night and continuing into the morning. I decided it wasn't even worth the trouble birding without being able to stand, so I stayed home while the boys "braved up." (They didn't have anything noteworthy, by the way.)

     On Thursday we made the short drive to Cape Hatteras and spent most of the morning there. After checking the pond near the entrance, we headed over to the old lighthouse site and scoped the ocean. Between the crashing waves we could see dozens of Horned Grebes and Red-throated Loons. A strikingly white and black grebe with a long neck and an alert appearance caught my eye. I cautiously made sure I wasn't dreaming up a yellow bill, and in direct comparison with the Horned Grebes, this bird was much larger. "I think this is a Western Grebe," I called, and Nolan sprinted to me. I wasn't able to re-find the bird for him, so I waved the ID aside as a crazy illusion.
     Yet while I was trying to find this bird once again, I found two Red-necked Grebes floating together - one bird in handsome breeding plumage and the second in molt. Nolan confirmed the sighting, and then he took a scan of the ocean looking for other different species. In the mean time, I was enjoying watching the Forster's Terns plunging into the water and the Lesser Black-backed Gulls flying low over the surf. Then Nolan yelled, "Western Grebe!" So I wasn't crazy after all? I peeked into the scope, and yes, that was the bird! Once again, though, we lost the grebe as the choppy waves blocked our views. It was several minutes before I saw the bird drifting left again, and this time I attempted to snap a few digiscopes. Without a true digiscoping device, I never managed to get a perfect, identifiable photo, but in a couple you could see the black and white pattern of the nape, which reminds me of the pattern on a Black Skimmer. (I will spare readers from the pathetic images.)
     We walked back to the car, then headed to Cape Point, which is an exceptional place to find pelagic species throughout most of the year and to seawatch in the winter. We didn't have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, so we had to walk to the point, but I believe we saw much more than we would have from a car.
     The number of Double-crested Cormorants here, and truly, throughout the whole island, was most impressive. Even photos cannot capture what it was like to see these thousands of birds when they took to the sky.
Double-crested Cormorants...a fraction of the group
More Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants (and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse)
    As we were walking, we saw our first Sanderlings of the day, and although they are very common on the coast, it's always a treat for us inland-ers to see them.

Sanderlings (habitat shot)

     We continued to the Point, occasionally stopping to survey the ocean. On one scan, Nolan spotted a line of shorebirds flying low over the water.  I had walked off, letting him identify these shorebirds, but then I heard him yelling. I picked up a few key words: "...not shorebirds...alcids...Razorbills!!!" I tripped over the sand toward him, and looked into the scope as the group of twenty or so birds passed. They were indeed Razorbills - another lifebird for my brother! A group of this size was also an interesting find, as Razorbills typically fly together in small numbers of about three to five birds. Further ocean-viewing yielded other Razorbills, so we decided to hurry to the Point to hopefully see even more of them and get better looks.
     It turned out to be a good idea. We eventually tallied two hundred forty-seven Razorbills! All of them were North-bound, dodging the rolling waves as they fought the wind. The Western Grebe was certainly a good find, but this was even more exciting! Once again, our day ended successfully.

    Friday was a washout; birding resumed on Saturday, our last full day at Hatteras Island. I woke up to strong winds (again), which demolished my last hope to look for the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at Palmetto-Peartree Preserve, so back to Cape Hatteras we went. 
    An early start on a trail by the salt marshes brought us a Virginia Rail, our first to actually see. Walking along the beach to Cape Point, we saw hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls flying over the water in the distance. I knew there had to be a Little Gull out there, I found one adult fluttering over the waves.
     At the Point, we were greeted by one of the most beautiful sights ever:

A birder's happy place

    Those, my friends, are gulls, along with a handful of terns and even a few shorebirds on the closest shore. I believe Nolan and I almost had a fist-fight over who was going to use the scope first. I let him have the honors, though, and then I scanned: Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, and Bonaparte's Gulls. There were also two species of terns here: Royal and Forster's. When the group of Bonaparte's Gulls off to the side took to the air, I spotted another adult Little Gull, my second of the day, as Nolan was unable to locate either.
    We didn't scan the ocean long, but nonetheless the Razorbill flight continued, with forty-seven North-bound birds counted. I wouldn't have been surprised if the day's total rose into the upper hundreds if we had stayed there longer!
     On the return walk to the car, we all had awesome, close views of the irresistible Piping Plovers. We also flushed an American Bittern from the wet grass!

Piping Plover

       I was in a light state of depression on Sunday, as it's always hard to leave coastal birding. However, just after crossing back into the mainland, Dad made a surprise detour to the Palmetto-Peartree Preserve! This location, which I have mentioned several times in this post, hosts multiple breeding pairs of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. We had never seen this endangered species before, so with the help of eBird coordinates, we made a short, hopeful search. Thankfully, the coordinates were spot on. As soon I rolled down the window, I heard the raspy call of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker! All but the youngest two Walkers hopped out of the car to see them. I probably had the best views, and I even got a (very poor) photo to document the lifer. 

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, lifer #332
      Hatteras always sticks out in my mind for its unique pelagic birding, yet I am often pleasantly reminded of the great birds you can find there on land. It may be a while before we return here, but the wait is always well worth it. More photos from our great week are below!

Northern Shovelers at Pea Island NWR (ignore the blur in the corner)

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Boat-tailed Grackle at Oregon Inlet, one of MANY

Laughing Gulls in Avon, very photogenic!

Red-throated Loon at Cape Hatteras Point, an especially close individual

Bonaparte's Gull at Cape Hatteras Point

Brown Creeper at Bodie Island

Fish Crow at Bodie Island, unfortunately in bad light

American White Pelicans at Pea Island NWR, quite unusual for the coast

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Signs of Spring

   After our recent snow and ice storms, I longingly looked for a sign - any sign - that spring was on its way. True, the Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows have been loudly proclaiming their names as of late, but I wanted further proof. 


     A bit of prowling around in our yard yielded the first of the earth's evidence. Smooth stems from our Tulips and Daffodils had just begun to poke through the soil, and today they are still growing strong.


    Soon we discovered dazzling white and purple Crocuses blooming in our neighbor's flower bed.

     Finally, eBird and various birding listservs in the southernmost states of the U.S. have been showing reports of Northern Parulas, Indigo Buntings, Purple Martins, Swallow-tailed Kites, and more trickling back into the country! I hope they'll hurry up and come to our house.
    Oh, I can't wait for spring!

Check back here in a few weeks for a recap of our upcoming week at Hatteras Island (Outer Banks), North Carolina!