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Pea Brain: Vol. 2

January 22, 2008

The first part of this trip is here.

After Pea Island the next stop north is Oregon Inlet, which is bisected by the Bodie Bridge, apparently the most dangerous bridge in North Carolina. There has been talk for at least the last 10 years about replacing it, I think they should tear it down and put a free ferry in. Regardless, it’s the main thoroughfare to the Outer Banks and the rocky groin on its south side is the best spot in North Carolina for Purple Sandpipers, target number two.

The wind was still howling as I trudged out the rocky pier. There were some Sanderlings and Oystercatchers on the sand that collected between the rocks, but at the very tip, scurrying over the moss strewn boulders was a pair of Purple Sandpipers, just as I had hoped there would be. What’s funny about the Purple Sands around here is that they will inevitably find the one rocky shore in hundreds of miles of sandy beach and set up shop precisely there, no matter how small that rocky section may be. They are incredibly predictable to that end. Gulls were good here too as my museum experience helped me spot a very dark mantled third year Lesser Black-backed Gull on the shore. The sea was still far to choppy for seawatching though, and my hope that the birds would huddle in the relative safety of the inlet was unfounded. Nothing but a few sharp Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Loons.

On the north side of the inlet, I had heard of a regular Common Eider. Sure enough, I spotted the duck, excellent bird for North Carolina, just before it was chased off by an aggressive loon after what must have been an intense underwater confrontation. The Eider all of a sudden shot out of the ocean followed by the loon rising completely out of the water perpendicular to the surface. It looked like Nessie, very cool.

On the beach on the opposite side of the island I ran into a group of gulls, including this lighter mantled Lesser BB Gull. It’s kind of amazing the effect sunlight has on the color of gull mantles. The LBBG I had seen earlier looked very dark, partially because the sky was fairly overcast. By the time I saw this bird the sun was out, and it seemed lighter, though still much darker than the Herrings it was associating with. Anyway, the gulls were fishing using the bizarre method I’d never seen before where they would stand on the beach and stomp on the sand, to keep it soft I guess, as the wave washed away. They looked like they were tap-dancing, and then they would grab whatever looked appetizing.

I’d never heard of gulls doing this, and certainly had never seen it before. It was particularly interesting that there was a wide range on ages represented in the ten or so Herring Gulls (and 1 LBBG!) that were hunting. The older gulls were clearly better at it though and were watched by several of the 1st years. It looked as though this was a learned behavior that the older gulls were modeling and the younger ones were picking up on. Gull culture? Who knows, but they’re pretty clever birds in any case and looked to be fairly successful picking up either material that was washed up or organisms that were too slow to retreat into the sand vortex that the gulls were kicking up.

As the front moved through, the ocean seemed to calm a bit towards the afternoon, enough that seawatching netted me a couple Red-throated Loons and a Black Scoter flyby from the beach. The wind was still fierce however, and this group of Red Knots to the right was huddled on the leeward side of an abandoned pier up towards Nags Head. I still had one more place to hit though before I left the banks.

Bodie Island is home to one of the many lighthouses along the coast that North Carolina is somewhat famous for. The lighthouse is cool sure, and even still in use, but it was the marshes behind it I was interested in. While I had been really lucky with regard to my target birds up to this point, I hit a wall with the rails I wanted to see off the boardwalk. No Virginias, no Soras. But a surprise was a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches in the pine trees along the road to the lighthouse. Birds tend to stretch their ranges along the coast both up from the south and down from the north, this was a lucky example of the latter. Perhaps most interesting were the tourists that come to see the Outer Banks lighthouses. Some are even as devoted to lighthouses as birders are to birds. Strange to think about. But that’s from the outside looking in, I guess. I suppose I was cutting a strange figure too dragging my scope around and making strange noises at the trees.

I had to leave with light still out because I wanted to give myself a chance for a very good bird that had been at a house in Manteo on Roanoke Island. A guy there had a Black-chinned Hummingbird coming to a feeder there. Now normally I would have ignored it, as I’ve seen the bird out west, but this was a Big Year and a super rarity for the state so I sat in the guy’s yard for an hour before the bird finally showed, and was subsequently chased from the feeder by his many Ruby-throated Hummers. Normally I don’t like to tick and run, but I had one last place to check.

I considered staying out till sunset to check Alligator River NWR for Short-eared Owls but my wife had just returned home from a conference in DC and I wanted to get back. I still drove down the road where the Owls are regular just in case, but sunset was still an hour off so I didn’t expect much. When I got to the turn around spot I spotted a harrier lazily soaring over the road. Then the bird banked left and I noticed it didn’t have a white rump. “That’s odd”, I thought, so I put my glasses on it before it turned away and the harrier magically turned into a Short-eared Owl.

Hell. Yeah.

I could go home with a clean conscience. To top it off, a Barred Owl flew across the road as I turned onto the highway. And to top that off, just after sunset I caught the silhouette of a Great Horned Owl atop a fencerow as I cruised home at 70 mph. I ended the day with 87 species, 26 new birds for the year and 2 lifers. With the exception of the rails, I got all my target species. I can’t remember that last time I did that. Is my luck turning? I’ll wait till I chase the Mottled Ducks hanging out near Sunset Beach before I go that far, but it looks good. It looks real good.

  1. Greg permalink
    January 22, 2008 10:41 am

    Great writing about a truly memorable day of birding. Congratulations!

  2. aputerlady permalink
    January 23, 2008 9:22 am

    Thanks for sharing all of your exciting finds. It’s amazing what is there – if one just looks. You obviously have quite a talent for identifying shore birds – something I aspire to.

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