Skip to content

Birding with the Enemy

February 19, 2008

The North Carolina birding experience is made that much better by the people you meet. My trip to Hatteras was so successful largely because of the efforts of Neal and Pat Moore, who for so many birders in Carolina and beyond, simply are Outer Banks birding. I first met the Moores when I had some car trouble on my very first trip out to Hatteras last year. They were manning the Pea Island NWR park office, as they so often do, and directed me to the only open garage on the Outer Banks where I could get a new tire that allowed me to limp home safely. Later, through Becky, the bird collections manager at the NC Science Museum, I was able to even further take advantage of their amazing hospitality. Not only did the Moores put me up for two nights while I took my boat ride, but they offered to take me out to Cape Point, the very tip of the Outer Banks, in their 4×4. How could I say no?

I wasn’t alone in taking a trip with the Moores. Along for the ride was North Carolina’s top big lister, and the current holder of the NC Big Year record, Ricky Davis. How odd then, that I was suddenly in the car with the guy whose record I was trying to make a run at. My competitive juices were peaked, I was ready to show this guy that there was a new scope-slinger in the neighborhood and he was ready to take the old guard down! Of course he wasn’t my real enemy (I told myself), but a fellow player in this somewhat silly competition. And most certainly, another set of good eyes for whatever we could find out on the state’s most unpredictable beach.

Cape Point is best known among North Carolina birders for the number of gulls that can be found at any given time at its tip. If there is any place in the state where rarities are most likely to turn up, this is it. We found a large flock of gulls just as we had hoped, but the rarest in the bunch were the Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and well, they just weren’t gonna cut it anymore. Some, though, were beginning to look very colorful, including the especially bright bird below (see if you can pick it out). I wish they could all be that easy. No amount of scanning could turn up any western or white-winged gulls even though all of them had been reported at different times this year. Tough luck for my year list but there were some large flocks of both Black and Surf Scoters moving past that were nice to see even if the gulls weren’t cooperating and a small flock of Horned Larks near the dunes were a very nice addition as well.

But there was a particular bird I was very interested in finding and find them we did, though it took a little while. I’m sure you guys up north have these birds as regular winter residents and consider them old hat, but Cape Point is the one place in my state where you can regularly find Snow Buntings. We had a flock of around ten that hung out only ten feet from our truck allowing for crippling views and great photo opportunities. While birders in the lower 48 rarely get an opportunity to see the birds in their sharp breeding plumage, several of the males in the flock were nearly through their molt with a completely black back and only a few brown smudges on the face. Really a stunner and it’s amazing how such a brightly patterned bird can disappear into the dunes when it stops moving.

We headed back from the point and after I said my farewells to the Moores and Ricky I headed towards Chapel Hill with a few places to hit on the way home. The Moores suggested I stop by Pea Island and look for Henry, the Black-crowned Night Heron who hangs out on a small pond near the visitor center. I found him alright, sitting huddled just a few feet from the trail. A nice way to get a year bird, I wish they were all that simple to find. While enjoying Henry’s “antics”, such that a night heron can be said to have them, I ran into a guy from my boat the day before who had run into a Magnificent Frigatebird, a quite excellent bird for the state. I was certainly jealous, but frigatebird is not really a species you can rush back and relocate, they tend to be here and gone in an instant. I’d just have to keep my eyes peeled next time.

Leaving the Outer Banks I stopped again at Alligator River NWR, to search once more for the reported Rough-legged Hawk. I headed to the intersection where the hawk was suspected of preferring, but found instead of a Buteo, a Merlin. It’s certainly not as rare as the Roughleg, but a great bird nonetheless and always a pleasure to see. I didn’t have a lot of time to spend here waiting though, I had been hoping that the Rough-legged Hawk would be as evident as Henry, twas not to be. So with some reluctance I wrote the Roughleg off as a bird I hoped to get at the end of the year and moved on.

Lake Phelps was my next stop, but as I turned off the highway to make the short jaunt over to the Pocosin Lakes, I ran into a flock of 50 or so Canada Geese, that just so happened to contain a single Cackling Goose (probably Richardson’s type) that seemed to prefer to stay away from the flock at large. This was a bird I had missed the week before, so maybe my luck was turning, maybe the not-so Common Mergansers I sought on Lake Phelps would be easily found. Dare I begin to imagine to also find the Yellow-headed Blackbird that had been recently photographed in the area? The answer turned out to be no. While I did see some merganserish birds on the edge of my scope’s view, distorted by the heat waves rising off the lake and I really really wanted to call them for Commons, I simply could not do it in good faith. Sadly, the Common Merganser, like the Hawk, would have to wait.

Perhaps it was the good karma engendered by my non-call of the mergansers, but a brush lined road near the lake access turned up a phenomenal Clay-colored Sparrow, in a group of White-crowns, Savannahs, and Songs. A bird even better than the pseudo-Mergansers. I tried to take a photo through my scope of a bird as it perched in low tree, but the sparrow scattered as I clicked the shutter, a very sparrow-like thing to do. But with the bird in the bag I headed home as the rays of the winter sun began to lengthen. Between the pelagic and the trip home, it was a very successful trip. The next day in Chapel Hill it was 75 degrees, so spring is coming like it or not, and the winter birds missed will have to wait until November rolls around.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: