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The Long Cut

May 22, 2008

Before I dive headlong into the report of Tuesday’s pelagic trip out of Hatteras, there’s some birding I did on the way down that is worth it’s own post. Due to the vagaries of my schedule I had the day before the pelagic off. Typically with weekend trips the drive to Hatteras is one undertaken after work, in the dark. Very much of the “get there as fast as you can” variety that leaves little time or daylight for proper birding along the way. This time, though, I decided to take the long way around that loops southeast of Raleigh down to the south end of the Outer Banks and up. If you can imagine a map of North Carolina you can see what I’m talking about. It’s a longer drive and relies on ferries to get to the barrier islands, but it was a part of the state I’d never been to and with good birds on the line besides, so why not?

First though, I made a swing through the NC State fields south of Raleigh, where I had found Grasshopper Sparrows before, to find some reported Dickcissels. Not only were the Grasshoppers singing, but the targeted birds were right where they were supposed to be, and at least three of them sang back and forth across the fields at each other. One sat long enough atop a fence post for me to snap a photo for the record. The Dickcissels were a nice reunion with a bird I hadn’t seen since my Missouri days, but top honors may just have to go to the singing Baltimore Oriole in a yard just before the fields that ticked that frustrating nemesis off for the year. If I’d known from the beginning that I would have so much trouble with Orioles and Grosbeaks, I don’t know that I’d have done this Big year thing…

From Raleigh I then went to Goldsboro where I headed to a nondescript bridge in the middle of nowhere where Mississippi Kites had consistently been reported and had even shown signs of nesting in the area. A walk down by the river failed to turn up any kites, but most of the other nesting eastern North American species were there in numbers. For a second I thought I had another new year bird in the bag when I heard a Willow Flycatcher on the other side of the river. I had practically ticked the bird when I pished to see if it would show itself only to hear a White-eyed Vireo call. The same White-eye that had apparently been doing a dead-on Willow Flycatcher impersonation, so add that to your list of possible confusions.

From there it was a quick 3 hour jaunt to Cedar Island to catch the ferry to Okracoke Island and the Outer Banks. There’s good birding here, as you might expect on the coast. Least, Sandwich and Forster’s Terns foraged on the water, but the real prize was the famous and excellent mudflat at the ferry terminal, famous because a Curlew Sandpiper hung out there last year (which I missed), excellent because it’s precisely the kind of place a Curlew Sandpiper would hang out. No curlew this time, but there were good numbers of peeps, both in the mud and foraging in the sand grapes in the dunes. The majority were Semipalmated Sandpipers, but I also found a few Westerns, a couple Least and one nice White-rumped. Photo below as it foraged with some Semis. Not a bad bird for the state, and clearly larger bodied and longer winged then the Semis, which looked tiny in comparison.

The sandpipers were in their spring finest. It’s easy to forget how sharp they can look in fresh plumage. I was particularly impressed with the Dunlins and Red Knots I’d see over the weekend. Very nice birds. But eyecatching here was a classic Western, complete with rufous ear patch and long droopy bill. That they could all be this easy…

The ferry ride was uneventful. These “poor man’s pelagics” can be great in the winter for sea ducks on the sound, but in spring the best I could turn up were a few late Gannets and a Common Nighthawk making the long crossing back to Cedar Island. I arrived on Okracoke with plans to look for plovers on the beach but had to cross the island in a hurry to catch the next ferry to Hatteras, my final destination. Some Black Skimmers crossed the road above me, netting me one more bird for the year from the road.

I got to the ferry terminal with plenty of time, but I’d underestimated both the summer traffic on the banks and the small boats they were using. I ended up missing my scheduled boat and had to wait around for the second. The sun was setting so birding was getting tough. I caught the last rays of the sunset over my missed ferry below. At least setbacks are scenic in the Outer Banks.

I arrived at the home of my friends, the Moores, with whom I stayed last time, a little later. But my prize was listening to the singing Chuck-will’s-widows in their neighborhood. An odd bird that is now on my year list, but not my life list as I haven’t actually even seen it, despite hearing it often in the southeast. So it goes, I can live with the fact that I’ll manage a Chuck at some point, I had plenty of lifers waiting for me on the boat the next day.

  1. Jochen permalink
    May 22, 2008 8:29 am

    It is a tough approach to a life list to not count heard-only’s and most birders I know (in Europe) count them just the same.
    I suppose if you had our Locustella, Hippolais or Acrocephalus warblers (google them, I dare you), you’d think differently. They are not particularly difficult to see but are so drap and identical in their appearance that song is the only relevant/unique/worthwhile feature.
    It would thus seem more odd to count a seen-only Marsh Warbler than a hear-only!
    Nice Western Sandpiper, I’d love to find one of those amongst our Curlew Sandpipers…

  2. May 22, 2008 8:41 am

    If I see the bird but identify it by call, that’s good enough for me. I just need to get my eyes on it. You Euros have some tough birds though. You’re right, I might change my tune if I had to deal with your warblers on a regular basis.

    If I counted heard only birds I would have a handful of birds to add to my life list, including a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat in Texas that I couldn’t find to save my life.

  3. Jochen permalink
    May 22, 2008 10:04 am

    Without the heard-only’s, I’d have almost no rails on my list and my owls would be cut in half. Talk about nemesis groups.

    That Yellowthroat must hurt.

  4. May 22, 2008 1:04 pm

    I’ve been lucky to see quite a few owls, and my rails are practically non-existent anyway so…

    The Yellowthroat does hurt, but it was in some seriously thick cane and I only had so much time before I had to catch a flight home. A tough situation all around.

  5. Jochen permalink
    May 23, 2008 4:28 am

    I hate flights home.

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