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Bald Head Birding

October 22, 2009
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So this is finally the part where I follow up on my teaser from Monday and unpack my trip to the beach with the Young Naturalist’s Club, an organization within Wake County Audubon that I fortuitously was asked to be a part of by my friend Becky, who just so happens to be the president of Wake Audubon.  The genesis of the group can be found in a previous post, and I’m happy to report that so far we’ve had a lot of success with some really great kids who are excited about being outside and seeing neat things.  You really can’t beat that.

Way back in February we had scheduled a trip to Bald Head Island, a sort of posh resorty island in the very south of North Carolina, to do some seining in the ocean.  When the trip had been put in the calender we apparently had not given much thought to the variability of fall in NC.  It can be absolutely lovely, but it can also be cold and wet, and when the temperature at sunrise barely topped 40 degrees it appeared that it would be a difficult task to convince anyone to brave the waves with the seining net.  No matter though, we were all there and ready to go.  There was no turning back now.

Within the YNC group, there are a couple individuals who are more interested in birds than just about anything else.  As a former young birder myself, I certainly feel a kinship with those guys, one of whom, Matt, was a runner-up to ABA’s Young Birder of the Year a couple years back and the other, Ali, hasn’t been birding as long, but has all the enthusiasm of a new convert and a great eye for photography too (more on that later).  Anywho, when we arrived at the ferry terminal I quickly pulled out the scope to see what birds we could find around the harbor.  It was mostly the regular seashore crew; Cormorants, Pelicans, Laughing Gulls and a couple species of terns, but it was nice to see the species that are impossible to see far from the coast, and it was certainly nice to rack up birds for my county list.

photo by Greg Swick

photo by Greg Swick

Bald Head Island prohibits cars, so once you get off the pedestrian ferry from Southport you hop on a tram, essentially a glorified golfcart, that takes you wherever you need to go.  About 15 chilly minutes later we arrives at the headquarters of the Bald Head Island Conservancy, a non-profit environmental education and conservation organization that does a lot for the island, including buying up portions of it through a land trust.  Maureen, the senior naturalist, hooked us up with nets and buckets and we headed to the beach to see what we could find in the water.  For this, two of the other leaders, Becky and Ed, who showed a significant amount of foresight in bringing chest high waders, dragged the net and brought back some goodies including Spectacled Crabs and small fish of various and sundry species.  It was certainly cool, but the birds were calling, and Ali and Matt, my dad, and I headed out to see what we could find.

Looking at stuff

It didn’t take long.  Practically the minute we stepped out on the beach we spotted a Peregrine Falcon on the roof of a beach house, the same beach house that was buzzed a few minutes later by an American Kestrel and a Merlin giving us the falcon slam in about 15 minutes total and all in front of the same house.  Some yard list there…  The shorebirds were pretty sparse though, represented only by the ever-present Sanderlings and some Willets that appeared to be of the wintering western variety.  But Maureen gave us a tip on a tidal pool a short walk away that has, in the past, produced some good birding.  We headed out post haste.

It was a good thing we did too, we quickly turned on a group of gulls that included not only the Laughing Gulls that we’d seen in bunches before, but also Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed and two subadult Lesser Black-backed Gulls!  It was a lifer for Ali, and while it’s not as rare as it used to be it’s still a pretty good bird, especially this far down on the coast this early in the year.  The birds were loafing with a big flock of Royal, Sandwich, and a couple Caspian Terns providing excellent looks and opportunities for photos.

photo by Greg Swick

photo by Greg Swick

There several surf-fishermen on the beach that were friendly, showing some of the kids the fish they were pulling up, which seemed to be mostly flounder.  It goes to show that birders and fishermen can share the same beaches, despite those who would go out of their way to have you believe otherwise.  We also enjoyed the opportunities to look for things that get washed up on the shore, like this cool Stingray, either Atlantic or Southern.  Check out that barb!  It was about six inches long!

Fish n' chips anyone?

The land birding was slower, but there were remnants of migrants trickling through.  I found an Indigo Bunting and a Red-eyed Vireo but the best birds by far were the Blackpoll Warblers, which migrate down the coast before making the long jump from the Carolina coast to South America.  Ali got some phenomenal shots, which you can see on his Flickr site and his blog.  The birds were incredibly confiding, and much easier to find foraging in the dune vegetation rather than 40 feet above you in a treetop.

Before too long it was time to head back the ferry and back to Raleigh.  It was a productive trip though, lots of good birds, great enthusiastic students and inspiring environmental educators who often make me feel as though I’m hardly qualified to be leading trips because I’m as amazed by what they’re finding as the kids we’re supposed to be mentoring.  It’s a great organization we’re building here, and as we come to the end of the first field trip year it’s really great to look back at what was accomplished and look forward to all the cool things to think about doing next year.

Maybe we’ll move the seining trip to a little warmer time of year though.  Just a thought.

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One Comment
  1. Becky D permalink
    October 27, 2009 11:08 am

    It was such a great day, and I really appreciate you and your dad’s help! Thanks so much.

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