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My Life’s Birds: #382-387

April 21, 2010
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February 5, 2006 – Wrightsville Beach, NC – One of the best things about living in North Carolina is that the beaches, with their attendant fun and birding opportunities, are only a short distance away.  One can start in Chapel Hill and no more than two hours later, be standing on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean breathing in the salty sea air, watching the waves crashing on the sand, and (don’t tell my wife) watching any number of exciting seabirds.

I am not what you would call a football fan and neither was my new bride, so when Super Bowl Sunday rolled around I convinced her that we should take an extended road trip to the beaches around Wilmington.  I fully admit that I had an ulterior motive here.  I had been birding seriously again for not more than five months and I’d just sold one of my two racing bikes (a sharp little K2 cyclocross number that I honestly wish I’d kept to tool around on because it’s so useful beyond racing) to procure a brand new spotting scope.  It was time to put it through its paces and as great as it was on the local reservoirs, I needed a larger vista.  Hence the purely altruistic beach trip I pitched to my wife, because after all, who doesn’t like the beach… in winter.

The scope proved immediately useful picking up the white tracks of hundreds of Northern Gannets on the horizon.  They’re not hard to find off of any beach in the state during the winter months and several thousand individuals can be spotted over the course of a day in great white swarms over schools of baitfish.  Little Red-throated Loons are also common, but closer to shore and packing into the inlets as the tide goes out.  In winter they’re little more than slate gray and white birds sitting low on the water but I was over the moon at the lifer, one of those regular ocean birds that I was unable to find in Missouri.  Along the same lines were the massive and hulking Great Black-backed Gulls that patrol the beaches like the muscle-bound bully in those old Charles Atlas ads.

What had drawn me to Wilmington in the first place was the report that there was a Great Cormorant frequenting a rocky groin on the south end of the island.  It was at this point I had assumed that this was a exceptionally rare bird for North Carolina being so far south of it’s normal range.  I’ve since learned that Great Cormorants are unusual, but tend to be extremely predictable in that this very same individual, that we did end up seeing by the way, was probably the very same Great Cormorant I’d fine for the next three years in precisely the same place, including during my big year run two years later.  Go figure, birds are nothing if not unpredictable, and in this case, conversely completely predictable.

The Great Cormorant was cool and all, but the best bird of the day was one I found by myself completely unexpectedly.  At the north end of Wrightsville Beach is an inlet that is known for being a hot shorebird spot nearly year round.  When I pulled out my scope I was shocked to find a weird looking gull sitting on a sandbar quite close to the road.  It was large, dark-mantled, and yellow-legged.  I was hardly the type of birder who was ready to tackle weird gulls, but with a little help from my trusty Sibley I was confident I’d turned up a Lesser Black-backed Gull.  I snapped the photo to the right through my new scope as a souvenir of the proud moment, a photo that has since sat on my hard drive doing nothing but taking up space until right now.

As I think back on that moment now, that may have been the second that I really became a “birder” again.  Once you take a fairly difficult identification by the horns and knock it out yourself without any help or direction, well, that’s about as good a feeling as there is in this hobby.  The small flock of Red Knots on the sound side right before we headed home was just the icing.  We got home just after dark, ordered in food, and watched the end of the Super Bowl.

It was a great day at the beach from my perspective, the first of many I’d have in North Carolina, but it was the last time my wife would go with me without a specific understanding about birding and time spent devoted to it.  Seems at that point she knew I was a birder too…

NORGAN from wikipedia

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