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My Life’s Birds: #411-412

July 28, 2010

January 14, 2007 – Pamlico Sound and Cape Hatteras, NC – Every year, on Martin Luther King weekend, the local Chapel Hill Bird Club runs a three day birding blitz circumnavigating the bit of North Carolina that sticks furthest out into the Atlantic Ocean.  The itinerary is nearly always the same, the first day is spent on and around Lake Mattamuskeet NWR, the largest natural lake in the state and wintering ground for fully a quarter of the entire population of Tundra Swans as well as myriad other waterfowl species.   Day two involves a ferry across Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island and the Outer Banks, and day three continues up the coast to and back onto the mainland near Alligator River NWR for raptors, owls, and any vagrant passerines that might have ended up against the ocean when their internal compass went haywire.

Of the three days, my favorite has to be the ferry ride from Swan Quarter to Ocracoke Island, a two and a half hour trip across the widest part of the sound.  These “poor man’s pelagics” offer the opportunity to get up close and personal with some near-pelagic species that are otherwise difficult to get a good look at from shore.  So while most people consider the ferry a necessary evil to get to scenic Okracoke Island, an isolated strip of sand only accessible by air or sea, we birders were out of our cars as soon as the horn blew, lined up against the railing with binoculars at the ready, scanning for loons and sea ducks.  We weren’t disappointed either, as rafts of Scoters, both American (née Black Scoter) and Surf rolled over the horizon.  These weren’t the juvenile birds I’d seen the month before, but adults  birds in all their full velvety black, giant-billed glory.  The water was even calm enough to pull out scopes right on the ferry deck.  The views were fantastic.

But Scoters, as cool as they are, weren’t our main target.  The Pamlico Sound ferry is one of the best places in the state to find Long-tailed Ducks, and when a black and white torpedo buzzed the port side of the ferry, everyone jumped to attention.  It wasn’t much longer before we found a small group of birds on the water, another stunning male and a few females.  Unlike regular pelagics however, no amount of begging and pleading keeps the North Carolina ferry system from completing its route, so our time with the birds was far too short.

By the time we rolled through Ocracoke and arrived at Hatteras via another ferry (a shorter trip this time) it was getting close to sun down.  But there was still a bird left to see, one that had been reported some time ago.  The long, pristine beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore attract birds as well as people, and this particular winter a Whimbrel had decided that it was a place worth sticking it out rather than continuing to migrate south.   While the little curlew is a regular migrant on our coast, a lingering winter bird is still unusual enough to draw attention, and to necessitate a special stop.

I took off back towards home after that, having to miss the next day.  I had to pick up my wife at the airport that evening if I remember right, and not even tales of a two lifer day would save me if I forgot that.

WHIMBR and LOTADU from wikipedia

  1. July 28, 2010 7:35 am

    Shame on me to read your blog a bit to quickly……my eye could not help but stop at the word “little curlew”.

    But Whimblel is still a really cool bird, one I have yet to see.

    Nice post!


  2. Nate permalink*
    July 28, 2010 8:07 am

    @Laurent- Yeah, little curlew not Little Curlew. That would be a good bird!

    • July 28, 2010 4:50 pm

      Gorgeous photo of Long-tailed Duck! Birding on and around water is the best!

  3. Nate permalink*
    July 29, 2010 1:39 pm

    @Anne- It is a lovely photo. I have to thank whoever uploaded it to wikipedia! 🙂

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