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My Life’s Birds: #444-445

November 17, 2010
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January 20, 2008 – Pea Island NWR, NC – Back in the heady early days of what would eventually become the Worst Big Year Ever ™, back when it felt, just for a weekend, like I could really grab this monster by the tail and drag it all the way to 349 despite the fact that I was too poor to spend every waking hour on a boat offshore and too enamored with home and wife to spend every sleeping hour in various parts of the state prepping for that golden morning hour of birding, I was so hyped up on adrenaline at the thought of Big Yearing that I would intentionally awake at some ungodly hour just to be in a place where I could potentially add lots of birds to my burgeoning yearlist.  And I don’t mean before sunrise, I mean around the time serious party-goers are returning home.

This was back in the early weeks when adding lots of birds was still a reasonable assumption.  That’s the glamorous part of the Big Year, the part that gets you hooked.  You do it because you don’t just enjoy birding, that’s implied after all, but because it’s addicting.  Each one of those little ticks on your ever-expanding list is a hit, a shock of adrenaline or worse.  You need more and more and more.  But the nature of the Big Year is that the initial overdose is fated to ease.  You simply cannot keep that pace up, especially if your Big Year geography is limited.  Continent level birders can spread out the good over the course of a year, but state birders have a huge pulse up front, then a relatively long ease (depending on how good that initial burst was) until migration a whole four months later.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.  I was still in that initial red-eyed, sweaty-palmed initial phase that had me get out of a perfectly serviceable warm bed at 3:30 am and drive to the Outer Banks before the sun even cracks the horizon.  It was snowing, honest to god snowing, when I hopped out of the car at Pea Island NWR about halfway down the barrier islands on the far end of Oregon Inlet just south of one of the area’s famous lighthouses.  It was also windy, such that my mind cast back to Orville and Wilbur Wright, whose first flight took place on the beaches just north of me specifically because of those gusts.  It was no doubt cold on the morning of December 17,1903, when they got Flyer I off the ground and it was cold 104 years plus one month later too, though my flyers were of the more traditional sort.

I had a handful of birds on the docket for this trip.Many of which were not lifers.  It’s worth noting that the wintering Avocets were right where they were supposed to be, the small flock of American White Pelicans picked out from among the thousands of Tundra Swans, the Common Eider was sitting in the Oregon Inlet marina like it had all winter, the Red-breasted Nuthatches were in the pines near the Boddie Lighthouse, and other common species that are easier here than just about anywhere else fell into place including the vast majority of my waterfowl list.  But in my seemingly endless scans across the shallow retention lakes that make up the bulk of Pea Island refuge, I had one bird that I really wanted to see.  I was looking for that flash of red, the tell-tale sign of a Eurasian Wigeon among the hundreds of their yankee kin.  And there, in the back corner out of the wind, I had it.

The traditional way to find the Euro Wigeons that show up in small numbers annually amongst the expected waterfowl at Pea Island, is to look for the Redhead on the ponds, meaning that finding that rufousy pate is usually enough to pick out your quarry. That was useful until no more than a couple years ago, when massive flocks of up to 10,000 actual Redheads started hanging out on North Pond making the old ways completely irrelevant.  Things change, you’ve got to change along with it.  I don’t know whether I would have found the Euro Wigeon had this been 2010 or even 2009 when the Redheads predominate, but the time for Big Year what-ifs was not for another 11 months.  I had birds to find.

The south side of Oregon Inlet is characterized by a half mile rock groin that runs out into the ocean.  The argument for or against hard structures on the Outer Banks is one that has been fought with increasing fury over the last few years.  Groins seem ostensibly to serve a purpose,to protect permanent structures nearby, but the cost is borne by increased erosion further south.  I don’t mean to bore folks with a long explanation (a great explanation can be found here) except to say that on a dynamic environment like the Outer Banks, those consequences manifest quickly, and hard structures were officially banned in 2003 with the exception of terminal groins at the end of islands, such as this one on the north end of Hatteras Island on the south side of Oregon Inlet.  What this means for birders is that you’ve got this rocky outcropping surrounded by miles and miles of sandy beaches.  It’s a unique micro-habitat and one that produces unique birds,at least as far as North Carolina is concerned.

So I parked my car near the old abandoned and weathered lighthouse keeper’s house and brake the wind to walk out to the very tippy end of the groin, where the rocks are slippery with sea spray and marked with algae that seems nearly fluorescently green in the dim overcast light. And hopping around on the end of this jetty, reveling in the cold spitting wave that keep me on drier higher ground, are three or four little Purple Sandpipers, the only spot in miles and miles of oceanfront where they can be reliably found.  I’d missed them here before, though considering the ease in which I found them here (and have found them since) I have to wonder how.  In any case, it was a super life bird.

With birds in hand I headed out of the Outer Banks, making a couple stops on my way home (including Short-eared Owl at Alligator River NWR which is always something worth noting even if it wasn’t a bird for any lists beyond the Big Year).  By the time I arrived back in Chapel Hill I had been away almost 18 hours, but I did get to sleep the sleep of the tired birder on my return, in my own bed even.  If that was my Big Year vice, then I’ve got no regrets.

EURWIG by Len Blumin via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)
PURSAN by MaxHenschell via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)

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4 Comments
  1. November 17, 2010 1:29 pm

    Nice tale about getting your lifer Purple Sand. Ypu give a great picture of the cold, wet, gray, slippery atmosphere that always seems to be associated with that bird!

  2. November 18, 2010 10:01 am

    It seems you’re not a fan of ID challenges, or why is it you only search(ed) for MALE Euro Wigeons? 😉
    And I haven’t seen a Purple Piper in ages, thanks for reminding me of that… Oh dear, guess I am just envious as I am stuck at the office so much this year.
    Cheers, mate, and belated congrats on those lifers.

  3. Nate permalink*
    November 18, 2010 2:07 pm

    @Pat- Indeed! And I’ve seen them every time I look since in similar situations.

    @Jochen- If you had seen just how far away these Wigeons were from me, you would have forgiven me. But you’re right, I shouldn’t be so discriminating. The males are to pretty though.

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