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My Life’s Birds: #451-452

December 15, 2010
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February 17, 2008 – Cape Hatteras and Pocosin Lakes NWR, NC It’s too easy just to say that the people that share this obsession with all of us are as much a part of why we enjoy birds as the birds themselves.  There’s more to it than that.  Birds and birding have been the catalyst for a vast community of people for centuries, from local clubs that date to the early 1800s to state and local e-mail listservs to the nature blogosphere that we all enjoy.  Even early naturalists in the 18th Century with famous names like Bachman and Audubon and Wilson whose honorifics resonate in the names of so many species we watch to this day didn’t exist in a vacuum.  They were collaborators and friends, the most famous of entire communities of naturalists and birders who no doubt enjoyed a morning in the field and beverage afterwards as much as any of us do now.  That birds can bridge chasms that class, race, politics, and gender have proven difficult to cross at various times throughout history should come as no surprise to anyone who has been on a Saturday morning bird walk anywhere in the wide world, and any individual birder’s history is necessarily filled with experiences in which the people we meet are the stars.

I bring this up not to compare myself to Bachman or Wilson or, god forbid, Audubon (I can never get the legs right in my sketches anyway…), but to introduce Neil and Pat Moore, a retired couple from Buxton on the Outer Banks whose names are well known to birders across the state.  My own Neil and Pat story begins way back with the weekend of my first pelagic on a cold February weekend in 2007.  My trip to the Outer Banks had gotten off to a rough start when one of my tires blew out in the middle of nowhere eastern North Carolina, necessitating a tire change, a jump, and a long slow drive at the prescribed 45 mph that took twice as long as it should have.  I was not looking forward to the drive back to Chapel Hill, but a stop at Pea Island, where the Moores regularly volunteer, ended up being the ticket.  Always one to help out a fellow birder, Neil sent me to the one open garage on the Outer Banks where I could get my tire was replaced so I could get home at a reasonable hour.  It was the sort of fortunate coincidence that would be amazing enough if it didn’t lead to something more.

From that point on, I was privy to an inner circle of North Carolina birders.  The Moores often allow people out to talk to the Cape Hatteras Bird Club or, more often, a string of birders visiting for pelagic trips out of Hatteras year-round, to stay at their home.  They’re gracious hosts, as birders are, requesting only a gift of chocolate for Pat and a evening spent talking birds, payment any birder is more than happy to offer.  No less than David Sibley has taken advantage of their hospitality (my one degree to the Sibley Guide), and they take a great deal of pride in the fact that birders from all over the country and beyond have laid their heads in their home.  It’s rare on pelagic weekends that you’re alone, however, and on this night I was sharing the Moore birder hostel with Ricky Davis, at the time the holder of the NC Big Year record, and we made plans, as you do, to head out to Cape Point, the tippy tip of the Outer Banks for a little birding the next morning by virtue of the other advantage of staying at the Moore’s, their 4×4 that would carry us out across the beach.

Cape Point is a unique spot, the precise location at which the Outer Banks stop heading due south and hang a sharp, nearly 90 degree, right angle.  While the exact shape of the point is constantly changing based on the vagaries of winds and waves,  what is constant is the fact that two shore-hugging currents crash into each other just off shore.   The aquatic turbulence stirs up tiny organisms that attract fish, making it one of the most popular surf fishing sites on the east coast, which in turn attract birds, making it one of the finest birding locations too.  The long-running battle between NPS and ORV advocates centers around this thin strip of land above all, and recent closures during late spring and summer have been controversial to say the least, but in the winter the beaches are all accessible, and it’s common to see both fisherman and birders out on the spit; one angling for Drum and Snapper and the other angling for rare gulls and, the target of this particular trip, the small flock of Snow Buntings that always seem to hide in the dunes in the winter.

Sadly, for a spot that can hold such plenty, the Snow Buntings were the only exciting thing we turned up (beyond the generally life bird excitement of course), and once we got back on pavement I started my journey home by way of several eastern Carolina hotspots  hoping against hope to pick up Big Year goodies like Yellow-headed Blackbird and Black-headed Gull.  I may have missed those, but a hedge row near a fallow cotton field in Pocosin Lakes NWR  presented a sparrow bonanza, including locally uncommon White-crowns and a fabulous Clay-colored Sparrow, my second life Emberizid of the day and a capper to a great weekend.  Besides, how often can you get Snow Bunting and Clay-colored Sparrow on the same day list?  Not terribly often I wager.

While the Sparrow was certainly a better bird for the state, the Bunting was the stuff that memories were made of, not just because of the appealing burnt marshmallow plumage and the novelty of finding a bird that literally wears its tundra affinity on its feathers, but because of the company and the opportunity to be just another of a long string of birders taking advantage of a community several hundred years in the making.

SNOBUN by omarrun via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)
CLCOSP by Gordilly via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)

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