By Cynthia Donaldson
As the sun dipped over the shimmering ponds to the west, we put on more layers and took our places along Milltail Road, waiting for the main attraction. Tundra Swans honked overhead. Gadwalls and Pintails chanted their evening chorus. The Northern Harriers danced in the empty field before us – gliding silently above the grasses, banking to the left then right. Savannah sparrows popped up for a quick look – teasing us with their high-pitched “peet.” The 26 birders standing on Milltail Road were in one long line, talking in hushed voices. With scopes at the ready, each scanned the fields in the growing darkness. Then a cry went up as ghost-like shapes flapped across the field like pale moths.
Then, it was dark. The 2015 Forsyth Audubon Trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina had begun!
Friday, January 16, 2015: The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was the first stop on our fabulous weekend! By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, most of the 28 members of our group had arrived. The afternoon was spent scanning the fields to the east of the road and enjoying the Northern Harriers’ show.
They were unanimously the group favorite. A Bald Eagle also thrilled the group by flying overhead, giving each of us a great look. A Golden Eagle had been seen in recent days at Alligator River, and Rob Rogers, with his “eagle” eyes, located the bird circling toward the east. Many got good looks at it through scopes. To our backs, the ponds were full of Pintails, Gadwalls, Tundra Swans and Redheads. Snipe were feeding in the grassy dikes lining the ponds. Nathan Gatto led our caravan along the refuge roads. An Orange-crowned warbler made a brief appearance. A beautiful American Kestrel perched on a piece of equipment long enough for everyone to see it though the scope. For some, he was a life bird! Another stop provided great looks at a Pileated Woodpecker working a dead tree. The announcement, “That is the strangest bird I have ever seen!” caused a bit of excitement as we hurried to see what Bill Gifford had found. A covey of quail were darting in and out of the scrubby field edge. As they grew more bold, the dozen or so Northern Bobwhites came out into the field!
Then, just as the sun set, the ghostly shapes – the Short-eared Owls – flew from the woods over the fields! The long awaited birds disappeared into the dark. Some birders got great looks at their pale faces and yellow eyes as the birds quickly headed across the fields to their nightly haunts. Some birders did not.
Our bodies had time to thaw as we drove to our kick-off dinner at Stripers Bar and Grille in Manteo. Susan Andrews kindly gave us a Charley Harper calendar to give out at the dinner. Heather Moir was the recipient of this prize: she had seen three life birds at Alligator River and… it was her birthday!
Then it was off to the Comfort Inn South in Nags Head. After check-in, Scopolamine patches were put on and everyone went to bed.
Saturday, January 17: Rise-and-shine came well before the sun did!! The 18 pelagic trip members drove down the dark highway to Hatteras. Brian Patteson, Kate Sutherland, and Jeff Lemons met us at 6 AM at the Stormy Petrel II. After instructions and a quick tour of the boat, we were underway. Because of sand deposits during recent hurricanes, all boats, including the Ocracoke Ferry, now have to go out into the Sound several miles to find the deeper channel and then pass through the inlet. Brian expertly navigated us through the shallow waters out into the ocean!
For the next 10 hours, we skirted the coast, enjoying the beauty of the Outer Banks. The Hatteras Lighthouse was on the starboard side for most of the day. The sky was blue overhead and the sun was warm, despite the very chilly wind.
The entire day, we had an entourage of gulls and gannets! Kate threw out the chum all day long as we made our way through the waves. It was so much fun to study the differences between Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls in all their various plumages from juvenile to adult. And then, when the Herring/Glaucous hybrid showed up on the return trip, we had opportunity to study the details of this bird as well. Watching Northern Gannets at eye-level was everyone’s favorite! Even Brown Pelicans followed us for most of the day. Other birds seen on this trip were Razorbill, Dovekie, Bonaparte’s Gull, and one Little Gull! Twice, the group had looks at Hammerhead Shark. Several sea turtles leisurely floated by as well.
The forecasted 2-5 foot seas were closer to 3-12, especially when we crossed the Diamond Shoals. I might be exaggerating a bit, but many of the passengers would agree with my assessment, I’m sure! Riding in the front of the boat was like riding on the first car of a rollercoaster! And then the pelagic birding challenge: locating birds that appear and then disappear in the swells, all the while holding onto the railing with one hand and steadying binoculars with the other!
Click here to see the beautiful photo of a Razorbill by Jeff Lemons.
What a celebration on deck when the Great Skua made an appearance – twice! I think everyone got great looks at it. Not mentioning any names, but from the bathroom on the back of the Stormy Petrel, the intercom announcement, “Great Skua!!!!” and ensuing commotion sounds an awfully lot like, “Man overboard!!”
Photo of the Skua by Jeff Lemons can be viewed here.
At our farthest point out into the ocean, near the Diamond Shoal’s Light, we threw out a bottle with a note into the sea. Heather Moir’s fourth grade had written a note and prepared the bottle for a journey to unknown lands. So at 3:15 PM, over the rail it went! Captain Patterson gave us the exact GPS location for Heather’s class. (A different bottle from another class at Summit School floated all the way to Portugal.) Hopefully, Heather’s class will hear back from someone in a far off country, as well!
From there, we headed straight back to the dock arriving around 5:00 PM. With the wind at our backs, the choppiness subsided. We could not have spent a more beautiful day at sea! Many thanks to Brian, Kate, Jeff and Nathan for a great trip!
After a day of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Dramamine, the pizza dinner at Gidget’s Pizza in Avon, NC really hit the spot!
On the way back to the hotel that night, several of us stopped at Bodie Lighthouse to see if we could find some owls or rails. It was a very quiet night lit by a bazillion twinkling stars and Jupiter. A few shooting starts zipped by overhead, too. Although we did not find any birds, the memory of the starry night will stay with us for a long time.
The landlubber group also had a great day. Jeff Lewis met them at 7 AM at the hotel and they visited some of his favorite hotspots. He took them to a private residence in Kill Devil Hills to see the two Redpolls that had been visiting a feeder there. From what I heard, the birding at Bodie Lighthouse and Pea Island was amazing! The landlubbers had great looks at White Pelicans, American Avocets, and dabbling ducks of all kinds! Many noted that their favorite part of the day was watching the birds covertly from a duck blind. After a fun day of birding, they enjoyed dinner at Blue Moon Café before calling it a night.
Sunday, January 18: The word for Sunday was “windy!” The ocean was a churning pot of white caps. The sand blasted horizontally at Group B as we trekked out to Hatteras Point searching, to no avail, for the Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspur. Nathan and Sarah remained optimistic as we checked out every dune and dip, but we could not find those birds. We had several great looks at an American Bittern and a Black Skimmer as a consolation prize.
Group A, led by Ron Morris went back to Bodie and Pea Island for an enjoyable morning of birding.
Both groups enjoyed some great birds until the rain hit! It poured for about 3 hours. Group B birded from the Pea Island Visitor Center and ate lunch in our cars. Group A took a nap! Feeling quite refreshed, they met us at Bodie Island Lighthouse for a few hours of birding before dinner.
The sight of the day for both groups was the thousands of Redheads packed into the Bodie Pond!!
Kelly’s Restaurant was a perfect venue to celebrate the last night of our trip! Beautiful paintings of ducks and other water fowl lined the walls. Mr. Kelly himself, wearing his snazzy tennis shoes, thanked us for coming to his restaurant. Our meal was delicious! We all splurged and had one of their homemade desserts, too!
One last, late-evening visit to Bodie in hopes of an owl was, again, futile. The stars and a thin crescent moon were out at first. Then clouds blew in. Oh, what a perfect setting for a spooky (true) story by Nathan… “One late night, while birding in the middle of nowhere, I heard steps in the woods…When I looked up, I saw…..”
Monday, January 19: After breakfast on the last day, we met at Jeanette’s Pier. A place of happy memories for Nathan and Sarah! They were married there last April! We saw the usual pier birds like Horned Grebe, Scoters, Loons and then… the Parasitic Jaeger skimmed the horizon! The trip had come to a close with one last, very cool life bird!!
A die-hard remnant decided to try for the buntings and longspur one last time! Surely we would find the birds on this beautiful, sunny day? The hour drive and the hour hike out to Hatteras was full of anticipation. I must report that this story has a sad ending: we could not find them!!!! The birds were sitting behind a dune laughing at us, no doubt.
But as you all know, that is why we bird again… the hope… the fun… and the maybe-I-will-see-it-tomorrow…
“Thank you” to everyone who participated in this wonderful trip!! You are a great “flock” of birders!