Outer Banks 2018: Birds

My wife and I have just returned from a much anticipated trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The trip was filled with beach time, fishing, family, seafood, and exploring. I’ll cover some of that (and some other nature) in a future post. Every trip is an opportunity for birding, though, so I will toss off a few keystrokes on that topic first. The Outer Banks, lying on the coast and a few hours south of home, hosts bird life a great deal different from what I’m used to. A trip there is always a good opportunity for a neophyte birder like me to expand life and year lists, and to get a little more practice identifying birds outside my usual range of experience. This year’s trip was no exception – I upped my life list by six and my year list by 39, notching 64 birds for the week.

Gulls

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A herring gull scolding a fish cleaner for not giving all the guts directly to its mouth.

I always think when planning a beach trip that I will have an opportunity to see a plethora of gull species. In all reality, during June only three species of gulls are particularly common on the Outer Banks – the laughing gull, the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. I did see all of these (repeatedly) but didn’t spot any others. The ring-billed gull is reported on just over five percent of Dare County* checklists in June, and the lesser black-backed gull on about two percent, but all other gull species would be quite rare.

Terns

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Royal terns in the Florida Keys, Feb. 2014

By contrast, quite a few tern species are common on the Outer Banks in late spring and early summer. Ten species (lumping in the black skimmer – technically not a tern but closely related) are in the top 100 Dare County birds for June, according to ebird. Of those I saw eight on this trip – unsurprisingly the top eight: royal tern, least tern, black skimmer, common tern, Forster’s tern, Sandwich tern, gull-billed tern, and Caspian tern. Of those, the gull-billed tern was a life bird for me. The two I missed – bridled tern and black tern – would also have been lifers, but as the 91st and 99th most reported birds for the area I’m not feeling too frustrated over those misses.

Shorebirds

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Reusing an old photo of a shorebird I missed this time.

Shorebirds are another diverse group on the Outer Banks. Most of these I could nab on a closer trip to the Delmarva Peninsula, but the Outer Banks with its miles of uninterrupted beaches and Sound-side mudflats is an exceptional place to view these birds. This is probably the category where I was most disappointed in my results for this trip. I didn’t spend much time looking in the ideal spots, and when I did there were several groups I couldn’t get close enough to ID even through my scope. I did tally eight species but left a lot on the table. There are a total of 19 shorebirds at least as common as the “rarest” I tallied. Those I saw: willet, killdeer, American oystercatcher, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, least sandpiper, and red knot. I suspect that some of those fuzzy groups at the edge of my sight included semipalmated plovers, short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, and dunlins but I just wasn’t quite able to say for sure.

Pelicans and Cormorants

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Pelicans from a previous OBX trip

This is quite simple: brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in June, and I saw many of both.

Pelagic birds

This is where I made some real progress on this trip, notching four species of pelagic birds on one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. Previously I had only seen one: the magnificent frigatebird. Other than the few species which can commonly be observed from land, I just haven’t had many opportunities to view these birds – and this was my first chance since I started “seriously” birding around the end of 2016. First I spotted a few Wilson’s storm-petrels on our way out to sea, and soon after I saw a couple of Cory’s shearwaters. While at sea the captain noticed my interest and pointed out a great shearwater, and on the return trip I got a good look at a sooty shearwater. Of course I also missed several fairly common species, including petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and jaegers, but for one trip (and that not really a birding expedition at all) I was quite satisfied.

Herons and allies

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Another cheat photo – snowy egret, Florida Keys Feb. 2014

On one moderate hike at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge I recorded seven species of herons, egrets, and ibis. None was a life bird, but all seven were year birds, and the two most common I missed (great blue and green herons) are abundant near my home and therefore not huge losses. It would have been nice to finally check off the glossy ibis as well, and I am certain there were some in my general vicinity. Still, one particular spot held a mixed flock of well over 50 great egrets as well as perhaps a dozen snowy egrets and as many white ibis, plus several tricolored herons. As a side note, I thought I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes flying from the sound side to the ocean side while driving home, just south of Oregon Inlet. The birds appeared too huge to be anything else, but we were cruising along pretty fast and I can’t even reliably report if they were the right shape. I haven’t found any recent reports of these birds in that area, so they were probably just some great blue herons or brown pelicans that looked oddly huge from my vantage point.

Other notable (to me) birds

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A juvenile barn swallow on Ocracoke

I didn’t see anything rare on my trip, but I was treated to one nice surprise. In our campground on Ocracoke, when night fell, I began to hear songs from several Chuck-will’s widows scattered among the marsh bushes. This was technically a life bird for me (because I had previously only heard them before I was recording sightings) and was something I was absolutely not expecting, although it turns out they are locally common in a few spots on the Outer Banks. Other year ticks for the trip included: boat-tailed grackle, purple martin, American black duck, brown thrasher, yellow-billed cuckoo, prairie warbler, and Eurasian collared-dove. While not “notable” in any real sense, I am always surprised by the preponderance of swallows at or near the beach. I shouldn’t be – they’re quite common – but there is always something incongruous to me about their appearance with the sand and waves.

What I missed

The single most abundant bird I did not see was fitting, as it is probably also the most common eastern North American bird missing from my life list: the eastern meadowlark. It’s a point of irritation for this East-coaster that I’ve ticked the western meadowlark but not the eastern. I also didn’t see any Carolina chickadees, which was odd but not that odd given the environments I frequented. Other than the shorebirds mentioned above the only other big miss is probably the prothonotary warbler, another bugaboo for me that always seems like it should be an easy add.

 

*Note: I am using a Dare County list as a proxy, but some of this vacation was on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County (whose list is similar but different).

12 Months of Nature: March

Tundra Swans

This month’s candidates included three different birding adventures, all of which required a trip to central Pennsylvania. After careful consideration, looking for migrating tundra swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area seemed like the most likely to pay off, and also a good choice to mark off a handful of new birds on both my year and life lists. Since other migratory waterfowl were likely to be found in the same area, this seemed like a two-for-one deal, as well.

For a number of reasons, this one was a Ben solo adventure (the lower-case ‘s’ here is key). I missed my normal companions but there is also something great about being alone in nature. Somehow it makes one feel more connected to the wildlife one is observing, and more capable of appreciating the beauty of the environment for its own sake. That said, there were a number of other birders at and around the refuge that day, and one in particular who was very excited to show me what he’d found with his scope. I had picked out most of what he had to show me, but I have to admit the view through the scope was superior.

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Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are remarkably similar to trumpeter swans but smaller and with subtle differences in the bill and neck. Middle Creek has become an important stopover for them in their Spring migration back to their breeding grounds on – big surprise, here – the tundra. What may be actually surprising is that many of the birds who winter along the Atlantic coast breed in eastern Alaska, adding a huge East-West component to their migratory pattern. That’s just not something my brain is wired to consider as part of the picture, given the ceaseless repetition of the phrase “fly south for the winter.”

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View of the lake from atop the Millstone Trail

The photo above can give you a good idea of the number of swans present last Saturday. This was taken from atop the Millstone Trail looking North across the lake. In the middle distance, along the north bank, each of those white dots is a swan. The second group of airborne white dots farther in the distance is a medium-sized flock of snow geese. I arrived a bit late to see the peak migration; thanks to our early spring this happened in late February this year. At that time the snow geese numbered around 70,000 and the tundra swans about 2,500 birds. By the time I visited the numbers had dropped to a still-impressive few thousand geese and few hundred swans. For those interested in catching the full spectacle in future years, you can check the WMA’s official migration update page.

I mentioned this was also a great opportunity to see other migrating waterfowl (another March activity in the book I’m following) and this too was a wild success. In addition to the ducks and geese, I got good looks at dozens of American coots, about 30 common mergansers and 20 green-winged teals, a half-dozen elegant northern pintails, plus a handful of American black ducks, gadwalls, ring-necked ducks, and American wigeons. I guess I’ve skipped over the Canada geese, but there were plenty of those too. I also caught a glimpse of a golden eagle that has been a continuing rarity, and watched some American tree sparrows (new to my life list) for a bit. Side note: we really like to name birds “American” whatever, don’t we? On this day I also saw the less noteworthy American crow, American robin, and American goldfinch.

There was more to appreciate than birds. It was still a wintry scene, but in the wooded areas was a gorgeous carpet of princess pine. There were quite a few stands of evergreens amid a light layer of snow, and in some of the low-lying wet areas near the lake shore were pockets of skunk cabbage. Finally, the water of the lake itself created some beautiful attractions. As small waves washed over low-hanging tree branches and roots in the twenty-degree air, lovely patterns of icicles formed. I admit that at two-and-a-quarter hours each way from Silver Spring, this is a bit of a hike for a day trip, but I found the experience well worth the effort.

 

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches

12 Months of Nature: February

Winter Beaches

Say the word “beach” and you conjure images of summer: swimming, surfing, beach volleyball, sunbathing – all enjoyed despite how uncomfortably hot it is. We’ve built a sort of cultural mysticism around beaches as a land of eternal summer. Of course this isn’t how reality works, but here’s the thing we seem to forget: In the winter, beaches don’t stop being beaches any more than mountains cease being mountains or forests cease having trees.

021-2I pitched this to Laurel as the best February option from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year, and was met with skepticism. She gave me a certain look, grunted, and said something to the effect of “but beaches are so BORING in the winter.” She’s from Cape Cod, so this is perhaps an understandable line of thinking, but I was flummoxed. All I could think was, “What?! Not for a naturalist! All the same stuff is there but there aren’t as many people screwing with it!” Meanwhile I’m sure she was thinking, “what the heck is wrong with him? You can’t SWIM in the OCEAN in FEBRUARY.” Both of us were right. I had assumed defeat until a warm spell and a warmer forecast prompted Laurel to say on a Thursday evening “maybe we should do your beach thing this weekend.” YES!

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A horseshoe crab with slipper-shell jockeys and a “regular” crab companion.

We chose as our destination Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park, with a short side trip to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Both were new to us and each rewarded us immensely for the choice. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive for those of us in the Maryland suburbs of DC, so doable as a day trip. Dogs aren’t allowed on the beaches during the spring and summer months for ecological concerns, but they are from November to April (just one more reason to go in the winter). We arrived and after getting our bearings at the nature center we immediately hit the trails. The Seaside Nature Trail was nice but a little tough to follow, offering the opportunity for a quick side trip to the fishing pier. The Walking Dunes Trail/Saltmarsh Spur was excellent and just the right length to occupy a relaxing afternoon.

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The dogs were SO ready for this.

The 70-degree weather was certainly pleasant, but it did throw a slight monkey wrench into my winter beach plans in the form of lots of other people. Not that I’m an unrepentant misanthrope, but generally speaking the more people present the less happy the naturalists among them. I promise I didn’t begrudge anyone else their good time. Anyway, all that to say that the beaches were pretty well picked over in terms of interesting shells. That certainly didn’t stop us from finding some nature here and there. Horseshoe crabs littered the beach alongside razor clams and softshell crabs. The birding was quite good as well, as I will get to momentarily.

Along with mid-Atlantic beaches come their ecological companion, salt marshes. These, too, can be fun to explore in winter. Waterfowl who spend their springs and summers on the tundra or otherwise north of this area can often be found here, as can a number of raptors. There is always a certain serenity to the salt marsh which can be especially pleasing in winter. Cape Henlopen has acres of this habitat to explore.

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On top of all of this, we discovered the entramce to the Dharma Initiative…

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They were studying us the WHOLE TIME!

Anyway, back to nature. As I mentioned, the birding was superb. From the fishing pier I was able to pick out a horned grebe, a red-throated loon, and some buffleheads amid the gulls. In the salt marsh we spotted a couple of hawks we couldn’t quite identify in addition to a dozen or so turkey vultures, and I got to observe a flock of about 30 green-winged teals as well. At Prime Hook the bird of the day was the northern pintail, with some American black ducks and great blue herons thrown in for good measure. The pintails in particular were gorgeous birds, and a new one for me. The real treat, however, was the enormous flock of snow geese congregating by the entrance to the refuge and spotted on our way out. The flock was easily a thousand strong, and was the second one we saw on the day (the first we passed on the way out and only glimpsed briefly from the highway).

Nerd alert! It is common practice for experienced birders to scan a flock of snow geese looking for that odd-man-out, a Ross’s goose. They’re very similar to snow geese but much less common in the mid-Atlantic (though I believe there have been a few spotted in Maryland this year). Descriptions of how to distinguish the two say things like “smaller, with a more rounded head” and to look for some blue on the beak. So, were there any Ross’s geese in this flock? I have no earthly idea.

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles