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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

North Carolina

Pelagics & Pineywoods

2022 Narrative

In Brief: The WINGS spring tour this year to North Carolina was a resounding success! A total of 153 species were observed; certainly, the highest count I’ve ever had running this tour, replete with nearly all the expected breeders, lots of lingering migrants, and several rarities. We spent lots of time picking through the coastal salt marshes of the Outer Banks, where in addition to the expected breeding species of Willets, Oystercatchers, and several tern species, we seemed to have lucked out and shorebird migration was tardy this year, allowing for us to get several new species for the cumulative all-time tour list. Our time at sea was simply spectacular! I certainly have never had as many species of tubenose on the same day along the East Coast before. Of those, two were absolute standouts with close flybys of Fea’s Petrel and Trindade Petrel! Finally, our time in the Pineywoods was fantastic, with 9 species of warblers including several Swainson’s Warblers, as well as Yellow-throated, Prairie, Worm-eating, and Prothonotary Warblers by the barrel-full!

In Detail:  We began our birding romp at Alligator River NWR, a location I often refer to as the source spot from where all the Prothonotary Warblers spring from. While obviously waxing poetic here, the constant sweet sound of the golden swamp warbler highlighted with flashes of yellow dashing everywhere here supports the premise! This is a delightful place that features a unique habitat- Pocosin, a southern take on a peat bog, with conifers and acidic conditions that seem at home in the north but having swapped out tag alder for blooming magnolias! Other breeding warblers and songbirds included several smart-looking Prairie Warblers, trilling Pine Warblers aplenty, Great-crested Flycatchers everywhere, and some gorgeous colored Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. There are a great many woodpeckers here with standouts being the flashy Red-headed Woodpecker and the crow-sized Pileated Woodpecker. An unexpected treat were a couple pairs of diurnally active Barred Owls!  Due to these swampy conditions, we were also treated to a pair of Anhingas; this species is not frequently encountered here being a little north of its classic northern range limits. We then made a beeline for the nearby coastal shores. The Outer Banks were certainly chock-full of migrating shorebirds this year, with highlights such as Piping Plovers, both “Eastern” and “Western” Willets, as well as Pectoral and White-rumped Sandpipers. Common breeding species included American Oystercatchers, Eastern Willets, and Least Terns.

Of course, the pinnacle of this tour is our time aboard the Stormy Petrel II, the boat operated by Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland. While weather conspired to only allow for one as opposed to our typical two days offshore in the Gulf Stream, the number and variety of birds we saw surely made it feel like a week at sea! Certainly, one of my best days of an east coast pelagic with 11 species of tubenose observed, the action was nonstop, and everything gave fantastic looks. We had lots of the more typical gulf stream birds like Audubon’s, Cory’s, Scopoli’s & Shearwaters, and from within the hordes of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels we were able to get an excellent lesson in identifying Band-rumped and Leach’s Storm-Petrels. The spring-to-summer switch of Sooty Shearwaters to Great Shearwaters was well underway, with both species showing well, and a pleasant surprise was a Manx Shearwater that winged past the boat early on in the day. One expects to see the classic pteradroma petrel of the gulf stream and as hoped, Black-capped Petrels gave us amazing views. However, we were incredibly lucky to get two additional pteradromas - major rarities in the form of Trindade and Fea’s Petrel, both new species to the all-time world cumulative WINGS Tours master list!

With a gnarly storm the night before, the seas were just too rough the next day for the Stormy Petrel to head out so we spent the day bopping around the island, giving the salt marshes a more extended look than we did a couple days earlier. The mudflats had hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers crawling over them and we teased out a few new species for the tour such as Marbled Godwits and Red Knots. Unlike the previous day of marshland birding, Seaside Sparrows were very cooperative, providing excellent looks of this lifer for several tour participants. A pair of unexpected notables were a Red-throated Loon and a male Black Scoter recuperating on a salt marsh pond after that rough overnight storm, and another lovely treat were some great looks at a King Rail as well as a Gull-billed Tern. We lingered till dark that evening and we had several Chuck-will’s-widows and a singing Eastern Screech Owl.

However, the final act of this traveling road show isn’t half bad either. After spending half of a day in a relaxing transit involving a few ferry rides with a few birding stops along the way where we picked up a few new species like Clapper Rail, Black-necked Stilt and Marsh Wrens, we arrived in Morehead City, located near the Croatan Nat Forest, a coastal plain featuring extensive pineywoods savanna pocketed by swampy bogs. The main target here is of course the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a garrulous little woodpecker with a complex social structure. The young from previous broods stay on as helpers in raising the next cohort of young and loose colonies of this species are found where there are tall live pines with fire-cleared open savannas on the ground.

We left early the next morning to head out to the Pineywoods, the morning chorus of birds in the savanna is not to be missed! As was the case last year, we lucked out and walked right up to a couple of pairs making all kinds of hoopla and putting on a grand show. When we returned the next night to this location, we discovered an active nest with nestlings calling from inside! But Red-cockaded Woodpeckers aren’t the only exciting find here- the woods ring out with the whistled calls of Northern Bobwhites, the melancholic song of the Bachman’s Sparrow and a cacophony of Wood-Pewees, Great Crested Flycatchers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Summer Tanagers, and Prairie, Yellow-throated, and Worm-eating Warblers. We ventured back into the swamps one afternoon to the great looks of a Swainson’s Warbler while hearing several others lurking in the underbrush, all while encountering Brown-headed Nuthatches at nearly every stop! We made one more run to the coast to marvel at a Wilson’s Plover nursery- a pure joy watching those tiny balls of floof on toothpicks, with their trademark crab-killing bill already dispatching mini crustaceans. Also, out on the coast, we were treated to a fantastic look at an adult male Painted Bunting! And for our grand finale, an evening visit to the Pineywoods where we heard dueling Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-wills-Widows while Common Nighthawks displayed overhead!

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