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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

North Carolina

Pelagics & Pineywoods

2021 Narrative

It’s been years since WINGS traveled to this corner of the globe, and our return to windswept barrier islands and mellow Long-leaf Pine forests of coastal North Carolina was a complete success! The tour began in the expansive bottomland swamps of Alligator River NWR. While we did not see one of this refuge’s leathery namesakes, the warblers and butterflies were more than cooperative for our opening round of birding.  The refuge was created in 1984 to protect a declining habitat- the Pocosin wetland forest. A fire-depended bogland of the coastal plains, plains comprised of peatmoss are perched over water and covered in dense shrubs and stunted pines. Black Bears are an abundant resident of the refuge and we saw three in just a few hours of birding! But our main targets here were warblers and despite the heat of the day, we were treated to great looks at several species of interest with male Yellow-throated, Protonotary, and Prairie Warblers teeing up nicely for an extended study, as well as a family of Worm-eating Warblers feeding a fledgling! A Swainson’s Warbler teased us with its bold swishy song like a siren of the under-marsh, but no looks of this secretive bird were had today. Palamedes Swallowtails and Eastern Crescent butterflies lined the roads, nectaring on the prolific blooms of swamp mallows and milkweeds while nearly every log in a watery ditch sat Pond Cooters and Yellow-bellied Sliders.

After lunch, we headed for the coast to begin the drive down the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. These narrow strips of land comprised of ocean-side dunes and fields of salt marsh on the lee side, are directly threatened by human development due to their highly desired sand beaches. Thankfully, several National Seashores and Wildlife Refuges have protected good-sized chunks of habitat for nesting waterbirds. We passed several colonies of Least Terns, a species that has directly benefited from a monitoring program that involves roping off nesting areas and staying under the watchful eye of federal biologists. At one of the colonies, we witnessed a young ranger babysitting a tern nest that had been discovered outside of the roped-in area and who was waiting for a colleague to bring a protective enclosure. Within the roped beach several fuzzy Least Tern babies shuffled from clumps of beach grass, trying to stay in the shade while begging their smartly marked parents for a minnow meal.

Meanwhile, on the bayside of the island huge swaths of salt marsh teems with life in these brackish waters. Fiddler Crabs by the barrelful feed the plentiful Egrets and Eastern Willets. We had our first looks at Black Skimmers, including a pair that gave a fine display of why it is we call them Skimmers. Least Terns were constantly flying by, with the much larger Royal and Caspian Terns looking humongous by comparison. We had a few tantalizing glimpses of Seaside Sparrows; the extensive spartina grass that is their haunts was a little far from the trail and although they gave us identifiable looks, we would “get to know” that species much better a few days later. Adding a bit of excitement to the visit was a pair of Clapper Rails that flew over the marsh grass and took a short bath in a pool of water!

It can get hot, and rather quickly, in the Outer Banks and so we pulled ourselves away from the marshes and headed to our fantastic lodging while on Hatteras, the very cheery and historic Atlantic Inn. Our hosts were beyond gracious and helpful and it really was one of the most pleasant stays in a hotel that I’ve ever had! They gave us some helpful tips on navigating this small community among an explosion of tourists and after check-in directed us to the first of several high-quality seafood dinners Hatteras has to offer. We even got a trip bird as we ate, with a flock of Glossy Ibis winging by the second-story window.                                                                                                           

We had an early start the following morning, and thankfully our Inn hosts had breakfast ready by 4:30 am. Soon afterward we were at the docks to board the Stormy Petrel II! The Captain, Brian Patteson, has been running pelagic trips from Hatteras for a few decades now and he along with first mate Kate Sutherland are top-level seabird experts whose span of knowledge of these waters, and the strange seabirds that inhabit it, is simply astonishing. What makes these trips so productive is that the North American continental shelf break and the warm blue waters of the Gulf Stream are relatively close to the Outer Banks requiring only a couple of hours of transit time to get out to subtropical waters with mats of Golden Sargassum. Sargassum is a floating algal seaweed, often serving as mini-ecosystems where small fish and pelagic invertebrates attract the attention of other deep-sea creatures. 

The run out to the shelf-break on this day was a bit rough, though it was hard to deny the growing excitement as we started to spot our first tubenoses, one to two Cory’s or Great Shearwaters rolling over the waves. As we got into warm subtropical water, flocks of flying fish would dash from a breaker and with the strong breeze glide over the surface of the ocean for a shocking distance! And breeze is a good thing when looking for wind-riders! As we moved into deeper water the winds started to deliver the goods! A robust flock of shearwaters near a small fleet of fishing craft gave us good lucks at four different taxa- the ubiquitous Great Shearwater, the adorable paddle-winged Audubon’s Shearwaters and two types of Cory’s Shearwater, the Atlantic breeding form borealis, and the nominate form from the Mediterranean Sea known as Scopoli’s Shearwater (diomedea). Scopoli’s are typically outnumbered by the larger Cory’s but over the next two days we would see enough of these birds to learn how to pick them out of a flock with their more delicate size and white fingers on the underside of the primaries.     

But there were other amazing seabirds to encounter such as the wild acrobatics of a Parasite Jaeger thieving a fish from a Royal Tern, or the bruiser adult Pomarine Jaeger that just flew over the boat and kept going. Finally, we started seeing the most dynamic flyer of all and one of our main quarries - Black-capped Petrels! These slender winged Pteradromas are the masters of wind and waves and one typically only ever sees them from a boat far from shore. Though it took a while for the Storm-Petrels to find our chum trail, we eventually collected a flock of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels with a few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels cutting through for scraps. A young Long-tailed Jaeger chased around some Shearwaters for a few minutes, and we were treated to great looks at a trio of Bridled Terns and a single adult Arctic Tern! Another fantastic find was a pair of White Marlins floating at the surface, with their impressive sails and tail fins sticking out of the water! We slowly spent the afternoon working our way back to shore and while a little battered from the ocean, were sitting down by five-thirty enjoying another great seafood meal to celebrate our fantastic day at sea!

The following day started in repeat fashion, early breakfast, and on the ocean by daybreak, but this time around the seas were calm with only a light breeze. We saw most of the same tubenose species, with the addition of a quick flyby of a Sooty Shearwater. No Jaegers were seen today, but due to the calmer conditions, it was easier to attract a larger flock of Shearwaters and Petrels behind the boat. If the day before had been about learning these strange and unfamiliar birds, this second day allowed for an extended review to really soak in how to identify these amazing pelagic species. Calm seas are optimal for detecting Cetaceans coming to the surface. In taller waves, it becomes difficult to spot a brief surfacing. We had excellent looks at both nearshore and offshore Bottlenose Dolphins (two distinct populations within the species complex), as well as bow-riding Atlantic Spotted Dolphins- a most handsome beast! A call about a larger dolphin in front of the boat turned into a male Cuvier’s Beaked Whale! While not particularly rare, these deepwater divers are not often encountered due to their offshore range. These enigmatic animals are on record for having the deepest and longest-timed dives! Nearly toothless except for two small tusks protruding from their “beak”, they dive upwards to 9,000 feet to suck in benthic squid and shrimp. Only the males have tusks and frequently spar with each other, we could see on this big guy extensive parallel scaring over his skin from fellow Beakers! We were also fortunate to see a resting Sperm Whale at the surface, with its puffy, forward slanted blows, allowing for a nice close look before it slid back into the depths. Such a fantastic treat to have both animals swimming near the boat for a few minutes before disappearing under the waves.                                                                       

Without an early boat to catch the next morning, we enjoyed our final dinner in Hatteras and then headed up to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for a little evening birding. A distant Gull-billed Tern would show better the next morning, but a great look at an Orchard Oriole was a delight as Common Nighthawks dashed overhead. We then left for a spot nearby to listen for Chuck-wills-Widows, but had barely started to drive before a few sounded off right out the van window! They remained elusive for viewing but just sang away into the night.                                                                      

We arose for a late (for birders at least!) breakfast at 7am, and then bid adieu to our kind hosts at the Atlantic Inn. We returned to Cape Hatteras to further explore the odd mix of salt ponds with some of the few freshwater marshes on the Outer Banks. One large pool held a nice selection of shorebirds and terns; a real treat was getting to compare a lingering Western Willet with the numerous Eastern Willets we had been enjoying for days now. Currently not recognized as separate species, there is very little overlap between the two populations with Western Willets being larger and more plainly colored, nesting on the great plains and wintering along both the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, while Eastern Willets are a more slender, strikingly marked birds that nest solely in East Coast saltmarshes and winter in northern South America! Another notable shorebird in this pond was our only pair of Piping Plovers for the tour; there is only a handful of these endangered shorebirds nesting in the Outer Banks. We then headed over to a freshwater marsh where we had a surprise flyover of an American Bittern (typically more of a colder season bird here), and while more expected, a family of King Rails shocked and delighted us by strutting out over a mudflat with three half-sized, still clad in black fuzzy plumage babies! For our final birding on Hatteras, we hiked down a sandy point to a spot where an even rarer plover was nesting, a pair of Wilson’s Plovers, we even got to see the little cotton-fluff babies running about.                                                                                                        

With the explosion of tourists to the Outer Banks we had a bit of a wait to be able to board the car ferry to Ocracoke Island, but once we were on our way, we enjoyed good looks of Royal and Sandwich Terns constantly going to and from a large nesting colony we passed by. Upon reaching Ocracoke, we headed off to a particularly lush saltmarsh that has a nice walking path through it, allowing for a more close look at some of the denizens of the marsh. As promised, much better looks were had at several Seaside Sparrows, including a very young fledgling still learning to fly. Clapper Rails called tantalizingly close, but never showed themselves but the looks at flyby Skimmers, Willets and Gull-billed Terns were fantastic! With just enough time to grab an ice cream, we were off to our next ferry, a three-hour ride over to Cedar Island. While not as birdy as times previous, we did pass a nice sandbar that gave quick looks at a flock of Dowitchers along with lots of skimmers, gulls, and Brown Pelicans. For a last little bit of birding just before dusk, we stopped at Cedar Island NWR and had our only Little Blue Heron and Least Bittern, the latter giving a fantastic look! We then rolled into Morehead City ready to call it a day.                                                                                                            

For the last act of the tour, we would concentrate our efforts on the Croatan National Forest. This relatively undeveloped area is managed for the federally endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. The species requires a mature pine savanna where underbrush has been cleared by recent fires but the mature trees remain. This also suits the needs of Bachman’s Sparrow, which uses a grassy understory to the pine savannas, and moves on when succession shrub growth occurs. In order to maintain these open savannas the US Forest Service regularly conducts controlled burns to keep habitat available for these species.                                                                                                

Both of these species can be a little tricky to show well, but within a few minutes of our early morning arrival to the pine savannas, we encountered a small flock of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers not far from the road! Likely a family group foraging together, they performed quite well for the group, with their noisy antics attracting the attentions of the even squeakier Brown-headed Nuthatches. These small southeastern pine specialists are the least picky of the “Pinelands 3” and we would go on to see them several more times through the day. So as we watched all these birds, a Bachman’s Sparrow started to sing right in front of us! The sparrow teed up in beautiful morning light and sang its mellow twitter that when one hears; you know you have come to a special place.                                                                                          

With these pineywoods birds in the bag, there was one more big target that still needed to be found, so we headed out of the pineywoods and back into some bottomland tangle and Pocosin bogland. Having teased us with its song back on the first day of the tour, actually getting a look at Swainson’s Warbler was high on everyone’s radar. Thankfully, the swamps quickly produced a couple of singing Swainson’s Warblers, one of which was right by the road and gave everyone a terrific look before disappearing back in the tangle! By now the sun was fierce and the humid temps were climbing quickly so it was time for a nice sit-down lunch and to sample some of the local seafood fare at the appropriately named Ruddy Duck Inn! After lunch, a siesta back at the hotel was a welcomed respite to give the woods a little time to cool off before going back to the savannas for some more birding.                                                                                                               

When we headed back out, we nabbed a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers right off the bat. One of the flashiest birds in North America, they never fail to make one’s adrenaline jump when they fly into view! A few Northern Bobwhite called from a clearing and a few lucky participants caught a look of a pair flushing off the side of the road. A walk along a broadleaf clad river gave us great looks at a flock of Gnatcatchers, Carolina Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice, as well as an Ovenbird and gorgeous Northern Parula. An Acadian Flycatcher sang up the river but never gave us a view. However further down the road, we got a great comparative study between Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak. We squeezed in a quick and delicious Mexican restaurant and headed right back to the savanna for some nocturnal birding. This worked out pretty well for us, with double-digit numbers of singing Chuck-wills-widows, several Common Nighthawks, a pair of Barred Owls, and a single Great Horned Owl!

For our final day of birding, we headed over to Cedar Point to try for one last Carolina coast specialty. Morehead City is the northern breeding range limit of the Painted Bunting. A short walk along a nice marshland trail quickly revealed the melodic warbled jumble of a Painted Bunting in full song. But much to our surprise, the singer must have been a first-year male bird, as it was still completely green instead of the multi-hued adult males! We then took a walk along the tidal flats- the mud was absolutely crawling with hundreds of Fiddler Crabs. A few Clapper Rails calling from the marsh reminded us that we still hadn’t had a close study of this drab cousin of the more richly plumaged King Rail so we headed over to Emerald Isle to poke around in a salt marsh one more time. This time we were treated to a great look at one coming in and out of the marsh grass. On the walk back to the car a Black Racer posed nicely on the sand dune for us. And as we drove to lunch, we finally had a long-overdue sighting for the tour of a Forster’s Tern and American Robin, a little shocking to have so many other great birds but not get these common species until the last afternoon.

We broke for another siesta to pack our gear and wait out the hot part of the afternoon, then returned to the Ruddy Duck for one final, but early dinner to allow ourselves one more attempt to rustle up a Whip-poor-Will. A very pleasant post-dinner walk yielded a Red-cockaded Woodpecker feeding her nestlings in golden predusk light, and then just as the sun went down, we had one final unexpected sighting- a visual on a singing Chuck-wills-Widow! Sitting upright like some kind of muppet version of a Cooper’s Hawk, there was enough light left in the day to get a good look at its giant sock-puppet head opening wide to sing its strident phrase. We may not have gotten our Whip, but going out with a great look at a Chuck made for a solid finishing bird not often seen.

For our coda to the tour, we rose early the next morning to go out for a southern breakfast and to laugh and chit-chat as a group before driving back to the Norfolk Airport to head home. I would just like to thank all that came along on this tour, I truly enjoyed your company and was delighted that everyone seemed to really enjoy this grand caper along the Carolina coast!

Created: 06 July 2021