Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bogue Banks Birding

A trio of willets on the beach at Salter Path.
I don't suppose I could have chosen a worse day to go birding on the North Carolina coast than last Friday. The local NOAA office had issued a small craft advisory, thanks to strong SW winds that were gusting to 35 knots, and rain bands whipped across the 21-mile barrier island that is Bogue Banks.

It couldn't be helped though. I'd squandered my two previous days back in my old stomping grounds pursuing other activities and nursing a persistent hangover that often accompanies extended visits with old friends.

In fact, catching up with old friends was the main reason why I'd followed my wife, Sue, back to the particular stretch of Carolina coastline that had been the center of our universe for the previous 12 years. Sue had a work-related conference to attend and I got to tag along.

So Friday was the day for bird watching and I tried to make the most of it. From my starting point at the recently-purchased Morehead City home of our friends, Nate and Salinda, I made my first stop at Calico Creek. Playing the tides is critical to finding birds in the creek. During periods of high water, the birds are, for the most part, elsewhere. At low tide, shorebirds, waterfowl and wading birds move in to take advantage of the exposed mud flats and oyster bars.
Calico Creek at low tide.

Late February isn't exactly prime time for anything at the mid-Atlantic coast. Throw in marginal atmospheric conditions and I was happy to scrape out a few mallards, hooded mergansers, double-crested cormorants and brown pelicans as I walked along the creekside boardwalk and scanned the marsh. Let it be known that during migration, Calico Creek is an excellent birding locale in the middle of Morehead City. Late July through mid-September makes for excellent shorebird watching. Later, as autumn progresses, waterfowl descend upon the creek as a weigh station on their journey south. In the spring and summer, waders and rails of many varieties take advantage of schools of finger mullet, mud minnows and shrimp that call the creek home. In February though ... not so much.

From there, I drove across the causeway that spans Bogue Sound and landed on the barrier island where the land meets the sea. My first stop on Bogue Banks was Fort Macon State Park - the site of a carefully restored pre-Civil War fort that guards the all-important mouth of Beaufort Inlet. The militarily strategic location of the fort - on a hill looking out over the ocean, the inlet and the sound - makes it a great place for birds and birders as well. The whipping wind made it tough to locate any landbirds on this day, however. I tried spishing and squeaking around the thick bayberry thickets that cover the middle of the park and was only able to coax a few yellow-rumped warblers, mockingbirds and cardinals into view. That is a poor showing for Fort Macon even in the dead of winter, but considering the weather, I can only assume most of the birds were holed up in an attempt to get out of the wind and rain. I briefly considered walking out to the beach and glassing seaward, but the howling wind and crashing surf made me think better of it. There were more sheltered vantage points down the beach and that was where I headed next.
Fort Macon

So, how badly do you want to study gulls?
Before hitting the beach, I wanted to see if I could find any landbirds at all during the maelstrom. To do it, I knew I'd have to get into the thickest maritme forest I could find and that happens to be on the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Trail at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The parking lot at the aquarium was hopping, but the trail was predictably mine and mine alone. Walking through maritime forest has always held a bit of magic for me. In it's untouched state, the forest is a cozy fairytale of live oaks, holly trees and red cedars with understory plants like poison ivy, red bay and green briar - all rooted in a thin layer of peat that rolls across ancient sand dunes. Unfortunately, most of the maritime forest in North Carolina has been destroyed in the interest of rampant coastal development. Bogue Banks has several remnant tracts worth visiting, including Hoop Hole Creek Trail in Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle Woods in Emerald Isle. The stretch I birded in Pine Knoll Shores was as beautiful as I remembered it, but again, predictably devoid of bird life. The exception was the mixed feeding flock I finally stumbled upon near the end of the trail that included Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, more yellow-rumps, a couple of brown-headed nuthatches, a downy woodpecker and a palm warbler (the passerine-of-the-day).

Out on the sound was a different story. From the high overlook at the end of the trail, I could see a flock of Bonapartes gulls and Foresters terns swirling and diving several hundred yards away. Underneath them, a mixed raft of double-crested cormorants and red-breasted mergansers paddled around. Undoubtedly, these birds had found a school of some type of forage fish and were getting their fill while the getting was good.

With the clock ticking down to my planned pick-up of Sue from her conference, I finally decided to suck it up and  hit the beach on the opposite side of the island. The wind and rain were as advertised and after a short, exposed stint, I retreated to the car and scanned the raging ocean through the windshield. Over the course of 15 minutes, I got my fill of northern gannets and ring-billed gulls - both soon to migrate north to their respective breeding grounds. Things got a little more interesting with the fly-by of two drake black scoters and then the bird-of-the-day finally appeared - a razorbill. Razorbills and their tribe, collectively known as alcids, are the Northern Hemisphere's flighted equivalent to penguins. Though they are regular winter visitors to the mid-Atlantic, especially during periods when cold northern water pushes southward, it's always a treat to see them. Seeing mine from the warm, dry confines of the car was a far cry from most of my previous sightings, which have more often than not come from the pitching deck of a boat with freezing sea spray and a roiling stomach as a backdrop.

Yes, late February birding can be a frustrating exercise between seasons of abundance, but there's always something to see. And when you've been away for awhile, you'll take whatever time you can get with your friends - both human and feathered alike.
Ring-billed gull

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