Continuing my quest to see as many seabirds as possible, and given that Mike had been bitten by the pelagic bug in Madeira,
I organised a trip to include one of Brian Patterson's trips from Hatteras, to primarily see Black-capped Petrel. Due to the works of
taxonomists I was also able to see Audubon's Shearwater, which I thought I had seen originally in Galapagos in 1987, but which had been split
to form its own species. Likewise various similar forms of small shearwater over the years, so that Audubon's Shearwater, having been
off and on my list a few times, would now be back on it, hopefully for good!
Of course, there are plenty of other birds to see in North Carolina, although very few birding tours visit the region. This is primarily
because all the land birds can be seen elsewhere, and pelagic trips aren't everyone's choice, especially as the Hatteras ones involve a (very)
early start and don't return until 5 pm onwards. However, North Carolina has a lot to offer, we encountered several fairly difficult
species, and, even better, spent hours on large reserves where the rangers outnumbered the visitors!
As I hope will become clear, North Carolina is very different to the more popular US states, but has far more interesting habitat-looking out for
Cottonmouths in the swamps beats an overcrowded reserve any day! Not that we found any, but there were plenty of warning notices and provided
you stick to the well-marked trails you're quite safe. A large part of our trip found us staying on the Hatteras peninsular, which is a long
strip of land known as the Outer Banks, great for migrants. Most of the passage had been completed by the time of our visit, but we
deemed the timing better for seabirds.
Monday 22nd May
Arriving in the USA at Charlotte, after a stop in Philadelphia we had no problem picking up our hire car. A point to be made here is that we found it far
cheaper to fly from Manchester, even though the return route took us through Heathrow, mainly because regional airports charge airlines less and
the fare is determined by the departure airport. It doesn't always work, depending on the route, but give it a try. Most regional airports are
cheaper for hotels and parking also. Our flight arrived in mid-evening rain, and after finding our way out of the urban area we arrived at our
first motel after a couple of hours. This meant we could get a good start in the morning without any city traffic to worry about. The plan was
for an early start to visit Sandhills Reserve in Weymouth Woods, a site I had got from "Birds of North Carolina" by Marshall Brooks and Mark Johns.
Many books and guides not published in England
can be obtained on the internet, and this book, although out of date, proved very useful. The only drawback is that each individual chapter is
written by local birders, who obviously have differing takes on things. Sandhills proved to be a superb, fairly compact reserve, with helpful
rangers and lots of birds.
Tuesday 23rd May
Our early start was somewhat thwarted by the rain from the previous evening being still very much with us, although
we did manage to see a few hirundines and Chimney Swifts before we left, so we
decided to drive to the town nearest our destination and find some breakfast. To our amazement we couldn't find a fast food outlet, the town seemingly
being a bit upmarket, so we settled for a cafe where I sampled my first ever grits. Probably my last, but at least edible, so duly fed and watered
we proceeded to Weymouth Woods, wherein lies the Sandhills preserve. It is suggested that this is the easiest site in NC to see the endangered
Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and the rangers were
very helpful, even telling us the location of a nest tree. Unfortunately, despite several hours and three different trails, interspersed with a stop to dry out a bit,
the rain thwarted our efforts. However, we did see several other species of Woodpecker and two Nuthathches including Brown-headed, which is quite
scarce nationally, plus the feeders at the visitor centre were quite productive. Pine and Prairie
Warblers are another feature of this reserve, and we had brief views of a Wilson's Warbler which was either hiding from the rain or my
camera, or both. Several commoner birds included Blue Jay and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, all things considered not a bad start.
We stayed overnight in Dunn.
Wednesday 24th May
After a few navigational problems we left for our next reserve, Howell Woods Environmental Centre,
having again found a motel close by in order to start birding quite quickly the next morning. As the trip was primarily about the Hatteras Peninsular,
we weren't trying to "clean-up", so had decided to spend two days at each of two reserves, which held many of North Carolina's specialites, arriving
in Hatteras on the evening of our second day. Our second destination had one big advantage- it wasn't raining, but one big disadvantage in the shape of
mosquitoes. Before we left our hotel we
recorded a number of reasonably common species around the car park, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, House Finch, Brown Thrasher, and
Grey Catbird. This last species, often a skulker, sat on a fence to be photographed. This reserve was much larger and boasted
a number of habitats, so we first decided to target some warblers. On being directed to a trail, we started out, only to return after a few yards to
apply insect repellant. Unfortunately this didn't help particularly, and we decided it was probably too late in the day, and also season, to locate
many warblers by song. This was repeated throughout our trip, but as we are due to travel to Magee Marsh and Pelee next year we decided not to expend
too much effort. The rest of our time was spent in varying habitats, still accompanied by mozzies much of the time, and we managed further numbers
of new species. One of these, albeit distant, was a speciality of this reserve, Mississippi Kite. We hoped for better views later in the trip,
but it was the only raptor tick of the trip for me. Other birds included Eastern Bluebird, Blue Grosbeak, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Eastern Kingbird,
Wood Thrush and the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures. Warblers were still noticeable by their absence, we eventually concluded that after the main
migration is over, most have gone further north, and those that breed in the state are mainly in the mountains, an area we were not visiting.
Happy with what we had seen so far, we continued our journey to Hatteras, crossing the bridges at Manteo to take us to the peninsular. The only new
species en route were Royal Terns seen from the second bridge, but as we proceeded south down the peninsular things began to liven up.
Thursday 25th May
The Hatteras peninsular is just over 100 miles long, and then becomes a chain of islands, some of which, Ocracoke in particular, are linked to
Hatteras village and also the "mainland" further south by ferry. Most people access it via Manteo, where there are two
bridges from the mainland, from there it is about sixty miles to hatteras itself, where
the pelagic trips depart. Much of the area is a holiday resort, with small towns dedicated to sport fishing, but also
some large wildlife areas, in particular Pea Island, which of course isn't an island at all. More of this later. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon,
our intention being to find our hotel, buy supplies for our first pelagic the next day, and locate the dock where our boat was moored. Since we
needed to be there at 5.00am the next morning we decided to pack our own food for breakfast and lunch. Although there are places open for sport fishermen that early,
coffee and sandwiches was the only option, so making our own the night before saved time. By having everything in place the night before we would have
an extra hour in bed, potentially very useful since tiredness can fuel the dreaded "mal-de-mer".
All this went to plan, but we were somewhat later than we
would have liked, which meant finding the dock in the dark. It proved quite easy, in fact easier than locating our hotel on the return journey, perhaps
we were tired by then. The hotel was in Buxton, about ten miles north of the dock, so we set our alarms for four am, which gave us plenty of time, such
that we arrived early before anyone else.
We saw Brian arrive, by dint of his number plate which read "pelagic". (For those that don't know, in many US states it is possible to choose your own
personalised plate, unlike the UK this doesn't necessarily have to include numbers). The wind was blowing quite hard as we followed Brian to the boat,
and we thought we'd be in for a rough trip, but it turned out the trip had been cancelled! I thought back to the e-mails Mike had been sent the previous
evening and decided not to open, but there was nothing for it but to make the best of the day, and return on the Friday. The previous day's trip had
also been cancelled apparently, all due to an unusually early tropical storm.
If I'm honest, one of the things that had made us late the previous day was that we stopped to view a flooded field at a place called Oregon inlet. This is
a centre for crab fishing, and the construction of a new bridge there would probably have made us drive past, however, it is a good area for waders and as
the field was covered in them we had to stop. Having picked Brian's brains as to the best place to see Piping Plover, and finding it was along the beach in the
same general area, it was obvious where our days birding would begin, and as we had already done the early start, by 7.00am we were back watching waders on
Even though many waders had already passed through on their way north, large numbers were still in evidence, particularly Semi-palmated Sandpipers.
Having spent many years in England trying to get a decent photo of a vagrant, now I had a choice of hundreds, a large proportion of which were on this one
flooded field about 100 yards long! Other species included Short-billed Dowitchers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semi-plamated Plovers,
and new world races of Dunlin, most being in breeding plumage. The previous evening we had seen a Least Sandpiper briefly, which we couldn't re-find, and Mike
picked out a couple of White-rumped Sandpipers. Lastly a Spotted Sandpiper put in an appearence, leaving a few much-welcomed Willet as the only ones not to have
occured in Britain. In addition to waders there were American Herring Gulls and Laughing Gulls. These last predominated throughout the trip, and the Herring
Gulls were the only ones we saw closely. Several Boat-tailed Grackles were using the margins for a wash and brush-up, and just as we were about to leave an
adult Tricoloured Heron flew around as if wondering whether to land, which it didn't.
We hadn't wanted to stay long as we had decided to walk the beach (on the other side of the road) in the hope of locating a Piping Plover, a bird I had never
had an opportunity to photograph. A few minutes jaywalking later we were ready to begin our search. One of the problems that this species has is that it
favours sandy beach areas, which brings it in to conflict with fisherman, joggers and general holidaymakers. To this end large areas of the beaches all along
the North Carolina seaboard are roped off, wherever plovers, Least Terns, Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers nest, the terns and plovers in particular
being in decline. Not everyone abides by the roped-off areas, but we saw no violations whilst we were there, and it's much better than many parts of the
world where disturbance has wiped out colonies of shore-nesting species.
In fact, we were pleased to spot the signs indicating the areas, since they told us where to look. These areas can be quite extensive, and as we followed the
fence (or rope) line we initially saw very little, apart from species we expected such as Brown Pelican, Royal Terns and a few commoner waders. We did
manage a few new species for the trip, including Black-bellied (Grey) Plover, Sanderling and Red Knot, all in breeding plumage. Unfamiliar as we were with
such plumages, we were getting a little bored by the time we came to overlook an inlet of the estuary, which was obviously fresh water and full of birds.
We started to see Skimmers, and after photographing a Common Tern which I thought was a Least, eventually got some superb flight shots of the real thing, as
they were passing overhead to and from their colony.
Mike decided, quite rightly, that this area was probably our most likely spot for Piping Plover, and declared his intention to scan with his telescope.
It was getting quite hot by now, so we thought this would be preferable to slogging up and down the edge of the rope. Having only my camera, I elected to walk
round the next bend to see how much farther the area extended. Not too much further and the Least Tern colony became visible, and I was able to get some
reasonable shots of birds on the ground. Equally obvious was the fact that very few waders were in evidence now, so I reluctantly turned back, continuing
to survey the area already passed. I looked at Mike through my bins- no wave to indicate he'd found anything, obviously still searching. With a dip on
the cards, we still had other areas to look after our pelagic, but it would have been nice to find one and take the pressure off.
Walking back, I
thought if one were here Mike would have found it, but a pale bird suddenly ran between two tussocks, attracting my attention. As it emerged from the second
tussock, the long, hot walk became insignificant, as I was watching a Piping Plover in breeding plumage! Despite the bird being fairly distant, I took a few
record shots and tried to alert Mike. He was still busily scanning, so, not wishing to shout, I walked as fast as possible without causing any disturbance
to tell him what he'd overlooked! In fact the bird turned out to be closer to him than to me, but frequently disappeared behind a tussock, where I suspect
it may have had a nest. I managed some better shots and after about half an hour we contemplated the long walk back to the car for lunch. A last scan of
the area revealed a few Whimbrel (Mike was hoping for Long-billed Curlew but they are primarily a western species), and a brief flight view of
Despite having been awake for ten hours there was still plenty of daylight, so we decided to have a look at Pea Island NWR, which was on the way back to Buxton.
A large area with a large bird-list, we walked out along the southern boardwalk. There were plenty of birds, but many were distant, and the only new species
were American Black Duck, Snowy Egret, and a flyover Common Loon. A distinct lack of passerines also led us to return to our motel, as we were getting a
bit tired by then, and anticipating another four a.m. start decided on dinner and an early night. Just as we approached our motel we looked up and saw a
large raptor, which was interesting enough to stop the vehicle. As I had seen them before I already suspected what it was, but left it to Mike to clinch the
ID as it was one of his target birds. A fitting end to the day, a juvenile Bald Eagle! Juveniles predominate along the peninsular as most breeding birds
are further inland, but aren't particularly common, so it was another target we had no need to worry about.
Sitting in a bar that evening the icing on the cake was a TV report that Manchester United had just won the Europa League final, not to mention the fish
served for dinner!
Friday 26th May
Although not very hopeful as the tropical storm that had caused the last two days cancellations had left its legacy of strong winds, we duly appeared at the
dock at 5 a.m., to confirm our worst fears, although apparently it was the first time ever that three consecutive days had been "weathered out". By this time
there was quite a backlog of birders although Brian and Kate usually fit everyone in somehow. We had actually made a booking for the Sunday so were able to go
birding confident that we would be on the boat then. We had already decided to visit Alligator River NWR, a huge area just south-west of Manteo, so by
about 7.30 we were crossing the bridges back to the "mainland", and soon were looking for our first quarry in an area close to the carpark off the main road.
This, a Yellow-throated Warbler, was duly found high in the trees, but the general lack of passerines was once again the order of the day. A brief view of
a Yellow-billed Cuckoo flying across the ride, our only one of the trip, was about the only other bird of interest, although Chimney Swifts were quite common.
We continued to another area of the reserve, discovering that much of the area is given to working farmland, and whilst most birding is done from the car,
the area is so vast that all wildlife is thinly spread. The reserve holds the largest population of Black Bears in the state, but, whilst they will appear
at the sides of the road, you have to be lucky. A pool on our first farm produced Black-necked Stilts, and Northern Bobwhites were in a field nearby briefly,
but we really had to work hard to find much else, simply because of the size of the area. A few raptors appeared, two Bald Eagles (adult this time) and
Red-tailed Hawks, but smaller birds had no reason to come to the edges of the road, and there were few walking trails. We did get out of the car a few times
resulting in brief views of Black-throated Green, Prairie and Prothonotary Warblers, but generally it was a frustrating day. We found later, speaking to
a warden, that she and her husband had come there looking for wolves (which have been re-intoduced), and it took three days of hiking and camping to see
Leaving early, we went to a reserve called Palmetto Peartree, which was supposedly good for woodpeckers, being a much smaller area we found the birding better, although
much of it was from the roadside. As we drove along deserted roads we flushed a Barred Owl from the roadside, although not particularly close to dusk.
A walk along a track produced nice views of a Red-headed Woodpecker and a Great-crested Flycatcher, and a stop at the side of a small lake gave us our
first Pileated Woodpecker of the trip, although flight views only it did fly around the edge of the lake, and, as the States' largest
woodpecker is in fact more impressive flying than perched on a tree.
We then drove back and decided on another look at Pea Island, this time at the north end. Although the same basic layout (a path running inland with
bodies of water on each side), much of the water was very shallow here, and enabled waders to feed. Thus we had another wader-fest, at much closer range in most
instances, comprising Short-billed Dowitchers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, the omnipresent Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and more. Earlier in the year numbers
would have been higher, but migration obviously wasn't completely over, as we found no less than seven White-rumped Sandpipers and, best of all, a Stilt
Sandpiper in breeding plumage. The best area was right next to the car park, and became a regular stop whilst we were on the peninsular.
Saturday 27th May
Brian's pelagic trips were fairly certain to be running today, but due to the backlog we were in a queue. Luckily we had already booked the next day, so we
made the decision to see what happened then, and if we saw the species we were expecting we would forgo the second trip in order to do some more land-based
birding. It gave us the opportunity to have an easy day and recover from three 4 a.m. starts on the trot, so we spent the day at Pea Island and some other sites
in the vicinity. We went looking for a King Rail at a site given to us by other birders, several of whom were waiting for a pelagic like us, to no avail,
but had better views of Eastern Meadowlark. We investigated Buxton Woods, close to our motel, which at the right time and season can produce lots of birds.
Unfortunately the time was wrong and most migrants had long gone, so we saw very little.
The only new creature was a Racoon, several species were observed better than on previous days, and we
acquired some souvenir T-shirts from a sale rack in the Pea Island visitor centre. We had a good meal and an early night to be better prepared for the next
The pelagics from Hatteras are different to some in that they are on sport-fishing vessels, which are fast enough to actually pursue
birds if necessary, and carry up to twenty-five people. So it was to be a new experience in some ways for both of us. Most birds are encountered in the Gulf
Stream, which is 25-30 miles offshore, and it takes about two hours to get out there, depending on current, weather etc. Sometimes birds are seen on the trip
out, sometimes not, but due to this potentially slack period the boats leave early and return late, to give plenty of time in the best areas.
In common with most pelagic trips, anything can turn up, which was why we had initially booked two trips, but I was really only concerned with two or three
species, and Mike was happy to see anything as there were far more "ticks" for him on land. (Talking of ticks, but of the less enjoyable kind, we did
encounter several over the previous two days, and tick removal became part of our regular evening ritual along with making the rolls to eat the next day).
We were happy to drop our second trip if
necessary, especially given the relatively high cost since the government and big business allowed the value of sterling to fall so much, but tomorrow would
enable us to make the final decision.
Sunday 28th May
Another early start enabled us to get to know a few people who would be on our trip. Kate Sutherland, in particular, proved to be really keen and
knowledgeable, she was the "main man" on the boat since Brian was concerned with piloting, getting us where we needed to be and chasing anything
that looked good. In addition the trips always operate with a number of "guest leaders", and I was pleased to meet up with an old acquaintance who had
been on one or two of my previous expedition cruises, Steve Howell. Exactly why there are so many leaders was a bit of a mystery to us, but I suppose they
need to cater for all levels, since whereas many classic pelagics such as Capetown, Madeira and Woollongong only attract fairly hardened
seabirders, these trips seem to have on board many American listers who aren't particularly interested in pelagic species but just trying to add to their
lists, and of course some (although not all by any means) aren't very experienced. The sheer numbers of people involved (up to 25) does make it difficult for
everyone to get on every bird, so the extra leaders do help in that respect. I heard Steve, in particular, giving lots of good advice and helping everyone.
We were to be a bit unlucky in terms of what we saw on the way out, specifically almost nothing, but that was in large part due to the storm that had come
up from the south, and moved many birds on. Although it would have been nice, the commoner species "out and back" are usually birds quite familiar to Brits,
although Tropicbirds can appear at any time. We had booked our trip(s) during the "Spring Blitz" which overall seems to be the best period, but no-one can
account for the weather. Apart from the species which are almost certain, everything else is "pot-luck", one bird I had wanted to see and didn't was
Trindade Petrel, but there are probably less than ten records every year. In fact some hardcore listers book five trips or more on the trot, and come back
year after year, I personally prefer to go and see my seabirds where I know they'll be likely.
The one bird we did expect, which was my main reason for going, was Black-capped Petrel, which are rarely missed on these trips. As we left the harbour we learnt
that the previous days trip had turned up nothing special, but wasn't a disaster, and basically our trip was similar. Mike and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but
the long journey out and back was a bit boring. Of course, this isn't always the case, at least the seas weren't too rough. That in itself, of course, is a
double-edged sword, in that the rougher the ocean the more likely sightings are, but often the more difficult to get bins and cameras on to. In places the
sea was calm enough that we saw birds on the water, one of these being Audubon's Shearwaters. Indeed the trip was particularly good for them as the previous
few days weather conditions had ensured plenty were in the area. Steve had said earlier that they were usually difficult to get decent photos of, indeed I
have found that to be the case with most of the "little" shearwater complex. However today we came across several small flocks on the water which allowed
quite close approach before being up and away. The same applied to a group of four Band-rumped Storm-petrels, which allowed us to be fairly certain that
they were Grant's type, although Steve did wonder if one of the birds was a Madeiran-type. These two, which will probably be split one day (as some authorities
already do) represent two taxa with different breeding and moult timings. Most birds in the Gulf Stream are thought to be Grant's, based on moult among other
things, but Madeiran certainly occur also. Other than a couple of distant Cory's Shearwaters and Wilson's Storm-petrels in the wake for much of the time, that
was it except for the Black-capped Petrels
The main purpose of our trip proved fairly easy to achieve. The numbers of birds varies on almost every trip, but in many years I think there has only been
one day when none was seen. Whilst we did not lay out chum, there was a constant oil-drip, which attracted Storm-petrels. Pterodromae seem to differ in their
habits with regard to chum or oil, many species are not attracted, whereas some will "come for a look", in particular Zino's and Fea's. A very few will actually
keep in contact, sometimes even settling on the water, but Black-capped seems to not take much notice. Thus the first few birds we saw were quite distant,
but perseverence resulted in several which were close enough to get decent photos if you were quick enough. We saw both "types" and intermediates, and were
well satisfied with our experience. In total 30 were seen, although only about half a dozen gave really good views. One of those,
although brief, was almost the last of the
trip. It flew across the bows very close, but it wasn't a Black-capped Petrel! I don't think we ever will know, but it was apparently seen again a couple of days
later. Brian's blog suggests it was probably an abberant Fea's, but it is really unfair to expect someone in his position to put a definite name to it,
particularly as not everyone on the boat saw it! Kate said to me at the time that it was different and "these dark birds really get you going", but it
wasn't a Bermuda Petrel. A few days later there were suggestions on the blog that it may have been a Bermuda in heavy moult, and photos were referenced
showing similar birds accepted as Bermuda. However, other experts have said the jizz looks wrong. The sad truth is, as the views were so brief, and the photos
not brilliant (although Steve's were much better than mine!), it will never be possible to say for certain, so I'll still have to go to Bermuda one day! My
personal view is that it may be a hybrid, although there is little evidence of pterodroma hybridisation, there have been records of Bermuda Petrel near
Fea's colonies, so who knows?
All in all an enjoyable pelagic trip, but I think we were a bit unlucky with the weather. As it was the trip was a bit
specialised, but had everything not been "cleared out" by the earlier weather system, I'm sure it would have turned up a wider range of birds. But where
else in the world can you (all but) guarantee a Black-capped Petrel?
Monday 29th May
We decided against a second pelagic trip as we didn't expect much change in the birds over the next few days, and this proved to be the case. The last few
days were unplanned as we waited to see what we had seen and what we still wanted to see. Three or four species still tempted so we decided to head for the most
southerly coastal area of the state, via a few sites, one of which I already had in mind as a reliable spot for a couple of raptors. We started at our regular
Pea Island spot, and were rewarded with a Surf Scoter and a somewhat distant Piping Plover. We then said goodbye to the peninsular and started on a journey
south. We spent the rest of the morning at another area of Palmetto Peartree,in an attempt to see Red-cockaded Woodpecker which we had missed earlier.
We failed again, but did see four other species, including juvenile Pileated being fed, and a brief view of Hairy, new for the trip.
We stopped at Lake Mattamuskeet, not for anything in particular but we saw a Marsh Wren, which was new for the trip, our first really good views of Forster's Tern
in the shape of a first winter bird, and several Green Herons. Many places we stopped at were almost empty of birds, but this we put down to the large areas.
For example the lake itself, obviously hosts large numbers of wildfowl in winter, but birds are much more thinly spread in spring/summer, and the lake is huge.
We couldn't understand why we couldn't find a Belted Kingfisher as they are supposedly common, but we'll catch up with one at some time. What we did tick on
the way to the lake was Alligator, a number of which were in a small stream at the side of the road, complete with a sign saying "Do not feed the Alligators"!
We overnighted in Washington, not THE Washington, but there are probably many places in the states bearing that name.
Tuesday 30th May
Today we continued south, and I had planned a treat for Mike (birds willing) in the shape of a Kite site. Called Lock and Dam number 1, this is a great area
and turned out to be one of the best days of our trip. On the Cape Fear River, not far from the main highway, a better site for Kites is said to be where a
bridge crosses the highway, but we saw little there apart from a migrating Anhinga high in the sky, and the constant rumble of lorries crossing the bridge
was off-putting. By contrast Lock and Dam was quiet, with few people around. We pulled in to the upper car park to be greeted by the sight of several
Purple Martin "gourds". These are put out to attract breeding birds, and seemed very succesful here. Eastern Bluebirds and Blue Grosbeaks were on the lawns,
and walking a few yards to a covered picnic area we found we were overlooking the river, and had a panoramic view of the skies around (as long as we stood
away from the cover.) We decided to give it an hour or so to see what flew over the river, and hadn't been there very long when I picked up our main target,
a Swallow-tailed Kite. Always distant unfortunately, we did manage to see three or four in time, but they never seemed to be up for long, but despite no
photos, scope views were adequate. Mississippi Kites were in evidence, and did circle almost overhead at times, enabling me to get some record shots.
Anhingas were also soaring, an activity I don't usually associate with them, although some may have been migrants. The Kites may or may not breed in the
area, in the case of Swallow-tailed there seems to be conflicting information but a few pairs probably do, and Mississippi breed in many areas of North
Carolina, but it's the northern limit of their range.
We were surprised to see two Wood Storks in flight, as, whilst common further south, they are
rare in North Carolina, a few birds summer in the very south of the state, but rarely are they seen further north. Other birds seen from the watchpoint
included Bald Eagle, a nice adult flew along the river, and our only Broad-winged Hawk of the trip. It was in fact the last day we saw any raptors of
note, we did somewhere record American Kestrel on wires but strangely never had a good view.
The vicinity of the car park, which was set above the lock,
was interesting on several counts. Orchard Oriole was found by Mike, but it wouldn't stay long enough to be photographed, and Northern Rough-winged and Barn
Swallows were much in evidence. A Snowberry Clearwing, which is a black, white and yellow version of our Hummingbird Hawk-moth, kept us entertained hovering
at flowers, and a Green Anole (a lizard) constantly displayed its red throat flap.
Our hour or so turned into much longer, as we discovered a trail
through the woods at the lower car park. Although not very long a number of species were around, but much time was taken up photographing and observing at
close range a family group of Prothonotary Warblers, shining like yellow beacons in the darkness of the woods.
We briefly visited Lake Waccamaw on the way to our motel, but it again turned out to be a vast area with little on view, its main claim to fame is as a wintering
site for geese and ducks.
Wednesday 31st May
We had booked a motel for two nights which was near our route back, but gave us the chance to spend our last full day at Sunset Beach, which held (we hoped)
two more target species. The first of these was Wilson's Plover, which I had always managed to miss in the past, despite being in several countries where I
might have seen one. We had no specifc stake-outs for anything, our site guide only gave a general overview, so we started by looking at the beach itself.
We first asked a local if there were any roped-off areas for breeding birds, but all she knew of were small enclosures around Green Turtle nests. So we began
to walk, hoping it wouldn't turn in to a route march as the Piping Plover search had. We were lucky, within a few hundred yards we saw a non-breeding bird, probably
a female, in front of us on the beach. Photos were duly obtained, and whilst so doing a small flock of American Oysercatchers landed. Warier than the plover,
they were soon off again, but flew past us, enabling me to get some flight shots. The Wilson's had by this time disappeared, so we investigated an area of
low dunes at the top of the beach which gave way to an open scrubby area. This was seemingly the plover's breeding area, as we saw an adult male and then a
couple of non-breeding birds. Not wishing to cause disturbance, we scanned around from the edge of the area, although saw little else apart from a distant
bird singing at the top of a tree. I took a few record shots but as we tried to get closer the bird flew out of sight some distance away. The shots caused
some consternation later, as they were very distant and the light was against us. Some colour was evident, and a large deep bill, ut nothing seemed to fit
the pictures in our field guides. It was only about three weeks after we returned home than we finally found something that fitted the evidence- the very bird
we were looking for after the Plover but in a non-breeding plumage!
At the time we just put it down as one that got away, and continued our exploration of the area.
As we walked back along the beach we both saw a small wader coming very close, apparently absorbed in finding food. A Piping Plover! At six yards range,
rather than sixty, many pixels were recorded resulting in full frame photographs. Apparently they are uncommon in this area, breeding sites are usually
further north. Although this bird was in full breeding plumage, we saw no sign of any others, nor behaviour indicating a nest nearby.
Excited by our day
thus far, we decided to look for our other target species, or rather Mike's since I don't like gaudy birds. We had no real idea where to go but the area had
several different habitat types so we just wandered, eventually finding ourselves in Ocean Beach, a similar beachside community a little further north.
On a small scrubby area we found a Loggerhead Shrike, the only one of the trip, and we then headed
towards what appeared to be an inlet or estuary. Nothing much was apparent from the road, but we spotted a boardwalk in the distance so headed towards it,
having first asked some locals if it was private (apparently not). On reaching it we passed through a small wooded area, and heard a bird singing. Since it
was at the very top of a bush it was easily located, and we saw our first Painted Bunting. Naturally the light was coming from the wrong angle, but the bird
chose to ignore us as we walked past to view its ridiculous plumage and take photos from a better angle. When it eventually flew off we continued our walk
and came across an open area of marsh and water. We soon realised that the marsh was full of herons and egrets as they undertook brief flights to give us our
first sightings of Little Blue Heron, amongst many Great White and Snowy Egrets, with the odd tricoloured Heron thrown in for good measure.
A small flock of
Black Skimmers came in and spent a few minutes skimming in front of us, and eventually one of the Little Blues flew to a large pool to our left where it was
joined by a Tricoloured, much to the pleasure of the photographer. Several waders were in evidence, but, although we thought we may have had a Baird's, we
weren't able to confirm it and nothing else was new. However, just as we were leaving, a white heron flew across, and initially expecting a Snowy Egret we were
pleasantly surprised to see greyish patches on the upperwing, indicating an immature Little Blue, a plumage I had never seen before. Having seen well both
our targets for this site, plus a few other species, we had an ice-cream and made for our motel to pack for our journey home.
Thursday 1st June
As our flight home wasn't until early evening, we decided on a return visit to Weymouth Woods. The reason was twofold. Firstly it was almost on our route back,
and on our previous visit we couln't find a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The weather was very different, warm and sunny, so we decided to walk the same trails as
we had previously, making sure we spent time near the nest tree. Nest trees are easy to spot, as Red-cockaded is one of the few woodpeckers to use live
trees, resulting in tell-tale runs of sap down from the nest hole. Armed with this information and much improved weather, our hopes were high. Despite seeing
several species much better, including Pine and Prairie Warblers, the only woodpeckers were those we had seen before. We weren't about to let this get us
down as generally the trip had been a great success, but eventually had to make our way back to the car park to drive to the airport. We decided to spend
some time watching the feeders again, which we still had time to do and got some excellent views of Pine Warbler. However, before we got that far,
about fifty yards from the car park, a pair of woodpeckers flew across our
path and alighted on trees at the side of the track. You've guessed it-Red-cockaded! Brinkmanship indeed, and plenty of time to enjoy and photograph one bird
which remained whilst we came and stood a few yards away on the track. Pointing them out to another birder, it turned out they often spent time in this
particular area, and were probably habituated to people watching them. Despite this, from our experience they can still be very difficult to track down, and
as the USA's most endangered woodpecker, we felt it to be a great end to a great trip. Our flight home was uneventful, apart from a really good lunch at
the airport for a reasonable price (UK airports take note).
Unless your objective is a pelagic trip, most of the species we saw could be seen elsewhere, although it should be noted that several species are
range restricted, and some, we felt, were easier in North Carolina. A bonus to us was that even small crowds were non-existent, frequently we were
the only birders on a trail, which generally makes for easier birding if you know your birds before you go.
If we had travelled earlier we would have seen much more on spring migration, but
the pelagic would potentially not have been as good. Bear in mind that our pelagic was poor compared to the norm at that time, due to
unprecedented weather conditions. If you really want to see as many US species as possible you will have to visit several times, or spend a couple
of months in the country. Two summers on every pelagic should ensure Bermuda Petrel!