Birding the Outer Banks

Birding is one of our favorite activities. Moire and I are both lifelong birders. For me birding, and in particular bird photography, has all the adventure of hunting without killing anything or worrying about licenses and regulations. And the Outer Banks (OBX) in winter is almost always a great place. You never know what you will see, and a spectacular bird and great shot can be around any corner.

022017 Female Eider off Jennette's Pier, OBX 2
Female Eider, Jennette’s Pier, OBX

This trip was particularly productive. Monday morning we went out to Jennette’s Pier, the most modern of the public fishing piers. Usually the end of the pier is a place for serious fishing. This time, however, the fishing was poor, and the birders had the place to themselves. And it was an incredible day. About a half mile out a huge flock of mixed pelagic birds were doing their own fishing. We saw dovekies, murrees, razorbills, and gannets. The first three were new on our life lists. The gannets are a winter fixture off OBX, but they usually are far out on the horizon.

We also saw both common and red-throated loons, a horned grebe, and several forester’s terns. Unfortunately, they were all too far out for me to get good photos, but a pair of female common eiders hung around right at the end of the pier all day, and I got a perfect photo of one that afternoon.

022117 male Canvassback duck 01, Pea Island Reserve, National Seashore, OBX
Male Canvassback Duck, Pea Island, OBX

And we missed what might have been the most spectacular sighting. When we arrived several people told us about sightings of humpbacked whales off the pier earlier in the morning. They migrate up and down the coast between their winter grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and summer area off the Massachusetts coast. They usually turn up moving north in March – we have never seen them in OBX – but apparently some are moving early this year.

Pea Island

022317 Pea Island 08 White Pelican
White Pelican, Pea Island, OBX

Another good birding area is the Pea Island Preserve, a stop along the National Seashore south of Nags Head. It has an easy trail along an embankment that separates two ponds. Dogs, even on leashes, are not allowed, however. The trail starts with a small bridge over a turtle pond that, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather on the week we were last there, was very active. From there it goes through a bower with overhanging branches that create a tunnel and act as a blind. A small viewing window lets you see the birds at the end of the north pond. After that it goes onto the open embankment. Two spotter stations are located along the trail looking out to the south pond, on your left, and benches facing the north pond provide resting spots. The view of the north pond on your right is unrestricted past the bower. The path ends at a viewing tower that gives you a view of the ponds and of the salt marsh beyond the embankments. From there you can walk along the back of the north pond along the embankment, but that has never proven productive for us.

022117 Northern Pintail, Pea Island Reserve, National Seashore, OBX
Northern Pintail, Pea Island, OBX

This is a very good place to see various kinds of ducks, wading birds, and, in winter, tundra swans. We went out on Tuesday, February 21st, and saw buffleheads, cormorants, black, pintail, canvass back, and mallard ducks, and northern shovelers, Canada geese, pied-billed grebes, a white ibis (see photo above) white pelicans, a lot of tundra swans, yellow-rumped warblers, and willets. We had not seen buffleheads for several years. This year they were abundant everywhere. The yellow-rumped warblers winter on OBX and surrounding areas.

022317 Pea Island 13 Tri-Color Heron
Tri-color Heron, Pea Island, OBX

I went back on Thursday to get more photos. As I started back from the viewing tower I saw a tri-colored heron perched on a dead tree branch on the trail between the ponds. Of course I froze and then carefully brought my camera up and took some photos. After a few minutes I walked on, expecting the heron to fly. When it didn’t, I stopped to take more photos. Presently I was right next to the bird, and it seemed totally calm. I took more photos, including one of the heron looking down its long beak directly at me. It was still there when I walked out of sight.

The Whalehead Club

022217 Sanderling 02, Whalehead Club, OBX
Sanderling, Whalehead Club, OBX

The Whalehead Club is in Corolla, next to Corolla Lighthouse and Historic Village, and is a great place to visit at any time of year, whether you are a birder or not. And the grounds and some buildings are dog friendly. I will write more about it in another blog. But it also happens to be a productive birding site. It sticks out into Pamlico Sound, with two docks into the sound, its own inlet and pool in front of the house and a wilder pond with a walking bridge and nice piece of coastline on the back. That back pond is often a good place to look for both birds and turtles. One time when we were there in spring a glossy ibis posed on the handrail of the bridge, feet from me, while I took photos.

022217 Killdeer 02, Whalehead Club, OBX
Killdeer, Whalehead Club, OBX

This time the pond only held a pair of mallards. But along the edge of the sound we saw a snowy egret, pied-billed grebes, laughing gulls, killdeer, and sanderling. It kept us amused for the afternoon.

Other places where we often go for birding include Shallowbag Bay in Manteo, the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, where we have seen everything from egrets to river otters and bears, and a pair of small ponds in Wanchese near the Rt. 64 intersection. Since we either never got to those or did not find much when we did this trip I will cover them in a later blog.

022317 Pea Island 07 Bufflehead
Bufflehead, Pea Island, OBX

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