The Business Birder Goes Coastal


Hello, my name is John.  I have spent more time in Texas since March 2001 than in North Carolina.  Wonder if I could register to vote there?  Anyway, I love Texas but this travel stuff has gotten ridiculous!  Nuts! Nuts!  Nuts!  I am going coastal!


The first step in my new direction turned out to be a “shakedown cruise” for my new scope.  Having put off buying a scope for about ten years, until I was a good enough birder to deserve one, I gave up and bought one anyway.


The Lower Cape Fear Bird Club conducted a trip to Lake Mattamuskeet and the Outer Banks of North Carolina on November 16-18 and, a few days, later my family spent Thanksgiving at a beach cottage near Fort Fisher.  Ten days after that, I was fortunate to go birding on Cape Cod, as a byproduct of a business trip.  Have there ever been better reasons to go coastal and to buy a scope?  Life could be good again!


So the shakedown cruise was November 9 and 10 at Fort Caswell and Topsail Island.  The first day I got great looks at a Kestrel and a Peregrine Falcon.  The following day I visited Topsail Island and observed:  Northern Gannett, Common Loon, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Yellow-rumped Warbler, House Finch, Mallard, King Rail, Henslow’s Sparrow, Common Snipe, Redhead, and many others of the normal beach fare.  I met a couple of friendly birders from Raleigh, Bob and Connie, who own a cottage near the north end.  I have to give them credit for showing me the Snipe and the Rail.


Wait a minute!  After further review using The Sibley Guide to Birds, the call in the field has been reversed.  It was a Clapper Rail not a King Rail.


The scope was a big success   Having the Snipe and Rail in the scope at the same time, as the rail walked past the Snipe, at approximately 60X was priceless.  I also filled the scope with the Henslow’s Sparrow, who was only 40 plus feet away.  Life is good!


My next outing was the outer banks trip.  My Mother’s birthday was that Sunday and the North Carolina State homecoming and the Florida/Florida State football games were scheduled for that Saturday.  I was feeling some guilt.  You all know what I mean by “birding guilt”. 


As it turned out, my Mother was going out of town to visit her sister that weekend and both football games were to be televised, so I could watch them.  Suddenly, I had a guilt-free birding trip!  You know how good that is.


Why feel guilt about missing football games?  Well, for North Carolina State fans, football is important.  For University of Florida fans and alumni, football is not a matter of life or death, it is much more important than that.  And I gave up tickets to the State game.  Now you get it.  Please do not tell Mom that I ever discussed football-based guilt and mother-based guilt in the same paragraph.  Mothers know that mother-based guilt should be a matter of life or death.  Actually, it is much, much more important than that.


And now lets move on to the trip.  Our first stop was at Lake Mattamuskeet on November 16.  Birds observed included:  Pied-billed Grebe, Tundra Swan, Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe, Tree Swallow, Carolina Chickadee, Golden-crowned, Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Palm Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Red-winged Blackbird, and Eastern Meadowlark.


As we drove up NC 94, which traverses a dike that splits the lake, a large bird appeared on my left, flying parallel to the road.  I caught up with it and drove along side for a few seconds.  It was an eagle, possibly a Golden Eagle.  I knew that if I stopped, it would fly away; however, I finally had to pull over and stop to use my binoculars.  Of course, the bird banked left and took off.  I saw some white on top of its wings.  Only our leader, Bruce Smithson, and I saw the bird.  Unfortunately, Bruce was a quarter of a mile behind me.  We called it a Golden Eagle but further review was inconclusive, so I will not count it because it was probably an immature Bald Eagle.


Our first stops on Saturday were the Pea Island NWR and Oregon Inlet.  We added:  American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Snow Goose (Blue Goose also), Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup, Hooded Merganser, Northern Harrier, American Coot, Semipalmated Plover, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull, Tropical Kingbird, Marsh Wren, Prairie Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, and Boat-tailed Grackle.  A Peregrine Falcon was perched on the nesting platform close to the visitor center, giving us the best possible view.


Chasing rare bird alerts is fun.  We found the Tropical Kingbird at a dike between the New Field Pond and the South Pond at Pea Island, just where it had been for days.  Unfortunately, these chases are not always successful.  I missed the Green-breasted Mango Hummingbird in McAllen; however, I still have one chigger as a souvenir from sitting on a front lawn watching for him to appear.   Wonder if all of those other birders sitting with me still have “souvenirs”?


The Pea Island observation I enjoyed most was watching the opportunistic ducks follow and feed behind Swans, who were stirring up the bottom of the shallow impoundments.  The scene, repeated for each of the dozen or so Swans in view, was like a battleship being followed by eight to ten small gunboats.  One Lesser Scaup repeatedly dove under its swan and came up in front of it.  Really!


Another fun observation at Pea Island occurred upon leaving.  There were at least two other convoys of cars parked in the fairly small parking lot.  A large group from the Nature Conservancy tried to line up their cars and leave the parking lot at the same time we did.  The scene was much like the Japanese evacuating Tokyo in the path of Godzilla.


Early Sunday, six of us that got up at 4:30 AM to see the Leonid meteor shower before our next birding stop.  Two smart members of the group (not me) brought blankets and the smartest even brought a pillow.  Thank goodness they shared the blankets, so all six of us were able to lie on the ground and watch from the shoulder of a dark side road of the national seashore. 


Can you imagine the sight of six adults lying on their backs staring into in the pre-dawn darkness?  It was great, well worth getting up for.  Seeing the meteors I mean.  We also saw two satellites.  I think they were both drakes. 


Later Sunday, we covered Hatteras Island, Salvo, and Ocracoke Island, on our trip back to Wilmington via the Ocracoke Cedar Island ferry.  Species recorded included:  Black-crowned Night Heron, Bufflehead, Osprey, King Rail, Willet, Red Knot, Dunlin, Laughing Gull, Lesser Black-back Gull, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, and Northern Flicker.  The ferry trip was unproductive except that we probably saw at least 90 some percent of the free world’s Double-crested Cormorants.


While I cannot count the Golden Eagle, I have no problem counting the Brant decoy observed on Hatteras Island.  I was close enough to touch it, leaving no doubt to its identification.  I would have rather had the eagle.


What a wonderful trip!  Going with a group is always therapeutic.  Bob, Bob, Fran, Frances, Danny, Joy, Lee, Bruce, and Pat were my cohorts (and mentors).  I genuinely appreciate their help.  It is always an education to go with such an accomplished group and great leader.


I was, however, incessantly teased about my new scope and there was much speculation about its cost.  Scope envy is not a pretty thing.  Eventually, I returned their fire by referring to it as the Hubble Telescope and revealing that it cost about the same as the Gross National Product of several small countries. 


Seriously, they all seemed to enjoy having the scope with us.  As far as I am concerned, it has already paid for itself.  Having a scope full of Henslow’s Sparrow, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Peregrine Falcon, already justifies the cost!  Life is great again!


If you go, the trip from Wilmington to Lake Mattamuskeet is 210 miles, with another 75 miles to the Dare Haven Motel in Manteo (call 252-473-2322), where we spent both nights.  They have decent accommodations and very reasonable rates this time of year. 


We found a great meal at Queen Anne’s Revenge in Wanchese, about six miles from the motel.  Go there only if you have plenty of time.  They are so slow that we watched our clothes go out of style while waiting for the meal.  OK, I am kidding about the “out of style” part.  Birders cannot be accused of being slaves to fashion.  Queen Anne, if you remember your North Carolina history, was the name of Blackbeard’s dog.


Darrell’s in Manteo is faster and serves good fried seafood.  The place to go for breakfast is T.L.’s Country Kitchen (doors open at 6AM).  Both of these restaurants are a couple of miles east of the motel. 


The distance from the motel to the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry is 64 miles, along Ocracoke Island to the Cedar Island and Swans Quarter ferries is another 28 miles, and the ride back to Wilmington is 140 miles from Cedar Island.  Ferry reservations are still a must in November. 


Post-September 11 birding has ramifications for strange individuals or groups poking around in remote areas with binoculars and scopes.  I was back in the Rio Grande Valley in October and it seemed as if the border patrol had tripled in numbers.  On my November 9 trip with the new scope, I walked to the end of the fishing pier at Caswell and shortly after I had set up my scope, I saw a patrol boat bearing down on me.  It was a Corps of Engineers boat that I barely noticed as they first passed, heading to Baldhead.  They turned around and came back to check me out.  On the outer banks trip, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered over us and checked us out, as we birded the base of the Oregon Inlet Bridge. 


During Thanksgiving, in the Fort Fisher and NC Aquarium area, I saw many of the same birds reported above and added only Red-throated Loon and Red-bellied Woodpecker.


My next mini-adventure was the company meeting, on December 3.  I was able to spend a half-day birding on Cape Cod.  Back home, there were rare bird reports of a Snowy Owl on the primary dunes south of Fort Fisher.  Unfortunately, I was not able to go looking for him because of the Cape Cod trip; however, I decided to try to find one on my own.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society (MAS) had recent Snowy Owl sightings at three locations and, given that I had only five hours before dark, I chose only one site, Jeremy Point at Wellfleet.  By the time I got to Wellfleet and walked for a couple of miles along the beach, the sun had set and darkness chased me back to the car.  No Snowy Owl this trip.   


Cape Cod was still a great place to bird in December.  Birds seen on Cape Cod included: Common Eider, Common Loon, Mute Swan, White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter, Horned Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser, and Brandt.


I found a new source for bird alerts, other that the MAS Web-based Hotline.  I bought a copy of the Sunday Boston Globe to read at the hotel that night and found a “Bird Sightings” article, furnished by the MAS, on the weather page.  I knew immediately that I should have been at Andrew’s Point in Rockport that day.


The following weekend I tried to find the Snowy Owl between Fort Fisher and Baldhead Island from the Baldhead end.  I took the ferry and then a golf cart as far as it would take me.  Then I walked until I was well within the Baldhead Island State Natural Area.  Again no owl. 


I made several more trips around the Wilmington coastal area before the end of the year.  On Christmas Day, I found a raft of Black Scoters off the beach at Topsail Island.


During this period, I enjoyed the activity at a small pond near the NC Aquarium.  I watched a Kestrel buzz a Kingfisher that landed in the Kestrel’s tree.  The Kingfisher landed in another tree and was immediately buzzed by another Kingfisher.  I heard the departing Kingfisher mumble the serenity prayer as he gave up and passed overhead.


As I moved a little closer to the pond, a male and five female or immature Hooded Mergansers swam into sight.  They saw me and took to the sky.  The male actually flew off in a different direction that the family.  If a gender joke even dared to come into my mind at this time, there is no way that I would stoop to using it now.  Obviously, it was a survival reflex on the part of the Mergansers.  And on mine. 


On one visit to the Fort Fisher area, I flushed a Cooper’s Hawk.  The bird returned shortly, having gotten use to my presence and, more likely, due to hunger.  I had interrupted its brunch.  I was able to set up the Hubble and watch for at least 20 minutes, while it finished eating its bird kill.  The hawk was identical to the first winter bird in Sibley’s.  It had a band, which surprised me.  It was probably involuntarily a part of doctoral research.


On December 30, I participated in the Wilmington-area Christmas Bird Count near Old Brunswick Towne and on Eagle Island.  I was very happy to be on Greg Massey’s team.  Greg is an excellent birder and, as I found out that day, he has the best Rail tape in existence.  Birds added to those above included:  Blue-headed Vireo, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Gray Catbird, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, Chipping Sparrow, Eurasian Wigeon, Sharp-shined Hawk, Virginia Rail, Sora, and Savannah Sparrow.


A couple of days later, my sister and I started 2002 off on the right foot with my second annual New Year’s Day birding adventure and found Purple Sandpiper, Horned Grebe, American Oystercatcher, Great Blue Heron, Black Skimmer, and approximately 60 other species in the Fort Fisher and Wrightsville Beach areas.  My sister is still complaining about the frostbite. 


During the month of January, I made a couple of trips to the area northwest of the Southport ferry, to see the Green-tailed Towhee found by Greg Massey during the Southport Christmas Bird Count.  I added some of his buddies:  White-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Towhee, and Hermit Thrush.


The Green-tailed Towhee was a North Carolina record and people came from near and far to see it.  Fortunately for me, I live only 20 miles away.


The bird came to the same area each day because (you will not believe this) someone kept spilling bird seed in the area.  The last time I stopped by, the Towhee had developed an attitude.  It was coming out much more frequently and each time it appeared, it jumped on a sparrow and chased it off before eating more itself.  If you are the star attraction, I guess you can throw your weight around a little.


I know I have rambled here. That is what I do, both literally and figuratively.  I do need to sneak in one more coastal trip.  On February 9 and 10, I repeated much of the outer banks trip, by myself this time.  Just rambling, with no specific travel goals.  The only new bird I observed at Lake Mattamuskeet was a Pileated Woodpecker.   I ended up on Ocracoke and spent Saturday night and left the next morning on the Swans Quarter ferry.  No reservations in February?  No problemo.


I noticed a group of students in a large van at the Pea Island NWR visitor center, again on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, and again at my hotel on Ocracoke Island.   I introduced myself and learned that they were a beginning ornithology class from Wake Forest University and that they were planning to take the same ferry I planned to take early Sunday morning.  They were going to Lake Mattamuskeet on Sunday so I gave them extra maps and a birding checklist and gave them directions based on my earlier visits.  One of the best things about birding is the people you meet along the way!


Well, the ferry ride to Swans Quarter turned out to be much more productive that the one to Cedar Island in November.  I research all of my coastal adventures using John Fussell’s “bible”, A Birder’s Guide to Coastal North Carolina.  I knew I should, at the very least, add Long-tailed Ducks near Swans Quarter.  I did.  They were just where John said they would be and, as the bible says, often in the company of Buffleheads.  The class and I enjoyed the ride and the Hubble.  Other species observed included: White Pelican, hundreds of loons (Common and Red-throated), and all three species of Scoter.


Finally the end!  I feel much better now.  I love my life!  Thanks for letting me share.     




The author, John Ennis, is a full time healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around.  He lives in the Wilmington, NC area.  An average birder by even the wildest stretch of the imagination, he still goes nuts over birding.  Storing away good memories, like an Acorn Woodpecker stores acorns. 


John B. Ennis ã 2002