TRIP REPORT – COASTAL NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 31 TO JUNE 5, 2000
Joe Morlan and I began our trip near Williamston, NC on Wednesday afternoon. John Wright of Greenville had provided excellent directions to the Voice of America site and we hoped to see Henslow’s Sparrows. Thanks to Joe’s good ears, we began hearing their high-pitched, short song about midway along Horsepen Swamp Road (SR1414). Most authorities state that they sing from exposed perches but our experience was that these birds were singing from the base of grass clumps, invisible to humans.
After a frustrating hour or so, Gordon and Sally Barnes from Arizona joined us in searching. We heard and saw Grasshopper, Field and Chipping Sparrows but the Henslow’s remained secretive. Briefly one sat atop a thistle but disappeared before we could get it in Gordon’s scope. Another half hour of teasing glimpses passed. At long last Joe spotted one teed up on a stalk, got the scope on it and we all had great views. I would estimate there were six or eight birds singing along the last three miles of the VOA perimeter and we may have actually seen three of them. Patience is a virtue with these elusive birds.
On Thursday, at John Wright’s suggestion, we began the day at Moratoc Park, along the Roanoke River in Williamston. It’s a beautiful, quiet riparian area. Prothonotary Warblers were abundant with the occasional Northern Parula and American Redstart for contrast. Wood Thrushes and Ovenbirds sang from the forest. Red-eyed Vireos questioned our presence and Baltimore Orioles added to the chorus. Pileated Woodpeckers called and flew across the dirt road. About a half mile from the entrance, we flushed a Barred Owl, our first of the trip. We encountered no rarities but were pleased with the diversity.
About 9:30 AM we drove towards Scotland Neck, an area John Wright had suggested for Mississippi Kites, a bird I had never seen. About one mile before the town, we turned right on Shields Commissary Road and drove about seven miles toward the Roanoke River. We began to see raptors along the way, including Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks and Black Vultures. A Wild Turkey flushed from the roadside. At about 10:30 we turned on River Road, as directed, and we had not even gotten out of the car when Joe shouted: “Mississippi Kite”. Out I scrambled to get a look and soon the first bird was joined by at least five more, all in the same binocular view. It was quite a sight. By 11 AM the birds had soared off into the blue sky.
On the way back we stopped and birded a few bald cypress swamps, adding Yellow-throated Vireo and Osprey to the day’s list. A pair of Summer Tanagers flew across route 125, into a clearing filled with felled trees. The small towns had broad main streets, with houses dating from the early 1800’s. We visited a cemetery and chuckled at three Northern Flickers perched on a gravestone shaped like a tree trunk.
Thursday night we stayed in Manteo and boarded the “Country Girl” at 5:30 Friday morning for a Brian Patteson pelagic trip to the Gulf Stream. It was a warm, calm day and the birds were cooperative. By 2 PM we had seen Wilson’s, Band-rumped, and Leach’s Storm-Petrels along with Cory’s, Audubon’s, Sooty and Greater Shearwaters. Black-capped Petrels were numerous and often close to the boat. We came upon a group of about six goose-beaked whales, had good looks at bottlenose dolphins and one green turtle with only three legs. About 2:30 the captain indicated we had about 15 more minutes before the run back to the harbor. A few moments later, Peter Fraser of the UK spotted a bird heading toward us and gulped out the word “Cahow”. This elicited a general stampede to the port side as this very rare Pterodroma is the bird most sought on these mid-Atlantic pelagics. The Bermuda Petrel flew close to the boat then headed away from us and the “Country Girl” gave chase. We caught up to it and overtook it a couple of times. It was a wild ride but resulted in everyone getting satisfying looks at their target. Brian Patteson and others took photos so I hope to see them soon on his web site. Discussion of the identification challenges between Black-capped and Bermuda Petrels has been well covered in separate posts.
Saturday morning Joe and I drove to Alligator NWR, John Fussell’s book in hand, hoping to see Swainson’s Warblers among other species. This is an almost primordial area, with poorly marked dirt roads. We stopped to let a large snapping turtle cross the road and, soon after, I spied a black bear about an eighth of a mile ahead, the first of two we saw. It quickly vanished into the woods as we approached slowly in our rented Ford Escort. Fussell recommends four-wheel drive and it is good advice. We had to retrace our route when we encountered a marsh covering the road. The biting insects were almost the size of the Prairie Warblers. We did have great looks at a Barred Owl foraging on the road. The next time we visit we’ll pick up the detailed refuge map on the way in instead of the way out!
Our next stop was Cape Hatteras. We walked the beaches, seeing Royal, Common, Gull-billed and Least Terns, Black Skimmers and a few shorebird species including Red Knots but no rarities. We checked into the Cape Pines motel in Buxton to relax before the next day’s pelagic. Kurt and Cindy Radamaker, Martin Meyers, Bill Maynard and others who had gone on the Miss Hatteras Saturday returned from the boat about 6 PM and filled us in on their day. The weather had been fine but their target birds had remained elusive. Their highlight had been a sighting of a small pod of false killer whales, a first for a Patteson trip.
Sunday’s pelagic included most of the species we had seen on Friday, but in fewer numbers. We did add South Polar Skua, Manx Shearwater and Sooty Terns, the latter two lifers for me. Another sighting of false killer whales gave everyone a thrill. About mid-afternoon one of the leaders announced on the PA “all-dark petrel at 2:00”. Luckily I was on the port side and was able to get on the bird quickly. It was a good distance off and tough to follow as the seas were rougher than our previous trip. The Miss Hatteras gunned the engines to give chase and I knelt on the deck, trying to stay on the bird. The spray began to obscure my binoculars and I scrambled toward the cabin door, but not quickly enough. A wave washed over the rail, completely swamping me. It was the first time I’d been entirely pleased with spending all that money on waterproof Bausch and Lomb’s! That was the last I saw of the Herald Petrel but I’ll never forget the experience.
Monday was our last chance to find a Wilson’s Plover before returning to California. It was gray and spitting rain occasionally but we drove to a spot near Hatteras where a few had been seen earlier in the week. Joe was scoping the beach toward the pier when I saw a large bird flying low over the surfline in the mist. It was pointed at both ends, definitely not a pelican. I had never seen a Northern Gannet but this immature bird looked promising. Joe had just been telling a story about a misidentified Masked Booby on the Dry Tortugas so I wanted to be entirely sure this bird wasn’t a booby. (Thank you, Joe, for being my live field guide.) The closest we came to a Wilson’s was a Black-bellied Plover but I’ll take the gannet.
Reluctantly we headed for RDU and our flight home. In one of the many small towns along route 64, I noticed a sign in front of a clapboard church: “Free trip to heaven, details inside”. The coastal Carolinas can be a little trip to heaven for birders.