Since I now cannot get out hiking after working hours Monday through Friday thanks to lack of sunlight, my first outing was on Saturday. With my 31st birthday coming up on Monday, Ruth & I decided to go down to the Outer Banks very early Saturday morning with plans to hike our way south towards Hatteras, and then stay overnight around Nags Head so we could do some more hiking on Sunday morning. We left home about 6:30 AM and were in the Outer Banks around 8 AM. We made our first stop at Bodie Island Lighthouse which is a few miles south of Nags Head, and a couple of miles north of Oregon Inlet, the large water crossing between the peninsula containing Kitty Hawk / Nags Head / and Currituck County and Hatteras Island to the south. The lighthouse has a short boardwalk the goes out onto an observation platform overlooking a freshwater marsh. We must have been the first ones there on the crisp & breezy morning since all the waterfowl and wading birds were still tucked close in to the platform. Slowly walking up, we flushed a few Song Sparrows, and then immediately noticed a large group of adult White Ibis just beyond the reeds. As we crept on them, a few Green-winged Teal took to the air, and as they did, so did all the other birds, which included some Northern Pintails and American Black Ducks, and many Tundra Swans. After flushing all the close-in birds, I didn't expect many good photographs, but we did get to add a Red-tailed Hawk to our list as it flew along the tree line to the north. After exiting Bodie Island, we crossed the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet, and from the bridge it was immediately obvious that there was an immense gathering of birds in the vicinity.
It must have been around low tide, probably about 8:45 AM or so when we crossed. Many mud flat islands were visible to the south and west. These islands were completely engulfed by a moving mass of Double-crested Cormorants and Brown Pelicans. Thousands upon thousands of the cormorants were in the air as well, and also on the surface of the water. I've never seen so many in one area in my entire life, it was breathtaking. We crossed the bridge, and pulled off the road into the parking area, then walked the catwalk on the southbound side of the bridge as far as it goes. Along this catwalk, you get great views looking southwestward. Tons and tons of pelicans and cormorants were feeding on the surface, so there must have been a shoal of baitfish present. In addition to the birds, a pod of 3 or 4 Dolphins was also surfacing out in the middle of the action. They turned and headed right towards us on the bridge jumping out of the water along the way. We ran up to where they would hit us perpendicular, and they then dove under the bridge and stayed under on their way back out to sea. Another incredible experience that I had never predicted being a part of on the day. With all the wildlife activity already, I was surprised to find no ducks of any kind around the Oregon Inlet vicinity. Last February, there was tons of Scoters, and a group of Harlequin Ducks, but nothing was found this time, perhaps its just to early in the season. We walked back to the parking area (bringing a whole slew of plastic garbage along with us that careless fisherman just throw on the ground), and then walked the jetty that heads along the shoreline towards the ocean itself. Along this, we got some Savannah Sparrow, a Black-bellied Plover that was on the beach with a Sanderling, and we also got a look at a Northern Harrier as it flew up and over a sand dune, only to catch the wind and disappear quickly southward.
We kept on southward, stopping at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge's visitor center, and walked the mile or so long trail out to the observation platform between the "North" and "South" ponds. Here, we had the wonderful surprise of find quite a few American White Pelicans, probably 30-40! In addition to the Pelicans, along the marshes we could see plenty of American Black Ducks, Canada Geese, loads of Tundra Swans, Great Blue Heron, a Tricolored Heron and a Great Egret, Buffleheads, a group of Hooded Merganser, large groups of American Coots, the list goes on and on. The area was just full of bird life. Yellow-rumped Warblers were also very numerous in the brush on the sides of the trail, trying to no doubt stay out of the wind. We had one American White Pelican fly right over us, but unfortunately a cloud was blocking the sun at the time so my photographs weren't as good as they could have been! After walking back from the tower to the parking area, we crossed the highway and went up and over the dunes to the beach. I was hoping to catch some Northern Gannets or Bonaparte's Gulls, but none were seen, again perhaps too early in the season for them this far south. Continuing southward from Pea Island NWR, we drove through all the town of Rodanthe, Waves, Avon, and finally reached Buxton. At Buxton, we went into the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse area where there is a pond that fills up with waterfowl. Apparently though, again we are too early in the season and only a couple of what appeared to be American Black Ducks were present. We drove further towards the lighthouse, where we saw a pair of White-tailed Deer out in a field. I pulled the car around and crept up from behind some foliage to get some good photographs of them.
Afterwards, we drove near the campground area, and actually had a buck and a younger deer walking right down the shoulder. When we stopped, the younger deer actually walked across the road towards us. Seeing them up so close was amazing, but it sort of took away from the effort I'd put in to photographing the earlier deer, now realizing that the population must be extremely used to being around people. I almost consider it cheating to photograph these, as they're wild animals, but have basically become pets to those in the campgrounds. Either way though, very neat to see the beautiful animals up close. After this, we stopped at the Diamond Shoals Restaurant in Buxton, where I got my favorite spicy tuna salad wrap and sweet potato fries for lunch, this being the 3rd time we've driven down to eat here! About noon, and after eating, we started driving back northward, stopping at all the same locations all over again. I figured by the end of the day I walked between 7.5-8 miles probably. On the second outing at Pea Island NWR, I got a group of Willets and Marbled Godwits flying together across the trail, and got great views of the cloud of cormorants to the north.
The pelicans were all still present as well. I never did find any American Avocets, one of my hopeful birds for the trip, but, someday I'll find them here, since from eBird reports, they're definitely seen during winter here. On the second pass at Oregon Inlet, we again spotted a Northern Harrier, just after I'd told Ruth to me on the lookout for one. It flew across the dunes, and over the marsh to the jetty, but unfortunately kept going northward across the inlet. Savannah Sparrows were out along the Jetty, and we did see a number of fresh Raccoon tracks in the sandy marsh soils, but never found the responsible party. We crossed north on the Bonner Bridge and stopped again at Bodie Island. This time, with the sun shining, some Tundra Swans flew close enough in to get a nice flight photograph of them. Also, Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail were still present in good numbers. Afterwards, we decided that since it was only 3 PM, that we didn't really need to spend the extra money to stay the night. Instead, we headed back up north to the populated areas of the Outer Banks (seeing what I believe was a Rail, and a Northern Harrier, perhaps the same that had left Oregon Inlet, along the way). We drove back home to Virginia Beach, partly for the money & time, and mostly because we both wanted to see our cat Buster, who is currently a bit subdued after getting fixed about 8 days prior. Hopefully he'll only be wearing the plastic cone around his neck for a couple more days!
Having opted to return to Virginia Beach Saturday evening awarded me the ability to get out hiking locally on Sunday morning. I went up to Pleasure House Point in the morning, at around 8 o'clock, initially getting out a little later than I'd wanted just because I thought the overcast skies and chilly weather might keep the birds down. Boy, was I wrong. Low tide was about 9 AM or thereabouts from my observations, and the mudflats were packed with the typical species of gulls. I didn't notice any terns/skimmers/or Oystercatchers, but there were a large number of Sanderlings out there as well. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's new headquarters building (the Brock Center) had it's grand opening (invite only) on Friday, and this morning was its first open house. The center is a mixed bag amongst the wildlife community, but I maintain that it was a small price to pay for the City of Virginia Beach setting aside Pleasure House Point as a natural area preserve instead of it being completely developed into condos/townhomes like it very almost did during the Indigo Dunes days with the Sandler Company. Walking around the sandy patch of the park and along the starts of the interior creeks, I found 1 Greater Yellowlegs along the shoreline, and also got my first American Bittern at the park that wasn't in-flight. This one was feeding and I got to watch it catch a meal. Clapper Rails were heard several times, but I never got any looks, which is typical of these birds here. There are good numbers of Hooded Mergansers and Buffleheads out on the tidal creek, but my big surprise with ducks came on one of the interior ponds when I stumbled upon a group of 6 magnificent Wood Ducks. I took several photographs from 100 yards out and when I took one step closer, they took to the air. I was behind dense foliage, and am just amazed at how weary they were! I haven't yet seen any Gadwall show up to the park though they are very common in winter on the stormwater pond near the east end, as well as the ponds at the west end. One lone Common Loon flew overhead also. There wasn't many songbirds present in the park but I did find a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers that had several Pine Warblers in it as well.
This was the first time since spring that I've actually photographed a Pine Warbler, and right in its namesake tree to boot. I had no luck with tracking down the now commonly seen (though eBird still calls them rarities) Nelson's Sparrows today, which is the first time in probably my last 5 or 6 outings that I haven't found any. I did however, find a Savannah Sparrow, and many Song Sparrows, so if you're seeking sparrows in general, this is a great place to find them without walking too far. Carolina Wrens were also seen in the dense underbrush along the trail. I did also get a good sighting of a small Sharp-shinned Hawk flying overhead, which I initially thought was a Kestrel or a Merlin, but was able to tell from the photographs that it had banding on the stomach. I never realized just how small the Sharp-shinned Hawks are in comparison to their larger cousins, the Cooper's Hawks, which I see more frequently here in the suburban areas of Virginia Beach. This was the only true raptor I saw, though I did spot a single Osprey that must be over-wintering in the area like last year. I ended up getting home rather early, about 10:30 AM or so, which doesn't usually happen, but after all day out on Saturday, it was nice to catch a bit of a break. Tomorrow, sadly a Monday, and back to work, also happens to be my 31st birthday! Unfortunately this coming week, my company works Monday through Saturday, and then gives us the following Thursday & Friday off for Thanksgiving without docking us personal time off usage. So I'll be working 6 days this coming week, hopefully making it out next Sunday in an attempt to continue my blog for the week, and to hopefully see some neat wildlife. I may have to rely on reports that others have passed on to me to give my blog some meat next week, but check it out anyway when you get the time!