Week Ending February 16, 2014

After finding out last Sunday that there was a Glaucous Gull (a bird I've never seen) hanging out down near Rudee Inlet, I decided to try my best to find it after work today. Last Saturday I had been to Rudee, and actually been looking around on the jetty to see if I could find the King Eider that has been seen in the area again, but unfortunately all I saw was gulls. Having not taken any pictures, I couldn't go back and search to see if I'd actually seen the Glaucous and not realized it after hearing that one was there. I left work around 3 o'clock, which is pretty common for me on Fridays unless something important is due. Fortunately, my office is up near Lynnhaven, only about 10-15 minutes from the parking areas at Rudee Inlet. In winter-time you can park right at the inlet since hardly anyone is around, and it is also free to park, as the meters don't begin until April or May I believe. Once at Rudee Inlet, there isn't much space for you to walk around, you pretty much have to observe from behind a railing, or on the beach immediately adjacent to the inlet's protective rock groin (or wall) that runs a couple hundred yards out along the north side of the inlet. The jetty that everyone talks about is a small man-made island that sits about 700 feet at it's closest point to the observation area. his range is a little too far for my 400mm telephoto lens even in ideal conditions so if you have an equal or lesser lens, you will definitely need binoculars to view anything properly out here. As I did not have any binoculars with me, I had to make due with the lens, and I began surveying the jetty, finding lots of gulls but not seeing one that stood out to me as different. Glaucous Gulls are a large species, not much smaller than the massive Great Black-backed Gulls that we have around here (the largest gull in the world). They are almost all white, with just a smidge of gray on their wings. The easiest way to tell them apart from other large gulls is that they lack any black on their wings & wingtips. After about 15 minutes I finally spotted something hunched over that looked like it might fit the description properly, and it wasn't long before it confirmed itself as it stood up briefly, and a very small by comparison Ring-billed Gull landed next to it. I took a few very awful quality photographs of the bird just for verification, and got to add another bird to my life list! Aside from the Glaucous Gull, there was a number of sea ducks (Surf, Black, and White-winged Scoters & Long-tailed Ducks), Buffleheads, and your usual Ring-billed, Herring, and Black-backed Gulls at the inlet. Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and Fish Crows were also around. I couldn't stay very long at the inlet because I needed to get back and pack up my clothes & gear in order to head down south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the weekend to both celebrate Valentine's Day & do some birding with my girlfriend, Ruth!

My very first sighting and photograph of a Glaucous Gull, and only 15 minutes from home!

Ruth & I arrived down in the Outer Banks last night around 7:30 after a fairly quick drive from Virginia Beach. Every time I come here I forget just how close it is, and how easy it is to get too when it's not tourist season yet. Anyone attempting to make the drive during the summertime is insane though, unless they travel at nighttime as the bridge from Currituck backs up for about 20  miles from Saturday morning through Sunday night. In Kitty Hawk we stopped at Chili Peppers Grill for dinner, one of our favorites, and then got to sleep early at our hotel on the beach. First thing in the morning, it appeared that the weather forecasts that I was unwilling to listen to all week long had come true, and we were socked in with overcast conditions. Regardless, I wanted to get out so I scrapped my plan for going up north to the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary & the Currituck Banks Coastal Reserve where there is about 7 miles of hiking. Instead, we went directly south to Oregon Inlet so I could attempt to see my target Harlequin Ducks before the clouds let loose with rain. Only about 20 minutes or so away, Oregon Inlet is massive opening in the outer banks that lets tidal waters ebb & flow from the ocean into Pamlico Sound.

Male White-winged Scoter in fresh breeding plumage swimming beneath the Bonner Bridge at Oregon Inlet.

The inlet is always full of high quantities of waterfowl and other bird species. The Herbert Bonner Bridge is about 3 or 4 miles long and traverses the inlet, connecting Hatteras Island to the mainland Outer Banks which actually start as a very narrow peninsula all the way up in Virginia Beach near Sandbridge. The bridge is the only land-based way of traveling to and from Cape Hatteras, though there is a ferry that may be taken from Ocracoke Island & another from the Swan Quarter of the North Carolina mainland. At the east end of the bridge there is a small parking area on the north, which this time around was mainly being used by fisherman. We saw about 3 or 4 actually pull in good size fish that I believe to be Red Drum. Since there was so many folks fishing, there wasn't much in the way of birds to be seen right in the cove. Typically, it will hold all types of shorebirds and waterfowl, last time I was here there were a lot of Black Skimmers, and even a few Piping Plovers. This time, I took the catwalk along the north side of the bridge out and got close enough to a White-winged Scoter to get a photograph. As I was taking photos of the scoter another one flew in from under the bridge and landed right in sight, then another, and another. It seem like they were landing on this side so that the current would push them back under the bridge while they were feeding. We walked all the way to the end and I got a few shots of a beautiful male showing it's breeding plumage and then headed back to the parking area. Then we headed around the small cove's beach & up the jetty. Along the jetty, sparrows flew back & forth, mainly Savannah & Song. A dolphin flashing it's pectoral fin out just offshore & we watched for a few minutes as it moved around, never really getting a long look at it. Large numbers of gulls were present (including Bonaparte's) out on the sandy washes of low tide. We reached the end of the jetty, out near the wind turine and then headed back to the parking area. It was quite cold and it had just started raining a bit so we hopped in the car and decided to drive south to see if the rain would let up or not.

A small fraction of the Snow Goose flock that was feeding in the mud along NC Highway 12 near Rodanthe.

We passed the Pea Island NWR parking area but kept on going since it was pouring. A few minutes south of the parking lot we passed some Canada Geese feeding in a drainage puddle, and then came upon a large flock of Snow Geese all feeding in the deep mud of the marsh right next to the roadway. I pulled off the road and shot some photographs from inside the vehicle which worked out nicely since it was still pouring. I got turned back southbound and we headed towards Hatteras. Along the way south the rain did eventually stop around Salvo, and yet again I did some car photography of a Merlin that was displaying its tail nicely from it's perch in the brush alongside the highway. They sky was extremely dark over top of us but there was blue sky off in the distance, so we chased after it. We finally caught the sun at the very limit of where you can drive down on Hatteras, and parked & walked up to the beach to see what the water looked like and enjoy the sun. Here at the southern end of the island, the wind had whipped up into 30mph sustrained blasts, and the sand was flying everything & the waves were pretty intense. We had to run back to the car to not blow away. Now that we'd reach the limit of driving, we had to turn back north, and so we drove back through the Town of Hatteras. As we hit the northern portion of the town, Pamlico Sound was viewable from the car and looming storm clouds were visible out over the water, which had now turned green from a combination of the blue sky behind us, and the gray clouds over top of it.

Dangerous looking storm clouds crossing Pamlico Sound en route to Cape Hatteras.

There was a small parking area here & so I took some photographs, and later realized that this is the site of where Hurricane Isabelle ruptured the island in 2003, separating the town from the rest of the island by a several hundred yard wide new inlet which was later filled in by the Army Corps of Engineers. While taking photographs here, a flock of Cedar Waxwings flew past, and a few bright blue Tree Swallows did also. A pair of Semipalmated Plovers was wandering the mud flats, but were too far out for decent shots. Back on the road again, we stopped off at a restaurant we'd been at in August, the Diamond Shoals Restaurant, which is pretty incredible for lunch (had the Spicy Tuna Wrap & it was unbelievably delicious) . After lunch, we hit the small pond along the entry road to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, where there was several species of ducks, including Redheads, some White Ibis, and a few White-tailed Deer that seemed unafraid of me driving right up on them and photographing from the vehicle. We headed back north, and again the rains began just as we hit the Pea Island NWR sign. I made a last ditch effort to stop at Oregon Inlet, and ended up just being able to walk the catwalks near the bridge, taking some additional photographs of White-winged Scoters before the rain began and I had to jog it back to the vehicle. That was the end of the birding for the day, as the rain didn't let up until late at night. 

A very unafraid White-tailed Deer feeding along the roadside near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton.

On Sunday, the sun was finally peaking through the clouds around 7 AM, so we packed up everything in the hotel immediately, grabbed some continental breakfast & then headed south to Oregon Inlet. After missing yesterday on the Harlequin Ducks, I wanted another shot, and though it was still overcast over top of us, the sun was trying to break it up. We hit the inlet parking lot and walked out on the north catwalk. As with yesterday, there was a number of White-winged Scoters present, and as I was keeping an eye on them, I leaned out over the catwalk only to see 2 Harlequins swim right into sight from under the bridge. I couldn't believe it, it was one of those magical moments where you expected something to happen, but then think you're dreaming because it actually did. Beautifully patterned and colored, both birds were adult males, but only once was showing it's full breeding plumage, an incredible mix of rust, slate gray, and grayish blue on white. I took a ton of photographs as the pair moved slowly furthur out from the bridge and then was joined by a 3rd, then a 4th member. The four took off into flight, and a 5th caught up with them. They flew circles a couple times around the area before finally flying underneath the bridge. We ran around to the south catwalk, but could not relocate them. Settling for more Scoters, a Red-breasted Merganser, and a leery Purple Sandpiper, we headed back to the car.

My very first sighting of a Harlequin Duck, a brilliantly plumaged drake!

The sky was now breaking up into blue to the south so we drove off towards Pea Island NWR. As soon as we got there, it really opened up, and there was almost no clouds in the sky after just a few more minutes. I was a little bummed that once again, the clouds marred my best opportunity to photograph a new species, but it didn't matter, I was just so excited I got to see such an extremely vibrantly colored duck for the very first time. The main impoundment west of the visitor's center at Pea Island was full of waterfowl as per usual. Canada Geese, American Black Ducks, Tundra Swans, and Northern Shovelers were the most abundant species. From the observation tower at the southwest corner, a lone White Ibis was visible in the marshes between the freshwater impoundment & the brackish Pamlico Sound. Also visible by itself was a rather large American White Pelican which was sitting on a sandbar out in the middle of the impoundment. Various songbirds, sparrows & warblers, and a Gray Catbird were also seen from the tower. This was really the first weekend that we had brought my pair of binoculars out birding & used them the whole time. They really helped to ID some of the far out birds, since the range of them is much greater than on my camera's telephoto zoom lenses. I had expected to find some American Avocets in the area after seeing other posts online, but could not locate any even with the binoculars.  Heading back east towards the visitor's center I caught sight of a Northern Harrier out over the impoundment to the south, but it stayed a bit far out of range and then dove into the marsh never to return...at least while I was watching. With the sun out completely now, we crossed the road at the visitor center and walked up the protective dune, down onto the beach. The first time we'd come down here together, and the first time I'd ever been here as a matter fact, back in November 2010, we saw a fairly large shark washed up on shore. No such sighting this trip, but we did get to see several dolphins surfacing out past the breakers this morning.

4 of the 5 Harlequin Ducks (3 males, 2 females) in Oregon Inlet just off the jetty walkway.

As for the birds, I didn't spot any of the coastal birds I was gunning for, namely Dovekies & Razorbills, but a large number of Bonaparte's Gulls kept me busy on the camera since they aren't a bird I see a whole lot on most of my backcountry hikes around Hampton Roads. After walking around the beach a bit, we drove back up to Oregon Inlet. This time, the sun finally stay outed over the inlet and we immediately went back to the catwalks to see if the Harlequins had returned. The were quickly visible, far out in the cove, too far for clear photographs, so we decided to walk the jetty instead. After passing by all the fisherman close to shore, we walked along the sandy path then up onto the jetty. When we reached the jetty, the Harlequins apparently had moved very close to it and I spooked them into flying. I couldn't believe it, I finally had my chance at sunlit photographs and I scared them off being realizing they were there. Hoping to find them again we followed the jetty around and suddenly they were in view once more. We hopped down onto the sand (lower than the jetty) and snuck up further in an attempt to get close to them. Peaking over we could see that they were right on the other side & had dove down. As they dove down I ran over top of the jetty and got into a spot where I'd hoped they'd pop back up. Sure enough, they popped up just a hundred feet or so out and I fired a bunch of photos off.

A pair of Purple Sandpipers watching the currents roll by their rock in Oregon Inlet.

For some reason, now my presence didn't seem to both them, and then kept swimming around in line and diving in order. Everytime they dove I tried to get into a better position, and I think I took around 200 photographs in all before they finally moved off into deeper, further way, waters. If ever there was a chance for me to get a good shot of these birds, it was this, and fortunately, I was very happy with several of the photographs, though it was hard to capture their true beauty, even in a 20 megapixel camera. After having the birds so close up, I didn't expect to see anything else today that would astonish me...so the remaining photos were few and far between, though a few of some Bonaparte's Gulls, and of my favorite Oregon Inlet bird, the Willet, did make my album below. After Oregon Inlet, we headed up to the Bodie Island Lighthouse to walk up to the observation platform. As with most times, there was some Tundra Swans out on the pond, but this time, we got to watch as several large flocks flew in and joined the groups already on the water. It was pretty amazing to see the large birds all landing at the same time, and so close to us. Aside from the swans, the pond was filled with Green-winged Teal, though too far out for my camera. Heading back we saw a Swamp Sparrow, and quite a few Yellow-rumped Warbler, and heard a Killdeer out on the lighthouse meadow screaming about something (like they always do). This was to be the final stop of the trip, as it was getting close to noon, and that's typically when we head back home, so after grabbing another seafood lunch (this time at Hurricane Mo's, which again, I definitely recommend...it was amazing), we hit the road back to Virginia Beach.

A Willet strolling the cove's beach in search of food at Oregon Inlet.