Monday, February 28, 2011

My first trip to Hatteras

I tagged along with Jeff Pippen and 9 Nicnats (What's a Nicnat?) for my first ever trip to Cape Hatteras and my first North American pelagic birding trip.
We saw a Great Horned Owl fly across highway 64 around dusk on the ride down, which made the state list significance of my recent birding in Charlotte all the less.
So far so good.
Saturday morning we were up before dawn to meet Brian Patteson at the dock. We had tallied six gull species before even leaving the sound (the four you would expect plus Laughing and Lesser Black-backed). I knew our next gull would be a lifer for me.
I have a bad habit of whispering bird sightings rather than calling them out. And I mumbled to nobody in particular “hey check out this white gull…” Luckily Jeff was there to shout “ICELAND GULL!!!”
It turned out that there was really no need for urgency as there was almost always an Iceland Gull following the boat throughout the day and we saw four or five individuals.
Photographing a moving bird from a moving boat is not an art form I have perfected, so I took this video for those willing to brave the motion sickness.

Unfortunately there were no 8th, 9th, 10th or 11th gull species on the trip. We did see plenty of alcids including Razorbills (you’ll have to use your imagination) and Dovekies (you’ll have to imagine even harder as I didn’t get any pictures at all).
A steady wind kept us from getting out to the gulf stream, which was a real bummer. We missed a lot of reliable pelagic species: no Red Phalarope, Great Skua or shearwaters of any kind.
I did get three lifers out of the bargain (both alcids and the white gull), and I got to see my first breaching humpback whale (!), so I really can’t complain. I sure left myself with plenty of reasons to return for another voyage.
Sunday we started out birding Cape Point hoping for Western Grebes, rare gulls and Snow Buntings. Despite some generous help from Neal and his four-wheel drive vehicle we struck out on those targets. I later heard that others had found the Snow Buntings as well as Black-headed and Glaucous Gulls...so add those to my list of potential life and state birds missed on the trip. A consolation was a lone female Common Goldeneye at the pond which was NC bird #247 for me.
We birded our way up the banks through several spots over the next few hours seeing all sorts of ducks and shorebirds including a few dozen American Avocets at the Bodie Lighthouse pond. We also got some great looks at a cooperative Merlin in South Bodie.
No crazy rail sightings though. It seems like everybody has a ridiculous rail story for that spot.
We ended the day and our trip at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which I had driven past several times but never visited. What a place!
Jeff Pippen was able to pick out a distant circling adult Swainson’s Hawk, which I was able to view for several minutes through my scope. Life bird #1458 (thanks Jeff!).
Jeff pretended to get lost on the network of gravel roads when he was really just setting us up for a dusk sighting of a Bobcat! No pictures unfortunately, but this was my first ever sighting of a non-captive non-domestic real wild cat.
On the whole it was a really fun trip. When the birding was slow, the group was there to pick up the slack. I’m already looking forward to next year!
Special thanks to Neal Moore for shuttling us all around Cape Point Sunday am, to Paul Chad for assisting Nicnats with funding and to Jeff Pippen for being a badass trip leader.

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