Friday, August 19, 2011

Birding Rachel Carson National Estuarine Sanctuary (Beaufort)

The Rachel Carson National Estuarine Sanctuary is a phenomenal birding spot and made for a great break from the August beach crowds.  At high tide all sorts of birds congregate at this isolated location and then forage over a variety of estuarine habitats that have been created by years of dredge spoil.  I had paddled through it several times in the past, but never in the summer. Yesterday I explored and birded the area by kayak during falling tide. 
High Tide at Rachel Carson National Estuarine Sanctuary
It is a haven for several species of wading birds such as Little Blue Heron...

Little Blue Heron

...and White Ibis, which were found all over the place; I encountered one huge flock of about 100 that scattered when helicopters flew over.  

White Ibis
An exciting and rare wader was present during my visit--a Reddish Egret (Lifer # 1529; NC bird #268)!

Reddish Egret (immature)
This species breeds in Southern Florida, but a few may regularly wander up into the Carolinas later in the summer.

They are quite comical when foraging.  Check out this quick video clip:

Rachel Carson is also a popular resting spot for gulls and terns.  I happened to visit during what I can only assume must be peak migration for Black Terns.

Black Tern

I counted 251 individual Black Terns in a single flock and found many smaller flocks in the area.  Add Least, Forster's, Sandwich, Common and Royal into the mix and you have a tern metropolis. 

But it is the abundant and diverse shorebirds that are often most alluring for birders.  I, for one, was excited to see about a dozen or so Wilson's Plovers (NC bird #269!), a relatively uncommon species.  

Wilson's Plover
 Alltogether I identified 15 shorebird species during the afternoon...
Spotted Sandpiper

Marbled Godwits
...hopefully all of them correctly!  Shorebirds can be quite confusing.

Least Sandpiper
Overall brown coloration, a short fine-tipped and decurved bill, plus yellow legs make this peep a Least Sandpiper.  Easy enough.

Western Sandpipers (with Sanderling)
 Long curved and fine-tipped bills, black legs and reddish scapulars should make these Western Sandpipers. I read somewhere that Western/Semipalmated Sandpipers are misidentified with regularity.  Hopefully I'm not screwing this up!

Short-billed Dowitchers
Ugh.  Dowitchers are another notoriously misidentified pair.  My assumption given the time of year (August) and the water salinity (salty/brackish) is that the dozens of dowitchers should be Short-billed.  The vocalizations I heard and recorded seem to fit this assumption well, but are Short-billed Dowitchers supposed to have this much reddish coloration on their bellies?  Could there be Long-billed Dowitchers mixed in?

Birding can be such a humbling experience at times.  There is always more to learn.  Be ready for some ambiguous fall warbler photos in a month or so!

To round out the day's birding, I made a quick stop at Fort Macon State Park, situated directly across the Beaufort Inlet from Rachel Carson.  My target here was a long overdue life bird: Painted Bunting.  

I was pleasantly surprised to find that a new informative trail had been cut through the scrub thickets at the end of the parking lot and my search ended quickly in success!  (Thanks to John Fusell for the tip)

Painted Bunting
A beautiful adult male (captured by a shockingly poor photograph) was foraging with a couple scruffy first year birds in a wet depression (lifer #1530; NC bird # 270).

I'm cooking up some plans to search for black rails in Cedar Island next weekend.  Stay tuned!


  1. "Birding can be such a humbling experience at times. There is always more to learn."

    Well said. :) I think I am going to have to plan a trip south one day so I may see a Painted Bunting.