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Xmas vacation: Beaufort SC, Okracoke, and Portsmouth

Hi C-birders,

Now that the Chinese Tallow is off my chest... Wanted to add to Len
Pardue's list of coffees: Durham NC has a sister community in Nicaragua,
San Ramon, which grows shade-grown, certified organic, fair-trade-priced
coffee. I think you can buy it at the Durham Food Co-op, or online via
Counter Culture Coffee gives them free use of their roasting facilities.
Counter Culture also offers their own shade-grown brew, "Sanctuary": see

Anyway, I'd been planning for weeks to participate in the Ocracoke and
Portsmouth CBCs. At the last minute Airlie decided we had to visit her
cousins, the Glaisters, in Beaufort SC, and that she'd come on the CBCs
too. The Glaisters turned out to live on the edge of a beautiful huge salt
marsh in the midst of lots of live oaks and other coastal forest, with a
few nice wetlands constructed in their development. Saw a couple of
Pileated Woodpeckers, a Red-headed Woodpecker, several Hooded and Red-
breasted Mergansers, a few Blue-winged Teal, Common Loons, some White
Ibis, and assorted herons and egrets in their neighborhood. I even picked
up a bird for my SC state list: Eurasian Collared-Dove, in the marina by
Bay Road in town. (the bad news, other than the rapid development of the
island forest, you've already heard: an infestation of Chinese Tallow Trees)

Then we drove to Ocracoke. It was painful to drive by signs for so many
great birding spots without stopping: Donnely WMA, Bear Island, ACE Basin
NWR, the Caw Caw Nature Center, Huntington Beach SP... (not to mention not
stopping to visit Gary Phillips or Jack Peachey!). But we had to make a 4
PM ferry at Cedar Island without getting pulled over for speeding or
running red lights, so our only birds on the trip up were kestrels and
kingfishers on the wires, one Harrier over the Cedar Island marshes, and a
pair of out-of-place-looking yellowlegs in a retention pond by a highway
off-ramp near Myrtle Beach.

The ferry terminal was saddened by a beheaded dolphin on the beach, but
brightened by eight Savannah Sparrows on the roof of the rest area. The
ferry was much nicer, with lots of Common and Red-throated Loons (and live
dolphins), and an immature (and maybe some adults) Great Cormorant on the
green channel marker right where John Fussell said it would be in his
book! Darkness fell before we reached Okracoke, where we shared dinner and
crashed in the compiler's house with several other birders.

On Sunday, we hitched a ride to beautiful, uninhabited Portsmouth Island.
The high point was before we even landed: an Oldsquaw (Long-tailed Duck),
a state bird for me! I birded on the way out with several other counters.
Airlie and I were assigned a coastal strip, so I could seawatch; the ocean
was alive with strings of Northern Gannets heading north, Black Scoters
going south, and Brown Pelicans heading in both directions. The best birds
on the ocean were a Greater Scaup, all by itself, and four Northern
Pintail that for some reason were mixed in with one of the scoter flocks.
Back behind the dunes, and even more exciting, a lifer subspecies: Ipswich
Sparrows! We spotted at least five, mixed in with more standard Savannah
Sparrows; at least twice two birds perched together, one of each
subspecies, and I may have even gotten a decent photo of it... Airlie,
doing a CBC as her first time out birding (and first time using the
binoculars I bought her as a 14-month-late wedding present, just in time
for Xmas), ID'd a Gray Catbird by sound, somewhat out of place in a little
patch of stunted shrubs behind the dunes.

The next day we all counted on Ocracoke. Airlie and I joined two folks
named Julie and Jerry, with whom we birded part of the village, nearby
Springer Point, and the adjacent coastline. Certain birds that are
dirt-common here in the Triangle turned out to be hard to come by on the
islands; I think we had 2 of just 4 Northern Cardinals for the circle, 9
of the 10 House Sparrows, 1 of the very few Blue Jays, etc.. The sad part
was an abundance of dead critters washed up on the beach, including four
Loggerhead Sea Turtles, one juvenile Green Sea Turtle, a Diamonback
Terrapin, a pelican, a cormorant, and a few gulls (Jeff Beane, a CBC
participant who is also a herpetologist, ID'd the turtle corpses for us
the next day). We kicked up a Marsh Wren in a cattail-lined pond, a Winter
Wren in the Springer Point woods (which were beautiful despite being
infested with English Ivy), and two Palm Warblers on wrack along the
shoreline. Airlie spotted our party's only Common Yellowthroat; after she
split off and went home, an immature Cooper's Hawk loomed over somebody's
yard at us from the top of a light-post. A bunch of swallows swirled
overhead; I checked for Caves, but could find only Trees.

That was all in the morning. We met back at the compiler's house for
lunch, and after comparing notes, returned to the field in the afternoon
to fill in gaps in the species tally. Lloyd Lewis and a Welsh birder named
Peter took me out to the north end of the island, where we spotted the
first Blue-winged Teal of the day and flushed an American Bittern. I was
dropped on the shore to seawatch and picked up the day's first Surf
Scoters, Red-throated Loons, and Bonaparte's Gull, as well as 284 Northern
Gannets and over 200 Black Scoters in only an hour! We ended the day with
a chorus of Clapper Rails and two flyover Black-crowned Night Herons.
Peter Vankevich, the compiler, wrapped things up with a great "tally
rally" featuring chili, scallop-and-clam chowder, key lime pie, and many
other goodies. After stuffing ourselves and comparing notes, I think the
totals were 80 species for Portsmouth and 98 for Ocracoke.

We were too tired to drive home Monday night, so we stayed a little longer
and took a 1 PM ferry to Swan Quarter the next day. Some perfunctory
morning birding beforehand turned up nothing new, but the ferry was great!
A flock of 160-plus Canada Geese, a lone Brant, and an aromatic island
carpeted with Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants saw us off from
Ocracoke. As with the ferry from Cedar Island, things slowed down to
mostly the occasional loon offshore; Red-throated seemed to outnumber
Common once we got far from land.

As the first bits of land appeared ahead of us, we ran into a massive raft
of 4-500 Red-breasted Mergansers, with an assortment of loons, two
gannets, and a pair of Oldsquaw mixed in. After seeing so many
Red-breasts, a fly-by COMMON MERGANSER (definitely the *rarest* merganser
in NC) stood out! Then, as the land came into clearer focus, suddenly the
water was full of Surf Scoters! Behind the Surfs was a band of Black
Scoters; then the Oldsquaw, previously only seen solo or in pairs, started
appearing in larger and larger groups, as did Bufflehead, both species'
white heads gleaming when the sun peeked through the oncoming rain clouds.
As the ferry terminal came into view, all species but Bufflehead vanished.
Then, just to end the voyage with an exclamation point, an EARED GREBE
popped up! Then, as a cool-down from the great birding trip, a raft of
Ruddy Ducks and a Horned Grebe (the first of the trip, believe it or not)
and a few more Tree Swallows greeted us by the dock. I really wanted to
hit Mattamuskeet too, but Airlie was tired and homesick, so I saved that
for another trip...

Good birding! And many thanks to Peter Vankevich for coordinating both
CBCs, and to Hal Broadfoot for talking me into participating!


Joshua S. Rose
Duke University
Department of Biology (Zoology, R.I.P.)