North Carolina – Birding the Land and the Sea – Part I – On Land

The main draw to North Carolina for Frank Caruso and me was the chance to see pelagic birds – some new lifers almost guaranteed and the possibility for some really rare birds as well.  But especially for me there was also a chance to photograph some land birds that I had seen before in the ABA area but had never gotten a photograph – most of them seen more than forty years ago.  This blog post will cover birding on land – two days before and two days after our two days of pelagic birding.

We flew into Raleigh Durham airport and headed east to Plymouth, N.C.  a drive of about 135 miles.  We saw some new birds for the year along the way, but nothing of note.  On a whim after dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Plymouth, I turned onto a forested road and as soon as we got out of the car, we heard the song of a Wood Thrush, and then another and another.  This species was high on my “photo needed/wanted list”.  We vowed to come back in the morning.  When we did the thrushes were very responsive to playback but would immediately bury themselves in the thick foliage.  Many were heard and seen briefly, but I never got a photo.  A major disappointment – but there would be a happy ending later in the trip.

Our next area to visit was the Palmetto Peartree Preserve and then on to Alligator River NWR.  Along the way to Palmetto Peartree, we stopped at a good looking spot not far off the freeway – along Old Highway 64.  We quickly found lots of good eastern birds including Pine, Prairie and Hooded Warblers, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift and Carolina Chickadees and Wrens.  But the real prize was a Prothonotary Warbler, which provided a new ABA Photo for me.  We would see and hear many on our trip.

Prothonotary Warbler Old Highway 64 – May 30, 2018

Prothonotary Warbler 1

We were never quite sure that we found the actual Palmetto Peartree Preserve but at least nearby we had essentially the same birds and heard another Wood Thrush – one that would not come closer for us.  It was on to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge – a huge forested area.  Here we added White Eyed Vireo and Blue Gray Gnatcatcher and had at least a dozen Prothonotary Warblers.  The bird of the visit, though was a Red Headed Woodpecker – actually a pair.  While I was very pleased to get another new ABA life photo, we never got the killer view and killer photo of this beautiful bird that I had hoped for.

Red Headed Woodpecker – Sawyer Road – Alligator NWR – May 30, 2018

Red Headed Woodpecker B

We checked out the hotel where we would be staying that night in Manteo on Roanoke Island and then continued across the causeway/bridge to the Outer Banks.  Along the way we stopped for some Great Black Backed Gulls and our first Boat Tailed Grackles of the trip.  Frank and I had seen them in Florida together last year and had already seen hundreds of Common Grackles in North Carolina.  I had hundreds of Great Tailed Grackles in Texas and Arizona earlier this year, so now I had all of the Grackle species for the year – lucky me.

Boat Tailed Grackle – One of Many on the Coast

Boat Tailed Grackle

A short while later our stop at the North Pond at the Pea Island Island NWR provided perhaps the biggest disappointment of the trip.  I very much wanted a photo of a Seaside Sparrow – a species I had missed in Texas.  We had two birds fly by and then disappear into thick brush.  We could never get them to show themselves – so no photo.  They are well known as real skulkers and photos are a challenge, but this was Oh so close!!!  Nearby in Rodanthe, we found a good spot for shorebirds and terns.  The numbers were few but the prize for me was a single White Rumped Sandpiper.  I had gotten a very iffy photo of one in Florida last year.  This fellow was with a few Semipalmated Sandpipers and even at a distance it seemed “different”.  I got close enough for some photos to confirm the ID and then it flew.  My flight photo caught the tell-tale white rump.

White Rumped Sandpiper – Rodanthe, N.C.

White Rumped Sandpiper (2)

White Rumped Sandpiper Flight

Semipalmated Sandpiper Flight Shot

Semipalmated Sandpiper Flight

Frank’s favorite bird here was the Black Skimmer.  Several put on a great aerial show right in front of us and then per their name, skimmed the water, providing a great photo opportunity.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer Skimming

We also had Least, Common, Caspian and Sandwich Terns.  Not a great photo for the latter and I will include photos of the others later.  We returned to Manteo and after dinner visited the Roanoke Island Festival Park where we had a surprise Brown Thrasher singing and then foraging on the ground.  No camera, thus no photo, so this is out of sequence, but I include a photo from later in the trip when we found another and it obliged for a photo.  It was only my second one of this species and far better than the one two years ago in Maine.

Brown Thrasher – Roanoke Festival Park

Brown Thrasher 1

Our second day of birding in North Carolina included more searching for Clapper Rails and Seaside Sparrows, shorebirds, terns etc.  We also went down to Hatteras to be sure we knew what to expect for the next day’s pelagic trip.  Two unexpected additions were chasing first a Purple Gallinule and then a Roseate Spoonbill.  The first was highly successful and the latter was at most a quick distant view.  The Ebird report for the out of place Purple Gallinule gave a specific address on South Old Oregon Inlet Road in Nags Head.  Just before reaching the address we saw the head of the Gallinule poking up from some water weeds on the side of the road.  If its head had been down we would have missed it.  Instead we were treated to a great close up of a very photogenic and beautiful bird that we had seen the previously year in Florida where it belongs.  Sometimes we were so close, it was hard to focus.

Purple Gallinule – Nags Head N.C.

Purple Gallinule

A great addition to our trip and state list and for my ABA year list.  After watching for many minutes we continued a bit on the road and then made a U-Turn to head south.  When we got back to the spot where we had seen the bird, it was invisible, buried in the weeds.  If the timing had been just a bit different, we may have not seen it.  Just another reminder of how luck and timing are critical factors in our birding experiences.

We heard some Clapper Rails but could not get any to show themselves.  We also continued to see shorebirds and added Black Bellied Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Willet, Lesser Yellowlegs, Short Billed Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstone and American Oystercatcher to our trip list.  As I said we had at most a very distant look at the Roseate Spoonbill at the Salt Pond in Hatteras.  The area was right and it was seen there again later that day, but it was distant and in poor light and disappeared into an area that was too far to chase.  So at best a “maybe”…

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone Flight

We moved to our hotel in Hatteras ready for a very early start on the pelagic trip the next morning and another one the following day.  And this is where I will go out of sequence as I cover that trip in a separate blog post.  The remainder of this one picks up after the pelagic trip first with another stop on the coast hoping for a Clapper Rail photo and then a brief visit to a large colony of Least Terns and Black Skimmers – probably more of each than I had seen previously in my whole life.

Least Tern

Least Tern Hovering

We returned to spend the night again at Manteo and in the morning of June 3rd got the Brown Thrasher photo included above and then later found a second one.  Our next stop before heading west was at Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve.  It looked like a great place but there were more bugs than birds and our list was disappointing.  Even the  Ruby Throated Hummingbird coming to a feeder at the closed info center would have been better if it were a colorful male instead of the drab female.  Still always fun to see hummers.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird Female

Ruby Throated Hummingbird

We then returned to Alligator River NWR and drove around the Sawyer Lake Road area again.  As before we had Prothonotary Warblers everywhere and we added our only Black Throated Green Warbler and a nice Pileated Woodpecker but our hoped for better look at a Red Headed Woodpecker was not to be.  Some beautiful Indigo Buntings and some quick looks at Yellow Billed Cuckoos were a treat but the best was a heard only Swainson’s Warbler.  We never coaxed it into the open but hearing it sing and then listening to the song as we tried playback would produce great benefits later.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting A

A surprise “miss” on the trip so far had been the absence of Brown Headed Nuthatches a common bird of the Southeast.  We listened everywhere and had tried playback without success in seemingly perfect habitats.  Before continuing west towards Raleigh Durham to be ready for our return flight the next day, we stopped at Loop Road in Columbia, N.C. back near the Palmetto Peartree Reserve which we still are not sure we found at least any central portion.  At an arbitrary stop along the road we finally heard Nuthatches chattering and we had our target.

Brown Headed Nuthatch

Brown Headed Nuthatch

We also had a very cooperative White Eyed Vireo and a close look at an Acadian Flycatcher.

White Eyed Vireo

White Eyed Vireo

Acadian Flycatcher

Acadian Flycatcher 1

We headed south on Old Highway 64 towards U.S. 64 our main route west with our windows open both for fresh air and to listen for birds.  Suddenly, Frank yelled “STOP”!  This is where our early time listening to the Swainson’s Warbler songs paid off.  He thought he might have heard one.  We got out of the car and even I could recognize its song which is characterized as “whee whee whee whippoorwill with opening notes down-slurred and the last three notes clear and faster”.  I rarely relate to song descriptions but this one was right on, and our bird was close.  It took only a moment to see it buried in the foliage.  Unlike the first one we had heard, this guy was in a curious mood and responded immediately to our first and only playback.  It remained in the open sufficiently long for some nice photos.

Swainson’s Warbler

Swainson's Warbler 1

Swainson's Warbler 2

I knew that finding this species was a possibility but it has a reputation for being tough to find and even more difficult to photograph, so I had the finding odds as low and even lower for finding getting a picture.  Frank had the same assessment so we were thrilled with this find – the best land bird of our trip.  I am not sure if I had seen one before although I know I had heard one – and only one.  That was 43 years ago at Pocomoke River State Park in Maryland on a trip led by the legendary Chan Robbins as part of a Maryland Ornithological Union field trip.  It is usually a skulking bird and many of my birder friends have it as either the only or one of a few warblers that they have either not seen or never photographed.  This was a stunning moment and I celebrated with a victory whoop!!

We continued west in good spirits and returned to Rankin Road in Plymouth where we had seen Wood Thrush before but I had not been able to get a photo.  This time I did – finally adding it to my ABA photos list.

Wood Thrush – Plymouth N.C.

Wood Thrush

We spent the night in Rocky Mount, N.C. about 70 miles from the airport.  The next morning we found a great birding spot – Horton Grove Nature Preserve in Durham County.  We had 38 species here including several either new ones for the trip or better looks and/or photographs.  The previous day I had my best picture yet of a Yellow Billed Cuckoo.  This one was even better – the only one I have seen completely out in the open.

Yellow Billed Cuckoo

Yellow Billed Cuckoo

In one great spot we heard and saw numerous (at least 10) Ovenbirds singing – joined by Northern Parula Warblers – both new for the trip. We heard two Red Headed Woodpeckers calling continuously but could not get them to move at all.  Chimney Swifts flew over head and there were Carolina Wrens and Chickadees.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren A

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee


Ovenbird 1

Northern Parula Warbler

Northern Parula 1

There were several Acadian Flycatchers and Eastern Wood Pewees and other warblers too including Common Yellowthroat, Prairie Warbler and a lovely Yellow Throated Warbler that we finally spied after a long hide and seek chase.

Yellow Throated Warbler

Yellow Throated Warbler

We also got to hear, see and photograph the “Eastern” White Breasted Nuthatch.  Many think this subspecies will be split from the White Breasted Nuthatch of the west and will be recognized as a separate species.  Thus I have this “tick” and a photo ready in the bank if that occurs.

Eastern White Headed Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch Eastern

These were all great birds but the best for me was one of the three species of Vireo that we found here.  Two had been seen throughout the trip:  Red Eyed Vireo and White Eyed Vireo.  We heard a song that was similar to that of the Red Eyed Vireo yet different.  I was hoping it was a Yellow Throated Vireo.  I had seen one briefly in Texas earlier this year but had no picture from then or from my only other record – from Wisconsin in 1976.  Frank was pretty sure that the call was my guy – a “THREE-eight” call repeated three times, slower and more deliberate than the Red Eyed.  It came into the open only briefly and the photo was not that great – but an ABA first and it confirmed the ID.  This was another of the birds that had been on my “hoped for but really not expected list”.

Yellow Throated Vireo

Yellow Throated Vireo


I was a very happy camper as we moved on to another area in the Preserve.  We added new birds for the trip when we found several Yellow Breasted Chats and some Field Sparrows and it was here that we got our best look at a Summer Tanager.

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

We had spent two hours at this great spot and it was now time to end the trip, return the car and get our flight.  Even without the pelagic birds, this had been a great trip.  Excluding the pelagics, we had seen 108 species.  As I had expected, none were ABA life birds but 16 were new ABA birds for the year – a year which has had a fair amount of birding in a lot of regions.  Five were new ABA Life Photos:  Prothonotary Warbler, Wood Thrush, Red Headed Woodpecker, Swainson’s Warbler and Yellow Throated Vireo.   The latter two more than made up for failing to get photos of Clapper Rail and Seaside Sparrow which had been on the “hoped for” list.  I also got that photo of the White Rumped Sandpiper which had been a “probable” but not absolutely “certain” photo from before.

Several photos were also improvements of ones from the past – an ever continuing process.  Since I had also added many ABA Life photos on the pelagic trips, the photo of the Yellow Throated Vireo was number 680 on my ABA photo list.  Not going to get to my magical 700 this year but I have a chance of getting there next year.  Incidentally, the Ovenbird was ABA species #503 for the year.  I had not set any goal for ABA birds for the year but it was nice to get past 500 again.

This had been a very good birding trip.  It was too hot and it was way too humid and there were way way too many bugs for my liking, but the birds had been excellent and all the people we met – birders and everyone else were terrific.  I had eaten far too much food but somehow gotten enough walking in to have only gained a couple of pounds.  Not sure I will ever return but definitely glad I came.

2 thoughts on “North Carolina – Birding the Land and the Sea – Part I – On Land

  1. Hi Blair

    great post and looks like a fantastic trip however you have one photo labelled as a female anna’s hummingbird but that actually is a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.There are no Anna’s in NC.

    Congrats on all your lifers


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