North Carolina, continued:
Last week I wrote about a birding trip (and snake encounter) that my wife and I took to the Outer Banks in NC. After leaving the Banks we headed south, towards Wilmington, but on the way I wanted to stop at the famed Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is noted for its migrating warblers, plus easy-to-see black bears, and even red wolves. (How about that?) My plan was to arrive at the refuge at sunrise, when the birds would be most active. However, my wife had an idea that was different than mine. Wanna guess whose idea we went with?
She had just finished reading David McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers and suggested we visit their National Memorial in Kitty Hawk. Stopping there was fine with me, except the Memorial didn’t open until 9:00 AM, which would make us late for seeing birds at the refuge. Yet, even I have to admit that I’m glad we stopped, because it turns out the Wright Brothers were bird watchers. The bros would sit on the dunes for hours and study the soaring gulls, which helped them develop their theories of flying. There was a bit of irony here, however. The Park Service has posted signs along the footpaths leading to the Memorial stating: “Rollerblades, skateboards and bicycles are prohibited.” No bicycles!! Are they kidding? The Wright Brothers are the most famous bicycle shop owners in the world. No bikes at their Memorial is like not allowing light bulbs in Menlo Park or prohibiting Tang in the cafeteria at Cape Canaveral. Oh, well.
Speaking of “oh, well,” by the time we finally arrived at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge it was late morning and all the wildlife had settled down for the day. We heard no birds and saw zero bears or wolves. Heck, we didn’t even see an alligator. Although at one point, I did stop the car thinking that I had seen a flock of birds eating from a field of flowers. But the birds turned out to be butterflies. How embarrassing. When I got back into the car and announced to my wife that the birds were actually butterflies, she put her iPad down and yelled, “Butterflies! Where?” She then proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes photographing the butterflies. Meanwhile, I stayed in the car and played with her iPad.
Even though our trip to the refuge was a bust, the next morning we had a great experience at one of my favorite birding locations in North Carolina. Carolina Beach State Park, which is just outside of Wilmington, is a proverbial hidden gem for birding. It’s a small park and free to enter, which is never a bad thing. As we started down the trail we were greeted by a birdcall that I wasn’t familiar with. My wife has no patience for birds she can’t see and continued on, but I was determined to find the mystery bird. After staring at a single tree for about ten minutes, I finally found the singer. It was a Summer Tanager, the southern version of our Scarlet Tanager. Like scarlets, Summer Tanagers are brilliant red, which made me feel a little silly for taking so long to find it. I was in the middle of enjoying my big discovery when my wife called me over, announcing:
“There are lots of birds over here.” I rushed over to find a lot of birds, but there was nothing I couldn’t have seen on Cape Cod, including finches and bluebirds. Then a different “blue bird” flew in and it was one that we don’t often get to see on the Cape. It was a Blue Grosbeak. Looking like a jumbo Indigo Bunting, the Blue Grosbeak has the typical grosbeak beak, plus distinctive chestnut wing bars. Between the radiant Summer Tanager and the luminous Blue Grosbeak, I was having color overload, and then things got even more colorful. Twenty feet away, singing on a dead branch, was the most colorful songbird of all, a male Painted Bunting. Looking like a cross between a rainbow and a member of Cirque du Soleil, a Painted Bunting should have been the highlight of our morning walk, but soon something else happened that would keep us talking for the rest of the trip.
The trail led us to the shore of the Cape Fear River, where we spotted a Red-throated Loon resting by the water’s edge. Loons don’t do well on land, so it was clear that this bird had some issues. As we continued on the trail, discussing what could be done to help the loon, we came to a charming wooden bridge. Well, the bridge would have been charming if there weren’t three huge Turkey Vultures sitting on the railing with their ominous wings spread open. My wife thought the scene was amusing, so she started snapping selfies (don’t ask me why). It was at this point that the vultures took to the air and landed on the beach, surrounding the loon. Uh, oh. We were now faced with a dilemma. Should we wait and see what happens next or try to help the loon? Of course, we stayed out of it. It wasn’t up to us to take sides. As the big birds slowly closed in on the loon, we prepared ourselves to see a real natural drama…but then the unfazed loon simply slipped back into the water and swam safely away. Ha! Apparently, it wasn’t in as much trouble as we (or the vultures) thought. Whew! Then I noticed something even more ominous…my watch. It was late and I had to catch a plane back to Cape Cod. Unlike my wife, I’m not retired.
The trip to the Outer Banks was fun, but I think I liked Wilmington better. The birds at the little state park were easier to find and certainly more colorful. And in contrast to the Outer Banks, we saw no venomous snakes around Wilmington, and that’s always a plus, a very big plus.