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Trip to the Outer Banks

A quick trip to the Outer Banks:

After forty years of educating the children of Cape Cod, my wife decided that the local kids were finally smart enough and she has retired from teaching. This meant for the first time ever, we could travel when it wasn’t school vacation. At last we don’t have to share our holidays with the sticky crowd. Our first destination would be the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We chose this area because there are plenty of beaches for my wife to enjoy and enough good birding locations to keep me happy. After researching the best birding spots, I packed my binoculars, my camera, my bird book, and because we would be in North Carolina, my birth certificate…just in case I needed to use a public restroom.

Originally, we were planning to stay in the oxymoronic town of Kitty Hawk, but then I read about a town just north of Kitty Hawk and immediately knew that’s where we had to stay. The seaside village of “Duck” (real name) not only has lots of shops and restaurants, but if we stayed in Duck, the whole trip will be tax deductible (or de-duck-ible, as it were). I hope.

Back in the early 1900s, the Wright Brothers chose the Kitty Hawk area for their first flying experiments because of the strong wind. Man, they sure picked the right place. The wind blew constantly. Even the local radio stations have the daily “wind report.” And on some days the wind was so strong that skinny people were advised to stay inside. Now, that’s windy.

Not far from our hotel is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Years ago the late bird photographer, and all around good guy, Roger Everett, told me about this place and out of respect for Roger I wanted it to be my first stop. When we arrived I was relieved to discover that “Pea” was spelled differently than the spelling I had in my mind (which is a good thing). During the winter this refuge is home to a huge assortment of waterfowl. On the day we visited there were lots of herons, egrets and shorebirds. The refuge trails are flat and the walking is easy, but you’ll see more birds if you have a spotting scope, which regrettably I didn’t. My scope didn’t fit into my carry on bag and I refused to pay JetBlue’s rip-off extra bag fee. (Come on, JetBlue, what would the Wright Brothers say?)

After birding Pea Island my wife suggested we take a break and visit the scenic Brodie Lighthouse. This was a bad idea. At the beginning of a path near the lighthouse, is a weatherworn sign that read: “Stay on the trail. Venomous snakes in the area.” I didn’t pay much attention because every trail in the area has this same sign. I should have paid attention. Curled up next to the trail was a huge Eastern Timber Rattlesnake, and it was rattling (really). Before the snake could make its next move, I was in the car with the doors locked and heading down the road. I suppose I should have waited for my wife, but she’s the one who wanted to see the lighthouse. Besides, she knows how to contact the nearest Uber driver.

Shorebirds and herons are fine, but I can see those birds at home. I was hoping to see some of the South’s woodland birds. My wish was granted when I stumbled upon The Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Ecological Preserve. One evening we were driving down the Outer Banks’ equivalent of the Cape’s Rt. 28, looking for a Pizza Hut (can you imagine?), when I spotted the preserve’s sign. I slammed on the brakes, made a sharp turn and tried to ignore the cursing coming from the driver behind us. The reserve had the wooded trails I was looking for, but it was closed, so I made plans to come back the next morning.

My wife said she wanted to sleep late (either that or she had set something up with the Uber driver), so I headed out alone. The minute I stepped out of my car I was greeted by the irritating sound of some guy hammering on his house. (So much for my peaceful walk in the woods.) I focused my binoculars in the guy’s direction and burst out laughing. The annoying carpenter turned out to be a huge Pileated Woodpecker, which was smashing the heck out of a dead tree. After I finished enjoying the pileated show, I continued down the trail and came upon another stunning woodpecker. This one was a beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker. Not to be confused with the more common Red-bellied Woodpeckers, this woodpecker looks like it’s wearing a diving helmet spray painted fire truck red. What a gorgeous bird.

After two hours of walking the trails I decided it was time to head back to my car, but that all changed when I met Jim, another birder. Jim, who looked to be about twenty-something, asked me if I’d like to see a Prothornotary Warbler. To which I replied, “Duh!” Prothornotary Warblers are radiant orange/yellow and are not often seen on the Cape. He took me to a small thicket and started “pishing.” I know pishing sounds like something people do on Pea Island, but it’s actually a sound birders make to attract birds. It worked perfectly. The glowing warbler popped up out of the dense foliage just long enough for me to take a quick photo. Cool beans. I shook Jim’s hand and drove back to the hotel to wake up my wife, tell her about Jim and the birds…and to look under the bed for an Uber driver.

The next day we left Duck and headed south to Wilmington, but, of course, I had to stop and check out another birding place along the way. It’s the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and I’ll tell you about it next…if the snakes don’t get me first.