Hatteras Birding by Diane Lea

The New Year is a time to celebrate the wonders of our life on Hatteras Island. There is a comforting rhythm to seasons on the Island, and the season of Winter is my favorite.

The landscape is sere but beautiful, and the joys of Island life are proclaimed by my hardy fishermen friends with their catches of drum, flounder and trout.

Then there is the annual Christmas Bird Count that took place this year between December 14 and January 5. The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 and according to the Outer Banks Voice is an annual citizen-science tradition in Dare County. The Voice describes the count as being conducted in circles with a 15-mile diameter. Compilers organize groups of participants that include both experienced and novice counters. There are count sheets and all gather to compile the data after the count. The count includes species identified using sightings or bird sounds, so the counters’ birding knowledge is key.

The point of the count is to track populations, distributions, migrations routes and habitat. Though it’s an exciting and popular activity in our Buxton Woods neighborhood, my friends and I have conducted another, more informal bird count of our own.  It began last year on a cold sunny day with a walk around the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge pond accompanied by a knowledgeable birder friend. I carefully itemized the birds we spotted on that walk and was surprised that the birds we spotted this year were varieties we hadn’t seen in numbers on the previous visit. This great variety of birds can be accounted for by the fact that Pea Island is known as one of the best birding locations in the state, and maybe on the entire the East Coast. Covering more than 5,000 acres in area, it is a resting and feeding spot for more than 400 species of migratory birds.  So this year, to my great delight, our viewing included a plethora of Tundra Swans, more Buffleheads than I had seen before, many Red Heads and Ruddy Ducks, as well as the Pintails that I so enjoyed identifying last year.  No snow Geese were in sight, but lots of diving and dabbling ducks kept us amused.

Then came the piece de resitance: a large eagle stormed the pond. We had seen this majestic fellow perched on the osprey nest located in viewing range of the Pea Island Visitor Center’s spotting scopes. The eagle held pride of place until we started our walk, then swooped down among the waterfowl population with great determination. He was harassed by a feisty smaller bird and seemed to decide to leave the field to fight another day. But when we returned to the Visitor Center and their mega-lens telescopes we saw him shredding a small critter that he had, no doubt, successfully scooped up and brought back to his perch.

Pea Island is listed on the North Carolina Birding Trail. The Trail was established in 2003, when birders across the state began to pool their best local and regional trails to form a comprehensive network of trails. There are five sites on the Outer Banks, including the Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island Marsh Game Land (near the Village of Wanchese), Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Bodie Island Lighthouse in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

As an old friend always begins his New Year’s toast, “Aren’t we lucky!”

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