For those of you who enjoy entertaining house guests and family on the Outer Banks during the holiday season and into the New Year, here’s a program note. There is much to be done to amuse and enthrall our guests during these winter months. The days can be sunny and mild or you can huddle in with a pot of chili and listen to the winds howl, but everything is better at the beach.
So when we found ourselves enjoying the company of some inland birdwatchers for a few days at New Year’s, we were pleased to offer them a bird watching excursion to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Only a 40-minute drive from Buxton, Pea Island is our near neighbor, just off Highway 12 at the north end of Hatteras Island. The Refuge, established in 1938, is administered by the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and has only one employee that reports for duty at the Pea Island Refuge once a week. That means that to serve the Refuge’s 2.7 million visitors annually the majority of staffing and outreach needs – about 25,000 hours each year – is met by volunteers!
For our bird watching adventure, we drove our friends to the Refuge Visitors Center where we took advantage of the viewing scopes in the warm and cozy building before venturing out on the North Pond Trail. The day was cool but mostly sunny and the walk through the maritime forest for the two-mile round trip trail on the banks of the impoundment was doable. The bonus at the end of the trail was a double decker observation platform that offered a grand view of marsh, bird impoundments, Pamlico Sound and the surrounding scrub. But getting there was all the fun. We had in our midst a dedicated “birder” whose birding explorations had most recently taken him to Tucson, Arizona, and the Madera Valley. Although pretty knowledgeable, he admitted he knew little about ducks and water birds. That deficit was made up for by his knowledge of bird physiology and our other friend’s childhood memories of bird hunting on the Outer Banks with his father.
Novices that we are, we were just along for a nice walk. But we soon found ourselves enraptured by the natural setting and sheer number of birds we were able to see. Walking along the trail, we immediately spotted ibis and herons and egrets in the marsh islands in the impoundment pond. Then rafts of ducks glided by, bobbing and shaking beaks and feathers after a dive for food. My husband and I were pleased to spot a flight of snow geese overhead. In the 1970s we had once left Chapel Hill at an unfortunate hour to drive to the Outer Banks to park on the edge of Highway 12 at the Refuge ponds to watch snow geese rise en masse to seek out the day’s feeding grounds. By the time they returned, we were enjoying our own feeding in a rental in the Tri-Villages. So far, ibis, herons, egrets and snow geese were on our list. Then we zeroed in on black ducks, redheads and buffleheads. Best of all, I was pleased to see my favorites, pintails, in flight and in the water.
So don’t forget one of our many home-grown attractions when looking for excitement during the quietly beautiful winter months on the Outer Banks. We are known as a “Birder’s Paradise” for good reason.