Birding on the OBX: December sightings and Christmas counts

By on December 18, 2018

Hooded Merganser. (Jeff Lewis)

Here on the Outer Banks, we are lucky to live in an area with such great winter birding. From the songbirds in our backyards to the waterfowl in the wildlife refuges, we have ample opportunities to observe and enjoy a great variety of birds.

Most people think of ducks, geese and swans when they think of winter birding, so we’ll start with those.

The top local destinations for spotting waterfowl are the Pea Island, Alligator River, Mackay Island, Lake Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges, where man-made impoundments provide food and cover. The large pond near the Bodie Island lighthouse wins honorable mention. This month, let’s focus on Pea Island.

On Pea Island — get there early — the best vantage points are from the east looking west, and the light can be terrible by late morning. Plus, as a general rule, birds tend to be active in early morning.

This refuge includes three impoundments, North Pond, New Field and South Pond, from north to south. All three can be full of waterfowl some years; other times one or two may be superior to the rest. There are observation platforms on the north dike of North Pond, the south dike of North Pond and on the south dike of New Field. A spotting scope is a tremendous asset.

North Pond is the most accessible. The best locations from which to scan are: the north dike, the shoulder of the road just south of the photo blind, the Visitor Center deck and parking lot and especially from the various elevated platforms along the south dike. Some of these platforms also allow views into New Field, to the south.

Tundra swans. (Jeff Lewis)

If you arrive in the afternoon, you may want to walk around to the west side of North Pond, where the light will be better. In case of rain, you can scope from inside the Visitor Center — they even provide the scopes! On Friday mornings there is a led bird walk that starts there, as well.

New Field is the most difficult impoundment to bird from the highway shoulders, due to the distance and the high vegetation. Luckily, a new platform has recently been completed at the south end of this impoundment. Park well off of Highway 12 and scan New Field and portions of South Pond.

Access to South Pond is only from the shoulders of the road and from the new platform. The distances are pretty great, but at least the vegetation is fairly low here. A spotting scope is a must. Near the midway point, there are two wet spots fairly close to the road where Snow Geese are often seen.

Red-breasted Nuthatch. (Jeff Lewis)

In these three impoundments, a great variety of ducks are usually present in December. In the puddle/dabbler duck category, there should be plenty of Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Green-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler.

Also look for Mallard, Blue-winged Teal and Eurasian Wigeon. This last species is fairly rare in North Carolina and Pea Island is one of the most reliable sites for them. The drakes are red-headed and are usually mixed in with American Wigeon.

Diving ducks are seen here, as well. You should be able to find Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, Lesser and Greater Scaup, Bufflehead and Hooded Merganser. Other divers often seen include Canvasback and Red-breasted Merganser. Look for Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser, both of which are anything but “common.” Redheads are often here by the many thousands, which is quite a sight! They flock so tightly that at a distance they can be mistaken for a patch of land!

A variety of geese are seen in the impoundments, as well, with resident Canada Geese being joined by their wild brethren in the fall. If you see a large flock of Canadas, sort through them carefully for Cackling Goose, a similar-looking, but much smaller relative with a tiny bill.

Snow Geese are present in winter, too, but are not guaranteed on any given day. If flocks are present, scan them carefully for the rare Ross’s Goose – look for a much smaller white goose with a small, stubby bill. Occasionally Brant (a sea-goose) can be seen in one of the impoundments, as well.

Tundra Swans are beautiful, graceful, popular with the public and are easily spotted in the impoundments — their huge white shapes can only be confused (at a distance) with the even-larger American White Pelicans. The pelicans have a huge, orange bill.

In addition to waterfowl, American Coots, Common Gallinules and a variety of wading birds and shorebirds are present every winter on this refuge. Raptors are also usually present. Look for Bald Eagles on snags and poles, where they sit and wait for a weak or injured bird on which to feed.

Among the many Swamp and Song Sparrows, look for Marsh and Sedge Wrens in the wet habitats around the impoundments. Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Orange-crowned Warblers and especially Yellow-rumped Warblers are also present in the scrubby habitats.

Eastern Meadowlarks are often seen as they flush – look for the white outer tail feathers as they fly away. Many other songbirds are possible and are usually best found on cool, sunny, calm days.

Shift to your backyards; most of you with feeding stations should be seeing Red-breasted Nuthatches and American Goldfinches and maybe a few Purple Finches and Pine Siskins, depending upon your habitat. The experts are predicting that this could be the best year in decades for us to get Evening Grosbeaks at our feeders! Wouldn’t that be exciting! So keep your feeders filled and your bird baths clean.

To many birders, December means Christmas Bird Counts. Started in 1900, CBCs are an annual citizen-science tradition in this country. Count areas are circles with a 15-mile diameter, and they remain exactly the same each year.

A compiler is in charge of organizing his or her circle, which involves picking a date, recruiting participant birders, providing count sheets and arranging a meeting place afterward to compile the data. The participants record the species seen as well as the actual numbers — they take inventory, if you will, of the birds found in their section of the circle.

The birds are identified by sight or sound, so a good knowledge of birds is desirable. Inexperienced people who wish to learn can be paired up with more experienced birders or can do a “feeder watch,” counting the birds in their yard. The data is used to determine winter bird distribution, population health and trends, migration routes, habitat use and even clues as to the effects of climate change on populations.

We have several counts in our area: Kitty Hawk, Bodie/Pea, Hatteras, Ocracoke and Alligator River. For more information, check out the Audubon website and follow the links. Locations of the circles and contact information for the compilers in your area should be available.

Happy Christmas and good birding!

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Thinking About the Future

Another great birding article, Jeff! Definitely need to get a spotting scope one of these days so that I can have an easier time of identifying the different ducks out there.

Thanks so much!