Refuge Ramble, Part 2 – Pea Island and Alligator River

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

This is the last in a series on my wanderings last week in eastern North Carolina and is about the middle of my trip when I visited the coast. After my brief visit with the pool birds at Bodie Island, I drove down to Pea island National Wildlife Refuge. At the Visitor Center, I got out to look for birds in the pool at the start of the walkway and found just a few sparrows, Several people were down on the dike and most birds were pretty far out in the ponds on both sides. Walking back toward the center, I saw a couple of ducks along the marsh edge a bit closer than the rest of the birds in sight. I sat down and waited and soon a Blue-winged Teal swam by followed by a couple of Gadwall. A Common Moorhen made brief appearances at the edge of the marsh but never long enough for a photo.

Blue-winged Teal drake at Pea Island (click photos to enlarge)

A Tricolored Heron flew in and chased off an egret back in the grasses. A few other folks came over to photograph the birds and I soon headed back to the car.

Tricolored Heron flying into the marsh

On the drive in I noticed a bunch of birds close to the highway visible in a break in the dunes. I drove up and parked and started taking some photos while balancing the telephoto lens on a bean bag on the car door. Whenever possible, I try to stay in my vehicle when photographing wildlife as most species are more tolerant of a vehicle than a human form. Soon, another car pulled up and people got out and walked over toward the birds. The mixed flock of shorebirds and waterfowl surprisingly didn’t seem to care, so I got out and moved a little closer, steadying the camera on a tripod while sitting in the sand. Below are some of the subjects I sat with for over an hour with dump trucks loaded with sand whizzing by twenty feet away on a busy Hwy 12.

Marbled Godwit using that long bill to probe for food
A small flock of Dunlin (note the slightly down-curved bill tip) foraged along the shoreline
A Tundra Swan preens with amazing flexibility in that long neck
There was a flock of 30+ American Avocet resting and feeding in the shallows
Avocets typically feed by swinging their unusual bill back and forth through the water (called scything) but that day they seemed to be picking and plunging after their prey (small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, occasionally small fish)
Avocet doing a head dunk
The impressive bills of a group of Marbled Godwits

I overheard a group of birders (you know, those people with binoculars and scopes standing out in the cold) nearby say they spotted a Peregrine Falcon on the far side of North Pond. I scanned the area and finally saw it far away in the top of a dead tree snag. Soon, there was an eruption of shorebirds (mainly the Dunlin) and some of the smaller ducks as the swift predator streaked by overhead. The falcon circled the area high in the sky and then disappeared. I soon spotted it again perched in the same snag. The shorebirds and ducks would alert me every time the falcon took to the air by making high-pitched squeaks and a general ruckus of sounds. If you’re a potential meal, it pays to keep an eye on a bird that regularly takes birds as prey at speeds of up to 200 mph. When I finally left this spot, I stopped closer to the falcon’s perch. As I was watching, it took off and flew by me allowing me to swing the big lens and attempt a few shots on the wing…lucky for me, a couple turned out okay.

Immature Peregrine Falcon in flight

I decided to head over to Alligator River NWR for the afternoon in hopes of seeing some bear, a Red Wolf, or whatever the refuge might offer. First up was one of the most elusive birds I have tried to photograph over the years – a Belted Kingfisher. I spotted it perched in a jumble of branches in a tree along one of the canals. Shocked that it didn’t fly as I slowed down, I fired off a few pics with plenty of sticks in the way. I backed the car up a bit for a clearer view (the kiss of death usually when trying to get closer to wildlife – they really don’t seem to like a car backing up) and found a tiny opening in the twigs. It was still a pretty busy background but the bird was amazingly calm and not paying much attention to me.

Belted Kingfisher posing for a portrait

I studied the tree and decided to back up further and angled the car for a better view. Again, the kingfisher remained in place! I finally got about as good a photo of a kingfisher as I have ever taken. Not sure why this particular male (males lack the rusty belly-band found on female Belted Kingfishers) was so cooperative, but I’ll take it.

Male belted Kingfisher studying the canal for a possible meal

I moved on and found another favorable subject, a Great Egret, patiently stalking small fish in another canal. I just love watching them strike the water with their stiletto beaks, rise up out of the water with a squirming prey, and toss it up in the air to gulp it down that elongate neck.

The intense concentration of a Great Egret can be seen in its eyes

Clouds moved in during the afternoon so when I first found this little raptor, it was hard to see any details, but the relative length of the tail and somewhat stocky body made me think – Merlin! Indeed, it was one of our second largest falcons found in NC, although still rather small as raptors go. Though somewhat similar in appearance to Accipiters like Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins are a bit stockier, have a shorter tail relative to overall body length, and have brown eyes (Accipiters have yellow eyes as juveniles and reddish eyes as adults).

A Merlin surveys the area for bird prey
Shades of red hug the horizon in a refuge sunset

I was a bit worried at the increasing clouds that night and what it meant for the next day, but, Friday dawned bright and beautiful and very windy. So windy that when I stepped out of the car at the Pea Island Visitor Center, my hat blew off and went halfway across the parking lot. I just got back in the car and drove up to the break in the roadside dunes where I had been yesterday and decided to observe from the vehicle. It turned out to be another productive morning.

Snow Goose adult in the morning sun
It’s tough to look your best when you turn your back in a strong wind (Marbled Godwit with ruffled feathers – and that incredibly long bill)
An American Wigeon male. Depending on the angle of the sun, the swoosh of color covering the eye can appear blackish, bronze, …
…or green. Males also have the distinctive white stripe across the top of their head, giving them their other common name, Baldpate.
A Green-winged Teal, showing its dark green eye stripe and its namesake wing patch
A drake Gadwall with its distinctive black rump. Enlarge the pic to appreciate the intricate details of the feathering on the sides
A flock of American Avocets was a constant at this spot both days I visited
Shorebirds in flight – Marbled Godwits, Dunlin, and an American Avocet (some very nice bill variety)
A female Northern Harrier cruised by and flushed many of the small shorebirds

When it came time to head back to Pungo, I couldn’t help but drive through Alligator River NWR one last time. I did see one bear, but the highlight was a trio of otters (three singles in different canals). With the gang of four I saw later that afternoon at Pungo, it became a 7-otter day.

A River Otter pops up from underneath a mat of aquatic vegetation

It’s always a good day when you see an otter, but what a day when you see seven! The trip was a huge success with birds, a few bears, lots of otter, and good friends. Hoping I can get back down that way again this winter before the birds head back north. We are truly fortunate to have such extraordinary wild places in our state.

This otter had just swam and crawled through a huge patch of vegetation blocking the canal and probably wasn’t thrilled that I was waiting on the other side. After watching me for a few seconds, it dove and swam by me leaving only a trail of bubbles. I left it to its otterly important tasks after that.

14 thoughts on “Refuge Ramble, Part 2 – Pea Island and Alligator River

  1. What A fabulous collection of photos! Looks like a very productive birding trip, to say the least. I love your low perspective on the shore birds, and the Harrier and Peregrine Falcon in-flight shots are icing on the cake!

  2. Excellent bird photos Mike! The feathers on the gadwall are beautifully intricate. And the kingfisher pictures are wonderful. I’ve tried to photograph them but they usually turn out to be a black silhouette because of the sun’s angle. I keep trying!!

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