Monday, February 15, 2016

Frostbite Birding--Tar Heel style

The North Carolina Coast, February 11-14

Big Year Day 42-46

Big Year Total:  438
Coded birds:  27
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn, porcupine, sea otters,

Miles driven.  11,100
Flight Miles 25800
flight segments: 28   Airports: 19
Hours at sea: 22
Miles walked 49
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:14

            Lena and I left her school at 1230 when I picked her up with what we now call the “Maverick's Falcon,” as my car was not quite done yet so again Maverick the Seal led the way to Minneapolis.  

I’ll get to this new name of Lena’s Volvo in a moment.  Her principle, Mr. Snaza took one look at me, and laughed.  I have become something of a bit of a celebrity in my town.  “Where to this time, Olaf.” He smirked.
            “Hatteras, North Carolina.”  I shrugged.  Apparently in winter in Milbank, South Dakota, I’m the news...the only news.
            Lena read my recent blog and said, I had the force, the birding force and amazing good luck in a tight spot so that would make me just like Hans Solo (of course Harrison Ford was a Ripon College attendee like me, although I graduated).  “That would make me Chewbacca,” Lena said and then she admitted she liked being referred to as a Wookie.  Hans and Chewie, Olaf and Lena, and the whole way there, Maverick just did his little dance.  Then I remembered, Hans gets killed in episode 7…

                 When I got to Minneapolis I got the Hatteras weather report, what else…horrible weather.  By Detroit, Brian Patteson had already cancelled Saturday’s outing for the great skua and everything else, pushing the two days of trips back a day and to be honest Sunday didn’t look much better to me.  This was a carbon copy of last year here when we endured the nastiest two days I could imagine in a coastal and southern destination.  What else to expect on a bad weather big year?  I guess we’d get what we could and start with the woodpecker.  I was like the blue demon from earlier in the week had overcame me and filled me with depression.  I was busy making plans of how to best tackle all the birds I needed to chase and now this?  I didn’t know what to do so I guess, I just would have to wait until Sunday and see what happened then.  I don’t wait well for anything.  
                The Hertz woman wasn't making any sense to me at the rental counter and all I wanted to do wanted go.  She gave me keys, Then I noticed the car, a Dodge Charger. I looked at the reciept, I had been upgraded.  I don't want this experience with one in Arizona was the worst.  If there is a worse birding car I just don't know about it.  I was too tired to walk back in and say.  "I just want my Carrolla?  Can't I have a Corolla?"  I would live to regret this laziness.
                We got in late about two in the morning to Nag's Head and then I found out they had 2 Comfort Inn's and of course I went to the wrong one, 0515 in the morning came awfully early.  I drove to the Palmetto Peartree Preserve by memory, it was maybe 35 miles from the motel.  We had it timed just correctly.  at 3/4 light the birds-red-cockaded woodpeckers come out of the tree, the hang for a few minutes chirping and climb the tree and then away they go for the day.  If I missed it, I was screwed.


                Crap, we turned on the road off the blacktop and around the first turn the road was flooded, crap and I'm in the worst car.  I put on my boots (luckily they were packed), and walked in the water, it seemed firm underneath so  I drove up to an island of gravel about 200 yards further, I could feel the real wheel drive car not going well.  I walked again, this part seemed deeper.  Crap.  Even now turning the car around was going to be an issue, where even was the road exactly?
                 Turn or go on?  Right there, a wise man would have turned around and came back again, although all this would crust over in ice I thought but what if there wasn't a next time for this bird?  Crap! again. Then the radio played the song.......Elle King started singing "EXes and Oh's"  crud.  "Lena get your boots on" I shouted, it is a message from the force, "Yoda is speaking to us."  Well, I didn't say the last part.  I double parked the car maybe leaving room to pass it, but I didn't test where the ditch was, and we took off on foot.

Here is the location of the car when we returned.   It was the fastest mile and a half in birding.  All in snake boots and Lena, bless her heart, trudged with and kept up even getting blisters.  We got to the trees in I don't know how fast but were we too late?  There was absolutely no sound, just one song from a Carolina wren.  Lena sat on the ground.  I looked impatient.  I hoped....One minute, two minutes, and then four, they came out!!!!!!!!  We'd made it.  Whew!

Then I realized that Lena's camera only had power for a couple of photos, I didn't bring mine to allow for greater speed, as less to carry.

#422  Red-cockaded woodpecker

The rarest non-extirpated woodpecker in America.  It was great and then as we casually walked to the abandoned car, we took time to start recognizing our first common east coast birds. The little low hanging fruit I had left for the year.  Lena also needed a Carolina chickadee and we bagged that one too. 

#423  Tufted Titmouse
#424  Eastern Towhee
#425  Brown Headed Nuthatch

I got back to the car and realized, I didn't have battery power either....but we had the woodpecker!  Then I managed to turn the car around using a 34 point turn and the beast mobile didn't got stuck, and I gunned the big hemi-engine through the middle of the puddle and we got out of the cursed road.  Note to self----NEVER EVER EVER NEVER RENT A DODGE CHARGER!

We drove to the Alligator River NWR, and added to the local total

#426  Tundra swan  *here is a later photo as I still had no battery power

I got #426 at both locations, the pond at Bodie Island and at the Inlet

#427  Rusty Blackbird 

The Dunkin' Donuts had a power outlet to charge batteries while we ate and drank coffee and decided out next move.  A kid with a cup of coffee saw my camera and started talking and gave me a lead for a bird Lena needed at a feeder in Manteo, it was just a few blocks away.  After I found the painted bunting (female) for Lena, we went to Oregon Inlet--Bodie Island one of my favorite places to bird.  I always see odd things here.   It was there that the weather went from okay, to "are you kidding me?"

#428  Black Duck

I walked out on the breakwater looking for a purple sandpiper, but largely the rocks had been sanded in, so I didn't locate one.  It was very very cold out there, heavy wind and I dressed in my full bad weather gear (first picture), and my poor daughter was getting cold, she had lost her hat.   But gannets were everywhere, there were razorbills easily seen out in the ocean, and luckily as I scanned the cormorants, one clearly didn't belong to the other twelve, a great cormorant, it seems there is always one here, and then first that one and then the double cresteds all flew out to sea. The pictures attached are from 2/14 at sea, but in order of year birds, they go here.

#429  Northern Gannet

#430  Razorbill

#431  Great cormorant

Then it started to snow and snow hard.  It was entertaining at first, and I took this picture of a black scoter with snow on it

but it was soon icing the roads..It had been a long cold and now snowy day and I drove on to Hatteras, we bought supplies and we just crashed at the Breakwater Inn.


With today's pelagic cancelled I had to make use of my time.

I just knew there had to be a purple sandpiper at the Oregon inlet, there just had to be one, so we drove 50 miles back there at first light.  It was cold, but sort of cool with all the snow on the a cold sort of way.

Even the Bodie Island Lighthouse looked cool in the snow and the bright morning sun.

Then with two hats, extra gloves, long underwear and maybe even wearing what looked like space suits, since we were Hans and Chewie, and I guess the force was with us, birding force, we looked the part and we kept at it. It was still cold, so don't kid yourself.....we tried the south side of the bridge for purple sandpipers again.  I checked every rock, every crevice and then on the last possible rock........there he was.

#432  Purple Sandpiper

#433  Black-legged kittiwakes

Lena noticed two odd looking and smaller sized gulls over the bridge as I was putting my camera away, cool immature kittiwakes, classic M pattern on wings.  I've seen thousands of Kittiwakes, I was cold and tired and I wasn't going to dig my camera back out for one of these, oh well

We went back to Bodie Island and the pond, and out on that board walk it was what they like to call "Butt Cold."  Now I'm a hardy soul, I've seen and experienced below -52 three times, and twice, once even on a high school date, once even on a high school date when the car froze up when I was out in -100 and beyond wind chill, but single digits with a harsh 25 mph wind in your face, it was still really cold.  Lena looked like a sand person from Star Wars, too.   

I figure, the ice is forming in the marsh grass and there being king rails here, they might be conducive to being found.  We started calling and then shortly not all that far away we got a clear answer. He was in a little higher ground in the long grass and I'm sure we could have flushed it, but I was cold and I didn't want to bother the poor thing and call it out, it was tough enough for the thing.  Lena and I smiled and that was that, king rail found #434.

#434 King Rail

we went to lunch in Nag's Head.  It turns out that a good reason to NOT eat at a restaurant is when there are fire trucks out front.

Did someone die from the food, or did the kitchen just burn up?  Whatever, we drove on.

back in the field, we tried to flush sparrows we needed but all we seemed to be able to flush was songs and savannas, nothing new

Lena liked the view from the dunes at one spot, but we got worn out and so we eventually gave up and came back and found my old pal Thor, a fellow Norske, although Thor is proudly Canadian.  We ate dinner with a nice couple from New York, and tried to psyche ourselves up for tomorrow.  It was going to be cold and long, fun would never be admitted on this pelagic by anyone. It was like we were all having colonscopies in the morning.

The Pelagic

It wasn't the coldest day in birding history, but sometimes when you think about it, a non-birder would have thought all of us needed to be examined psychologically for going out.  Brian and Kate do a wonderful job on the Stormy Petrel II, and not wanting us to get too beat up, Brian delayed departure to 0730 and then we weren't in a hurry.  When we finally got thru the pass into the open ocean it wasn't long before we realized that it was still going to be tough out there, tough birding and tough on your body.  Lena got to experience quite a few new things

1) her first sharks (a large hammerhead)
2) first 8-10 foot rollers
3) first frozen sea spray on the deck
4) first sea smoke
5) first bout of seasickness
6) first heave over the back rail

Sigh, it was a long and very cold voyage for her.  

The sea smoke was both eerie and cool at the same time, we even saw sea smoke vortexes.

The sea smoke is basically steam where 70 degree gulf stream water is going through 20 degree air.  The coastal water was about 50 degrees or colder and where these two hit yielded birds and huge monster waves.  

here is a Bonepart's gull at the junction. look at the bird but dig those waves behind it, we had driven through them to cross a shoal at one point.  I think 10 foot was conservative for a few of them.

 One of the over a thousand Boneparte's Gulls had distinctive black markings on top of the wings and it was noticeably smaller, and immature 1st year Little gull, #435  Little Gull is a coded bird too!

It became hard to take pictures out on deck as the sea spray coated everything and so I eventually just stowed the camera.  Nothing out here was worth the damage salt water could cause and with frozen ice on deck, I needed both hands to not have a real close interview with the sharks..

We eventually saw a bunch of red phalaropes at the temperature break and then finally two dovkie dove in the front port side of the boat before reemerging aft and flying away letting everyone back there get a bit of a look.  Birds #436-37.

What a difference a year makes.  In 2015 dovkie were everywhere, now, just these and no shearwaters.  I wasn't sure now, where I'd get my manx as none showed on this trip.  I hadn't planned on that.  I need to look into that bird. 

The day rocked on, like we really rocked.  Lena couldn't mover her toes, in fact I couldn't move them either but I toughed it out.  It was hard to really get much of a look at anything in the water, it was so rough.

We started to head home and I needed to warm up.  A fan wanted his picture with me... and then Brian shouted, "There he is, flying in at 8 o'clock."  Almost everyone was in warming up and dejected and I was thinking of a cool name for Thor's nemesis bird.  Something like the Brown Bastard or something and then the call.  Thor and I were first to the door, we almost broke it down and then we went aft as Kate was pointing and with the naked eye, both of us saw it, big brown "angry flying" bird and then it swung about, keeping low to the water and flew off and Brian put the breaks on the boat.  I didn't know if I should put up bins, or camera, and ended up just looking.  There the bastard was.  Somehow Lena had fought through the throng and I asked her what she saw?  "A brown bird bigger than a immature herring gull, flying away, did it have white on its wings?"  That it did.  It was the great skua Lena dear, sigh, a quick view but one guy got confirmation photos.  Some didn't even get that.  
It just wasn't me, photos were tough on this bird, but another lifer, and another coded bird.  The force was still with us, Hans and Chewie won again.  Thor had him too.

#438  Great Skua  

It took Lena a long bath to warm up her toes, she screamed when she first put them into warm water and then also agreed to wear a patch out of Adak on probably an even rougher pelagic.  This one in Hatteras was not for the casual birder but all in all, we got almost everything, except no Manx and no puffins, oh well.

Monday's makeup cruise...cancelled, another storm moving in, more snow inland.  There wasn't a makeup of the makeup day...we were done.

Thor and I drank beer in our room celebrating and then Lena came over finally warmed and then we locked ourselves out of the room.  We had to call the owner to come and let us in.  Then at 0550, the fire siren in town went off.  I guess it was time to leave, all I can say is it HAS to be warmer in May, it just has to.  Does every adventure have to be fighting the elements?

Next up, Philadelphia, but first Hans had to go to a forgotten planet in the hinterland, some call it South Dakota, and drop off Chewie,for specialized training using the force with a Jedi master others call Mr. Snaza.  There were lots of peril enroute to this secret place--snow in Virginia, cancelled planes, and a mad dash through Detroit airport where the forces of the dark side tried to ruin the master plan with the weather, but alas, Princess Leia came and took Chewie the rest of the way from Minneapolis so Hans could go and face the next mission ...Alone...
Would the dark weather Sith ruin him or would the birding force continue....?

stay tuned on this channel for the next installment.......


PS.  Maybe I really am sort of something.... I got a notification that Greg Miller had accepted me as a Facebook friend, who have ever guessed?  The force is really working....I have to think about who Greg Miller is in the Star Wars analogy.  Hum.....will have to ponder that


  1. Replies
    1. Great to meet up again with my birding buddy and cabin mate from Attu, the Big O, as I call him. Lena, Lean, L is a smart, resourceful, tough, charming young woman; look out world!!
      Olaf and I are good friends, but I have new found respect for his stamina during this epic year. His schedule is brutal, but he soldiers on with his usual wit, never losing sight of the goal. Go Olaf!
      I look forward to reading about his adventures, and a a few more birding meetings with him during the year.
      Good luck with the Barnacle, while the rest of his mere mortals recuperate from the pelagic


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