Winter Birding at Fort Fisher

Awake and moving around before dawn on a Saturday is not the norm, but a birding expedition with the Lower Cape Fear Bird Club to go four-wheeling at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area provided enough motivation.

Besides, the stillness of the chilly morning hours is peace defined.

As I rode the Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry over with a handful of other explorers, who were already scouting, I preferred to drink up the scene along with some caffeine. Upon arrival, the group gathered to hike the short trail, which traverses thicket and marsh.

Right away, thanks to an eagle-eyed participant, an almost entirely invisible American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) was spotted in the grass and reeds. With its neck and bill pointed up, the motionless wading bird’s bold striping provided expert camouflage for the winter visitor.

Another well-concealed winter visitor, the small Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis) flittered among the grasses without ever sitting still long enough for a good view. To me, little birds do not seem to be calm, self-assured creatures, but rather “busy” in their manner.

Winter visiting diving ducks, Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) and Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus), were swimming around the pond area along with American Coots (Fulica americana), which are very duck-like, but are actually rails. Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podicpes), which are residents and also very duck-like, reveled in the tranquil pond, as well.


Noon fog at Fort Fisher

When the time came to head to the trucks for a little four-wheelin’, the nippiness of the air persisted. The fog rolled in and the day never cleared or got bright.  In fact, it was darker at noon than it was upon arrival, but it was a perfect day for an exhilarating ride.

The soft white sand was deep and the ocean was choppy. Winter visitors, Red-throated Loons (Gavia stellata) and Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), were riding the waves.  The outings with this group are always wildly illuminating.

Loons, Grebes, Coots, and Cormorants are all similar swimming, duck-like birds that can easily be passed over as such. However, the species are from unrelated families of birds and being able to be with a group of people rich in practical knowledge, makes me feel as if I am a sponge soaking up all of the tidbits and advice they offer up so nonchalantly, as if since they know it, so does everyone else.

Busy riding the waves and keeping time offshore with our group onshore was a school of dolphins, which was rather the icing on the cake of the trip. As the dolphins rollicked along side the beach, we turned into the marsh to scope out shorebirds.


Dolphins in the surf

A rather lengthy debate ensued that necessitated a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious scope to determine whether a tall white wading bird was a juvenile Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) or a juvenile Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea). With the said scope, the yellow lores were clearly visible and so the bird was able to be distinguished as a….juvenile Snowy Egret.


White Ibis

Easily identifiable coastal residents like White Ibises, a Double-crested Cormorant, Willets, Brown Pelicans, and the handsome American Oystercatcher were presented and accounted for, of course.  The longtime birders were not impressed with these ‘everyday’ birds, but I am.  You see, they are not the typical sight in my mid-western hometown in Ohio.

Among the flock of visiting shorebirds, all in their drab winter plumage, were few that stood out without close inspection as they picked and probed, foraging for food in the sand flat. The Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) and the Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) are about the same size and shape.  The Sanderling (Calidris alba) and Dunlin (C. alpine), both sandpipers, are also very similar.

Even so, experienced birders have no problem sorting one from the other and they offer many insights too. For example, Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus) have yellow legs versus the very similar Dunlins, which have black legs.

Other cues can be taken from habitat. For instance, Short-billed Dowitchers are nearly indistinguishable from Long-billed Dowitchers (L. scolopaceus), but Long-billed Dowitchers tend to prefer fresh water habitats.  Also, while the Black-bellied Plover (Pluvalis squatarola) is about the same size as the Dowitchers, it has a much shorter bill.

Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri), a winter visitor, and a solitary Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon), a resident, were distinctive. The uncommon Belted Kingfisher, in particular, is a colorful, crested bird worthy of closer examination.

Of course, plenty of other birds were heard by the bionic ears and seen by the sharp eyes of the sages, but I have absorbed all I can for this trip.


Fort Fisher ferry

On the way out, back up the beach, the fog was thick, the wind was biting, and the dolphins were cavorting.  After four-wheelin’ the morning away, I had a ferry ride to return home waiting.

Ah, the coastal life.


Originally published in The Brunswick Beacon and reprinted with permission.

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