So there we were, headed towards the Outer Banks, the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. Home of the first unfortunate English colony and birthplace of aviation, the Outer Banks is one of the premiere vacation (and birding) spots on the East Coast of the U.S. Too bad a hurricane was in the way! Hurricane Charley was barreling up the Atlantic coast leaving devastation in its wake. The residents of Florida, especially poor Punta Gorda, suffered greatly at Charley’s figurative hands and beach towns further north weren’t taking chances. Many areas were evacuating or proactively warning visitors away. The northern end of the Outer Banks, the very area we were headed for, was right in the hurricane’s path. The one access road to the upper towns was already flooding on the morning of the 14th, and Charley was not expected until evening. Obviously, the Core Team had a dire choice to make: challenge the wrath of Charley or remain and feed the voracious mosquitoes of the Delmarva peninsula. Braver than we are smart, we decided that the best course of action was to get to our vacation home in Corolla early, before the road was completely inaccessible.
Of course, there’s always time for a little birding. We threw on special bug shirts, windbreaker-type garments with vents and zippered nets to protect the face and neck. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see very well with the hoods up, so we walked out to the dock and unzipped. Bad idea! We were out for only 10 minutes, but by the time I got back to the house, my hands were bleeding and my face was covered with huge bumps. Not only was I misshapen, but aside for a few unidentified rails, we got nothing for our effort. Still, while we waited for my features to resume their previous dimensions, we picked up a few birds from the air-conditioned safety of the house. The notable additions to the previous day’s list were Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Kingbird, Snowy Egret, Double-crested Cormorant, and American Goldfinch. The highlight, however, has to be the frenetic family of Ruby-throated Hummingbird flitting about the yard. We counted a father, a mother, and five hyperactive youngsters, a large family by avian standards.
The trip from Virginia Beach to OBX (the cool way to refer to the Outer Banks) was marked by torrential rain. This, however, worked to our advantage, since it deterred other vacationers. The line of cars leaving the Outer Banks was thick up through Virginia, but we breezed on in. If you can ever plan your vacation around the arrival of a hurricane, consider it, especially if you hate traffic as much as we do.
The highlight of this leg of the journey is definitely the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. This 20-mile long span of the lower Chesapeake Bay connecting Virginia Beach/Norfolk to Virginia’s Eastern shore was selected as one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World” following its opening in 1964. I can see why. Not only is it an awe-inspiring bridge, but it actually goes underwater twice, hence the name “Bridge-Tunnel.” Birds seem to love it too. Gulls, especially Great Black-backed Gull, perched on practically every other lamppost. Even better, we saw the first flocks of this area’s ubiquitous Brown Pelican. This is one species that always impresses with its imposing bulk and 90-inch wingspan. These birds often travel in a V-formation that calls to mind World War II bombing runs. Yet, the Brown Pelican works the water with a stately grace that belies its bulk. Their constant presence was one of the highlights of the trip.
We navigated the rough waters of the Outer Banks’ main access road and reached our rental in Corolla, the northernmost town on the island. Half of our party met us there prepared to brave the storm, while the rest decided to wait it out on the mainland. Sara’s mother and uncle have a tradition of vacationing together every other year. They rent a beautiful beach house on the shore of some amazing ocean or lake and invite their children’s families to stay the week. Sara’s Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Linda live in Kentucky, also where her cousins Anessa, Carrick, and Jaye were born and raised. Being a Yankee, I love spending time with our Kentucky family. Not only are they lots of fun, they’re willing to teach me the proper way to speak English.
The Kentucky contingent didn’t make it the first day, which is a shame because Charley was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn’t cause much of a fuss at all. I went out the beach to check out the roiling surf and spotted our first lifer of the trip. Gulls and pelicans, plentiful on the shore, were joined by various types terns. I noticed Common Tern and Royal Tern, the latter for the first time. I may have also seen a group of Red Knot on the water’s edge, but was too unsure to make the call.