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A big blow on the NC coast wreaks havoc for migrating birds

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker

I spent the latter part of last week on the Outer Banks leading tours for the Wings Over Water Outdoor Festival. It’s an annual even that celebrates the National Wildlife Refuges and National Seashore. This is the festival’s twentieth year. My job was to take participants out on the beach to Cape Point, where the warm waters flowing north clash with cold water from the north.

Friday was a rare October day for that area; no wind and temperatures above 80 degrees. The birds were not very active, having settled in to enjoy the balmy weather in preparation for the next migration push. That happened on Saturday.

Overnight the wind picked up and turned around to a northwesterly blow. Northwest winds blow southbound migrants miles out over the ocean on their nighttime journey. When daylight comes the birds have to correct their path by straggling back to land. Many perish at sea.

It was as big a migration show as I have ever seen. In just a couple of hours I counted well over 150 Northern flickers coming off the ocean, fighting the headwinds. They were joined by hundreds of palm and yellow-rumped warblers; tiny birds straining to stay above the crashing waves. At one point a yellow-billed cuckoo, exhausted and terrified, almost flew into my driver’s side window. It seemed the steady flow would never end as many birds passed within just a few feet of our group, exhausted, and frantically looking for cover.

One major problem: there is practically no cover at Cape Point, leaving the birds almost defenseless against the hundreds of gulls that flock at the point. Avian predators know what these conditions mean too, as multiple merlins, peregrine falcons, and Cooper’s hawks patrolled the beach looking to pick off a defenseless meal. Most were successful. Sometimes the only cover the migrants can find is a large seashell or a piece of trash.

The lucky ones eventually gain sparse shelter in the spindly sea oats that grow on the dunes. How odd to see American robins, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, and ruby-crowned kinglets tenaciously clinging to the swaying sea oats a mile or more from the nearest woodlands.

That is typical cold front birding on the Outer Banks. One day you can struggle to find birds then the next you can be overwhelmed by the numbers

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com