Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Outer Limits

A: Kill Devil Hill, B: Waves, C: Hatteras Landing, D: Cedar Island
Helping to protect most of the North Carolina shoreline from the onslaught of wind and sea, there exists a thin broken strand of barrier islands collectively known as the Outer Banks. This was our next destination where we hoped to spend a little over a week exploring long stretches of beach, sand dunes, and marshes found in several parks and refuges. And, perhaps a pelagic trip.

Rich with history, the Outer Banks is where the first known person of English decent was born on American soil in the English Roanoke Colony on Roanoke Island. The colony mysteriously vanished and no trace has ever been found of “The Lost Colony.” The Graveyard of the Atlantic, part of the Atlantic Ocean along the Outer Banks, is aptly named owing to numerous shipwrecks that litter the ocean floor. The Wright Brothers first powered flight took place on the Outer Banks in 1903. “Banker Ponies”, a herd of feral horses which local legend claims to be descendants of Spanish Mustangs still inhabit parts of Ocracoke Island. Ocracoke Island was also the home base for the feared pirate, Edward Teach (more popularly known as Blackbeard) and is where the pirate eventually met his end.
Our route from Suffolk took us south on Hwy 158 to the Wright Memorial Bridge where we officially crossed onto Bodie Island. The northern most portion of the Outer Banks are found south of Norfork, VA, but for our purposes, this would be the northern most portion of the Outer Banks we would encounter. Having a bridge to cross wasn't always an option. Up until the 1930’s, all access to the Outer Banks was strictly by boat. And even now, the only way to leave the southern end of the Outer Banks and return to the mainland, is by boat.
Our base of operations for the week would be Ocean Waves Campground located in the small unincorporated community of Waves on Hatteras Island. But since we were already so close to Kill Devil Hill, site of the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and with plenty of time before we had to be in Waves, we opted to stop.

Wright Brothers National Memorial
No doubt most people know of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who, in the early 1890’s, operated a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. They went on to build the first flying machine that managed a sustained flight thus solving the three basic principles of flight: Lift, Thrust, and Control. But not in Ohio. The reason they chose Kill Devil Hills, NC over Ohio for their inventive work was that the location offered isolation, high dunes, strong winds and perhaps most important of all - soft landings. While their first of four flights in December of 1903 was a mere 161 feet and only lasted 12 seconds, Orville and Wilbur refined their flying machines so that by 1905, sustained flights of 38 minutes or more became routine.
The national memorial has an extensive interpretive center and gift shop, offers regular tours and lectures, and an opportunity to cover the very ground where the first four historic flights occurred. While we were able to find a parking space to accommodate our truck and RV, it would have been nice if other visitors had not hogged RV designated spots to park their much smaller passenger cars (a pet peeve of ours that occurs in many parks).

wind surfing
The Outer Banks is not anchored to offshore coral reefs like some other barrier islands and as a consequence often suffers significant beach erosion during major storms. Its location, jutting out into the Atlantic, makes it the most hurricane-prone area north of Florida, for both landfall and passing offshore storms. Hatteras Island was cut in half on September 18, 2003, when Hurricane Isabel washed a 2,000 foot wide and 15 foot deep channel now called Isabel Inlet through the community of Hatteras Village on the southern end of the island. The tear was subsequently repaired and restored by the Army Corps of Engineers but was isolated once again in 2011 by Hurricane Irene. Access to the island was largely limited to boat from August to late October until another temporary bridge could be built. We crossed the temporary bridge on our way to Waves.

Ocean Waves CG, across the dune, wide open beach
Ocean Waves Campground, clearly a very popular place with fisherman, is tucked in behind very tall sand dunes that protect the campground from direct ocean winds. We experienced these winds for the first few days after our arrival. Even so, the dunes could not completely protect us from a lot of salt air which can be very detrimental to an RV. Corrosive salt  air has been an environmental impediment which has kept us from parking so closely to the ocean for long periods.

site at Ocean Waves CG
Wasting no time getting started, we spent the next day, Friday, visiting Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The park property stretches across three islands, Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke, with a lighthouse on each island. At 198.5 feet high, the Hatteras Island lighthouse is the world’s largest brick lighthouse. Built in 1870, the lighthouse is open for climbing in the summer months (for a small extra fee). The day we visited, Tom elected to climb the 257 steps to the top but due to the high winds, was not allowed out onto the deck. Still, it was an impressive overview of the coast through an open door and small windows at the top.

Cape Hatteras - new site and looking back from the former site
view from the doorway
Three earlier lighthouses preceded the existing Hatteras Lighthouse. All three were either poorly built or were subsequently damaged due to storms. The distinctive black and white candy-cane paint job was added in 1893 after it was decided that all lighthouses have different paint designs to visually distinguish one from the other during hours of daylight.
After years of debate, in 1999 it was determined that due to significant erosion of the immediate coastline which was endangering the lighthouse, that the lighthouse be relocated 2,900 feet from the spot it had occupied since 1870. The once 1,500 foot buffer from the ocean had all but virtually disappeared. It took a mere 23 days to complete the move although it took much longer to prepare. A very impressive engineering feat to say the least!

Cape Hatteras Landing
As long as were were so close to Hatteras Village at Hatteras Landing Marina where we hoped to be embarking on our pelagic trip, we decided to scout the area for parking. As luck would have it, we bumped into Brian Patteson who was working on his boat, the Stormy Petrel II.
Typically Brian doesn’t run pelagic trips every September but this year he had two trips scheduled on a weekend when we would be in the area. The weather still looked pretty iffy for the weekend, and from what Brian said, the chances for a Saturday trip were pretty slim. But as far as Sunday’s trip was concerned, he would call us late Saturday to confirm if it was a go or not.

sandy Hwy 158, Pea Island trail, Pea Island impoundment
Saturday we stopped at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the north end of Hatteras Island. The land portion (5,800 acres) consists of ocean beach, barrier dunes, salt marshes, fresh and brackish water ponds and impoundments, as well as tidal creeks and bays. The refuge also stretches well out into Pamilco Sound (25,700 acres). One section of the refuge that stretches from Pamilco Sound, over Hwy 158, and across to the Atlantic Ocean side, is a mere few hundred yards wide. Elevation ranges from zero to eight feet.
Midway on the Atlantic Flyway, Pea Island NWR is used by numerous migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors, as well as wintering wading birds. The refuge derives its name from “dune peas”, a small plant with pink flowers that provides a predictable food source for a Greater Snow Goose population that winters on the Outer Banks.
The refuge lies on the northern edge of the nesting range for the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Although relatively few turtles actually nest on the refuge, the location, with its cooler average temperatures, is still important because the sex of a turtle is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. Cooler temperatures produce more males. As a result, most of the males for the entire Loggerhead Sea Turtle population are produced here.
At the refuge’s visitor center, we met a young couple who had, like us, gone full time. However, in their case, they had both given up their jobs to do so and depended far more on getting volunteer positions. It’s interesting how we are running more and more into couples that have given up their jobs to pursue a life on the road, albeit, still working out of their RV whenever possible.
Birding at the refuge turned out to be very slow owing to high winds as we hiked a few of the trails from the visitor center so we drove a bit further up the road to another lighthouse, the Bodie Island Light Station, another impressive “Guardian of the Sea”. The distinctive black-and-white banding paint job on this lighthouse was hard to miss. And with most other lighthouses we have visited, the present lighthouse had been preceded by earlier lighthouses on the same site.

Bodie Island Light Station
The first lighthouse on the site was constructed in 1847 but due to shoddy planning and construction, and failed repairs, it was abandoned in 1859. A second lighthouse was constructed and although it was well funded and built, retreating Confederate troops, fearful of it being used by Union troops, blew it up in 1861. The present lighthouse was constructed in 1871, a year after the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. A guided tour of the Bodie Island Light Station is the only way one is allowed to climb to the top. Tours were being offered but we declined because it was so windy, no one would have been be allowed out onto the deck. However, the visitor center did have an extremely informative display and museum.
Rather than continue to be battered by the wind we headed back to the RV to keep and eye on the weather and await word from Brain Patteson about Sunday’s pelagic trip.
Around 8:00 that evening, Brian phoned to say that the trip was a go! Yay! It was still going to be windy but doable. We gathered up our wet weather gear, packed some food, and retired early. Finally, after several disappointments through the summer, we were going to get out for some pelagic birding on the east coast.
The Hatteras Landing Marina was a good hour’s drive away so in order to make our 6:00 a.m. dockside arrival we departed at 4:45. Traffic was predictably light as we drove the entire distance in the dark. There were stars in the sky, and while it was still windy, it felt as though the wind had abated somewhat. We were hopeful.

Stormy Petrel II
It took a half an hour to get everyone aboard and cover all our do’s and don’ts while out on the water. Promptly at 6:30, with light in the eastern sky, we set out on the Stormy Petrel II. The boat was aptly named after the 23 members of the Hydrobatidae family, a family of pelagic birds collectively known as Storm Petrels. If we were to see a life bird today, we would most likely see a Wilson’s Storm Petrel.
Where would we be most likely to find a petrel? In the Gulf Stream. Beginning in the Caribbean and ending in the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream current plays an important role in the poleward transfer of heat and salt and serves to impact weather patterns from the U.S. to the European subcontinent. The position of the Gulf Stream, it’s relative distance from the U.S. shoreline, changes throughout the year. For our purposes today, the Gulf Stream was 27 miles offshore. And with its rich nutrients attracting pelagic birds, it was where we needed to be in order to maximize our chances for finding as many pelagic bird species as possible.

Ryan and Carol from our early days at Tandayapa Lodge
The early part of our journey was spent scouring small islands for shorebirds and seagoing ducks like Scoters, and getting to know our fellow travelers. Imagine our surprise when we recognized Ryan Merrill. Ryan was the volunteer host who we had replaced at Tandayapa Bird Lodge in December 2010! He was aboard at the request of Brian to serve as one of the spotters to assist at ID-ing seagoing birds. As with most land birding, the shapes of many seabird species impart a distinctive jizz, the immediately recognizable characteristics of a bird that experienced birders develop over time. With only a few pelagic birding experiences under our belt, our pelagic birding jizz was woefully inadequate. We needed all the help we could get.

Bottlenose Dolphins
As land disappeared, the seas became rougher. While the high winds from the past days were indeed somewhat diminished, they were still strong. As a result, the 61’ Stormy Petrel II was rolling and pitching in 5’ to 7’ rollers with accompanying sea spray. Not terribly ideal for optics and even less so for eye-glass wearers. Any idea we had of taking photos was put to rest. Not wanting to subject the camera to salt spray, and worried about it getting banged around, it remained in the camera bag tucked under a bench in the cabin.
As we pitched and rolled, alternating between feeling like a cork or a pinball, we thought about the length of the boat. At 61’ it was just half the distance the Wright Brothers had traveled on their first flight. But at no time did we ever feel the need “for a bigger boat”.
Eventually we reached the Gulf Stream. The color of this river within an ocean changed to a deeper hue of blue. Another identifying feature was a greater abundance of free-floating seaweed of the genus Sargassum, a ‘holopelagic’ seaweed species that reproduces on the high seas. Sargassum supports a variety of marine life including sea turtles that use the mats as nurseries where hatchlings have food and shelter. Commercial fish like bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon migrate through Sargassum, depending on it for food. And pelagic birds spend most of their adult life feeding on other marine life attracted to these free-floating mats.
Once well out into open water the boat's crew starting chumming, a method of attracting seabirds by leaving a scent trail comprised of fish oil and food items (dead fish parts). In this case frozen blocks of fish parts were put into a mesh bag and let out on a rope behind the boat. Not only does chum attract seabirds but it usually brings the birds in quite close for better viewing.
By the time we reached the Gulf Stream, we found the wind to be blowing against the Gulf Stream’s current producing waves that literally stood up on end. It was all we could to balance ourselves, with binoculars in hand, trying to avoid salt spray, while snatching glimpses of birds as they were called out. Pretty heady birding to say the least!
But our efforts paid off. We managed to add four life birds. And when it was all over and done, we got some pretty good looks at them. Cory’s Shearwater, Audubon’s Shearwater, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel and a high light for everyone, several Black-capped Petrel.

happy to be back in port 11 hours later
Eleven hours later, water logged and weary from hanging onto the railings for dear life, we had tallied a pretty fair list. Included with the life birds we added were: Lesser Black-backed Gull, Pomarine Jaeger, Great Shearwater, some unidentified phalarope, and Great Black-backed Gull. There had been some talk of a possible Cape Verde Shearwater and a few pictures were taken by Nick Bonomo, a regular on Brian’s pelagic trips (and could handle a camera under extreme conditions). Tantalizing but not confirmable photos. The last confirmed sighting that Brian had was on a trip in 2004. Brian had also hoped that after a good showing of a Trinidade Petrel on a trip the month before that one would make a repeat appearance. It was not to be. But that’s how these pelagic trips are. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
You can read Brian’s report of our trip along with viewing accompanying photos here. Interesting looking at the photos - the water looked so calm!
Completely drained of energy, and starving (eating on a pitching boat didn’t seem like a good idea), we stopped for a bite at a local sub sandwich and pizza joint before heading back to RV which we reached as we had left - in the dark.

any birder would know what's missing!
On Monday we kept our weary bones close to the RV, hiking on the nearby beach and catching up on laundry. While cleaning our bins, Tom discovered that the focus wheel on his was frozen. Ugh. This meant that they would have to be shipped to Nikon for repair and that we would have but one pair of binoculars to share between us for who knew how long. Plus, we had to sort out what to tell Nikon about where to ship the repaired bins. Oh, yeah, And while we were struggling with sore shoulders and bum binoculars, the U.S. Congress shut the government down.
The shutdown’s immediate impact on Tuesday was evident as we traveled to Nags Head to visit the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Several beach access points to Cape Hatteras National Seashore were barricaded. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was closed; yellow tape blocking the trail heads. A reply to an email to the volunteer couple we had met said that they were faring well. For the time being they were being allowed to stay parked on the property with their RV, but that they were forbidden, along with the general public, from using the refuge. Knowing that we too were going to be volunteering at a NWR beginning in November, we were concerned as well. However, there was little we could do at present. We were grateful that we had managed to visit most of the parks and memorials because they were now all shuttered. But we felt badly for all the Federal employees who had been furloughed as well as area businesses that would see a drop in tourism dollars.

aquarium inhabitants
As for the aquarium? Interesting. But after having visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few years ago, the bar had been set so high that we weren’t sure we would ever find a better aquarium experience.
Our last full day on the Outer Banks was spent walking the beach, boxing up Tom’s binoculars to send to Nikon, mailing them from the Avon Post Office, and stopping for dinner in Avon at the Open Water Grill.
Carol had been looking at various local restaurant menus online. With what she found, plus acting on the advice of locals, we stopped at the Open Water Grill late in the afternoon. We were seated immediately and selected a local brew from their beer list. Initially disappointed because the menu online was not available (a seasonal change had just occurred), Martin, the owner, offered us a meal at a price we couldn’t refuse: Mahi-Mahi, served with Israeli Couscous. The Couscous was cooked with a wonderful combination of cheeses, cream and butter. Absolutely delicious. And Martin had just returned from the market with fresh summer squash which he sautéed to perfection. The view was lovely and the staff extremely accommodating. If you find yourself on the Outer Banks in the town of Avon, check out the Open Water Grill…and be sure to mention to Martin you heard about his place from us.
Unsure of how long the shutdown would last, and realizing we would likely feel more affects as we headed further south to Florida, of immediate concern was our reservation for an overnight in the Croatan National Forest on the mainland. It had been cancelled which left us scrambling (along with many other travelers to be sure) for an alternative site further down the coast. We usually rebound pretty quickly with a plan B and this was no exception. However, due to our having to take two ferries the next day (one needing a reservation) to reach the mainland, our travel day, while short on miles, would be long in hours.

Hatteras to Ocracoke
Working backward, we absolutely had to be on time for the reservation (fee required) we had made for the 2.5 hour ferry crossing from Ocrakoke to Cedar Island, and, allow time for driving the length of Ocracoke to the ferry landing. To get to Ocracoke Island from Hatteras Island, we had to factor in a 1 hour ferry ride (no fee) from Hatteras. This meant arriving at the ferry landing on Hatteras in time to be assured of getting on. Plus, the ferry landing was over an hour away from Waves.

Ocracoke to Cedar Island ferry

To give us a safe buffer of time we packed up and left Waves by 8:00 a.m.. Fortunately there were no traffic holdups and we managed to make both ferry trips on time. The latter trip from Ocracoke to Cedar Island wound up taking a half hour longer due to the ferry having to make a wide berth around some dredging operations. However, the trip felt much shorter as we chatted most of the way with a couple on a BMW motorcycle headed for Florida pulling a small trailer with their faithful dog perched on top. They were on the return side of a trip to the Arctic Circle. And we thought WE had been doing some traveling! We pulled out a folding chair, sat on the deck, and heard all about their adventures.

chatting with the Arctic Circle travelers
As anticipated, most of the time for our 170 mile trip was taken up with ferry crossings. Once back on the mainland we still had another 100+ miles to cover. By late afternoon we pulled into the Cabin Creek Campground in Jacksonville, NC, just in time to buy some fresh shrimp from a vender in the park for dinner. Yum! Next up? Charleston.

1 comment:

  1. Nice pics Tom .. Loved the surfer & the turtles the best. I was looking for the name of the place you stayed by Charleston & Savannah though .. no post on that yet??