Big Trip, Ch. 16, Dismal, Hatteras, Mattamuskeet

Dismal, Hatteras, Mattamuskeet

5-9 October

My time living in the West Potomac Island campground was at an end. It was late in the day by the time I rearranged the car for travel. Early October sun could be warm enough to have the windows down, and I did not want any of my belongings sailing out the car. I would miss Washington, D.C., even though my birding experiences had not been particularly rewarding. The city itself, Smithsonian, and the people I met were the rewards. I would even miss, a little, the roar of airplanes taking off from the airport across the Potomac. I checked around the campsite to make sure it was clean and neat, the same way it was when I arrived in late September.

I was also looking forward to getting away from the city, but before leaving, I had to do a load of laundry (80 cents). I paid for my 13 days of camping ($6.50) and drove across the Potomac River to Arlington. I found the same grocery store I accidentally ended up at on 24 September, bought $2.59 worth of food, and, nearby, enjoyed a coke and hamburger for 25 cents. I filled the gas tank for 32 cents per gallon and was soon on my way to the South.

I drove only 20 miles south on U.S. 1 where I pulled off at a wide place on the road. A picnic table became an office and for the rest of the day and the next I poured through brochures, maps and pictures that helped me update my notes for the past several days. When the notes were complete, I would stuff the brochures and other materials, my notes and a letter into a homeward bound envelope.

On the second evening at my picnic site, I had a can of chili and polished off the last piece of showily pie, something I learned quickly to love while in the Pennsylvania Dutch country of Hawk Mountain. I looked over a list of what I had been eating for the past week. For breakfast, I always had six cake donuts and for lunch crackers and peanut butter and sometimes an apple, and supper varied but usually included beans and some kind of canned meat, fruit occasionally and maybe a candy bar. I hoped my folks would approve.

The next two days were uneventful and almost boring as I leisurely drove a few miles each day. I was too late for most migrants and too early for wintering birds. I had almost two months to bird before getting to Florida. I wondered if birding between Virginia and Georgia would be worth nearly two months of time.

The monotony was broken on the ninth when I heard a harsh rasping sound something near “scrripp. “ I was in southern pine country and the sound was of a woodpecker. Creeping into a thicket and on into a small opening got me closer. A few squeaks on the back of my hand caused the bird to pick up the tempo of its call. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker soon tumbled from a tall pine and into plain view. This was a new lifer. Historically, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers ranged from Florida to New Jersey and Maryland, Tennessee and Kentucky and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma. My Red-cockaded Woodpecker was just off U.S. 1 about 20 miles south of Richmond.

In Petersburg, I took a tour of one of the major cigarette manufacturers. The guide proudly told the tour, that the average annual sale of tobacco was over $7 billion dollars and that over 65 million Americans used one form or another of tobacco. I also toured part of the 2600-acre Petersburg National Military Park, designated a National Battlefield in August 1962. The longest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War happened here, almost 102 years ago. In eight months, the Union army took over, Lee took off, and not much later, the Civil War was over. If there had been a Red-cockaded Woodpecker around it surely left the area. The tour guide, apparently a local docent, was more than happy to volunteer provide the audience with a spiel strongly suggesting an edge of bitterness about the outcome of the war. The person also offered a few wry comments about blacks, such as where their station in society ought to lie. Travel further south revealed a few individuals similar to my tour guide, and a society with segregated rest rooms, drinking fountains, and more. Although I read about segregation, experiencing some of it was shocking. *****

Looking back, I could have spent less time getting to Florida and more time birding in Florida. It is hard to believe how I then managed time. Still, each day was an adventure, even if I did not find new trip specie every day. Once again, the picnic desk drew more attention than I cared. People stopped, sometimes to stare and occasionally snicker at the skinny guy at the typewriter. Once again, I contended with the people and the leaves and bugs falling out of the trees onto my outdoor office. At least there were no mosquitoes. Putting my notes in shape was actually a pleasure, Keeping the records was something that came in handy during my career at Smithsonian.

Part of the story of the strange wigeon Dennis and I found came to light in 1970, when George Watson published in the Auk a detailed comparison of European and American wigeons with the Florida specimen he had shown Dennis and I. George recently told me that he was embarrassed that he did not acknowledge Dennis and me for helping draw attention to the Florida hybrid. I told him he shouldn’t give it another thought, and that my favorite field guide was the Geographic guide, the first edition of which he sacrificed so much. In a 1971 issue of the Auk, John Hubbard compared the Florida specimen with one from Back Bay, Virginia. Coincidently, Back Bay is about 170 miles south of Washington, D.C., and just a few miles from Great Dismal Swamp where I would arrive on 10 October. John, who was at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, was a regular visitor to Smithsonian and had donated the hybrid to Smithsonian. Even at his young age, John had snow-white hair and beard. John’s pioneering work lead to the realization that “Myrtle” and “Audubon’s” warblers were subspecies, not distinct species. Anyway, the two hybrid wigeons differed morphologically as hybrids often do. It was a pleasure to see Florida and Virginia hybrids side by side when, in 1972, I curated the Smithsonian collection of approximately 8,200 specimens of waterfowl. Although the creamy crown color of the Roaches Run bird resembled the European species, the sides of the head were intermediate between the two species. When the bird stood on shore I noticed that one side was brownish as would be an American Wigeon, but the other side was pale and grayish, typical of European Widgeons.

The airport in Washington, D.C., technically on the Virginia side of the Potomac, was one I flew in and out of numerous times since the 60s. It did not service jets until 1966, the big planes that roar even louder than the 1962 propellers. Formerly dubbed Washington National Airport, it was renamed the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 1998. That Washington’s name is married with Reagan’s is almost as confusing as nomenclature of birds, especially English names. Nighthawks and Hawk Owls were not hawks nor are quail-doves quails.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker near Richmond possibly bred there then but not now. The last known breeding population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Virginia is at Pine Grove, a Nature Conservancy property in Sussex County about 60 miles south of Richmond. The woodpecker has been an Endangered Species since 1970. Presently, there are only about 12,500 representing about 1 percent of the species’ original range. The species no longer occurs in New Jersey, Maryland, Tennessee and Missouri. Clear cutting, forest fragmentation and disease, and fire management are some of the main culprits contributing to the shrinking range. Although the population of the woodpecker is reportedly growing, one source estimated that 70 years would pass before the species recovery was sufficient to remove it from the endangered list. I can hear Woody the Woodpecker laugh. In seventy years, the human population may be on the list.

*****

10-11 October

Once again, during the very early morning deep-throated exhaust of a car idling just feet away suddenly awakes me. Was it a gang? Was it one of the people who laughed at me for working at the picnic table? A bright light flashed in my face, a car door slammed and the car was gone. My blinded eyes recovered just in time to see that it was a Virginia State Police car. He was just checking.

It was late afternoon when I arrived in the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp in southern Virginia. According to bird finding information, getting into the swamp would be a problem. As I drove U.S. 17, paralleling Dismal Canal, I wondered how I could see birds in such a densely vegetated place of bamboo, oak, mangrove, cypress and many other trees, vines and bushes. A long canal aptly named Feeder Ditch runs from Lake Drummond, deep in the swamp to the west. That was where I thought I would start my jaunt but first I had to get across the 40-foot wide Dismal Canal that runs north to south. There were no bridges. Additionally, there were numerous big signs with bold lettering announcing no trespassing and no hunting. Several people I contacted were unimpressed that I just wanted to look at birds. A lady at a restaurant was kind enough to give me a clue to where and who I should talk to. I found the person and told him why I wanted to enter the swamp, and that I couldn‘t afford to pay him. The weather worn man looked at me with suspicion and amusement. I practically begged. He finally said, as if giving up to a possible enemy, “Meet me at my dock at 6 and I’ll row ya cross. Jest up an’ from the feeder ditch.”

Early the next morning the dock seemed lonely and a little foreboding. The owner arrived a few minutes later, seemingly annoyed that I got there first. In minutes, he rowed me across the dark canal water. Before I could be on my way, the owner railed for about 10 minutes about how I was not to vandalize his property and what a big chance he was taking by letting me step on his land and what a huge favor he was providing. I asked about getting back across the canal. He smirked and said that maybe I could hitch a boat ride from someone coming down from Lake Drummond. That was my ultimate destination, other than getting back somehow. I quickly asked for directions whereupon he made a weak gesture toward the west before rowing back to the other side. I was on my own.

I followed a farm lane that meandered westerly. The ground was hard from years of compaction by rolling wagons and tractors. An Eastern Meadowlark flushed from the edge of the lane. After an hour, I found a trail, actually a wide two-foot path leading straight as an arrow southwest and away from the farm. For the next four hours, I treaded deeper and deeper into Dismal Swamp. Hiking was relatively easy as I followed the trails cleared by hunters. In places, a couple of inches of water covered the ground, but in other areas, it was bone dry. I heard no eerie sounds, saw no snakes and the only trouble were countless spider webs crossing the trail about every 10-15 feet. I was glad not to see snakes, especially water moccasins, but I had hoped to hear the day calling cackle of a surprised Barred Owl. Except for an occasional spider occupying one of the webs, any kind of weird life in the Great Dismal Swamp remained hidden (maybe too hidden). This was not what I had thought I would find. Even the spiders, about an inch in diameter, with brilliant yellows, oranges and blacks were beautiful.

On the other hand, I expected to find birds. Cape May Warblers filled the trees almost everywhere. Carolina Wren’s cheery rhapsody echoed from the shadows and Carolina Chickadees twittered at my intrusion. There were no Parula or Prothonotary warblers although there were Black-throated Green and Pine warblers as well as Redstarts and yellowthroats. There were no Barred Owls to give the swamp an accent of misgiving. A calling Pileated Woodpecker might have provided a flavor of intrigue, but I recognized its sound instantly. One Black Vulture, my first, rode a thermal with a few Turkey Vultures. A Bobwhite, with five young, scurried in and out of the understory. The young appeared about two weeks old.

About the time I ran into a den of copperheads was about when I found the shore of the Feeder Ditch and soon was at the Army Engineer Corp building near Lake Drummond. By now, an hour past noon, I opted to forgo the short walk to Lake Drummond, reasoning that I probably would not see any new species for the day. Besides, I shuddered at the thought of spending the night, without food or shelter, with or without accompanying Barred Owls. I was happy for the chance to hitch a ride on one of the Corp’s boats. The sputtering outboard motor ended the possibility of hearing birds as it muffled the gentle slap of the flat water against the bow. The breezeless air was broken ever so little as blue engine smoke settled in a fog over the boats narrow and disappearing wake. Soon, the tiny craft had plied the through the 50 or so foot wide Feeder Ditch to a dock at U.S. 17. My car was just short hike up the road. In the mix of species that I found in the swamp were White-throated Sparrows. Soon all the warblers would be gone and winter would dominate. It was definitely time to keep going south.

*****

Great Dismal Swamp is a fascinating place not discovered until about 1728. George Washington wanted to dig a canal through it or at least drain it, as did many who wanted the trees and land to farm. More than 59 canals reduced the swamp to one-third of its original size. The region, heavily logged, left no virgin trees standing. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has administered, since 1974, 107,000 acres of the swamp in Virginia and North Carolina that includes the 3,100 acre Lake Drummond. The refuge protects less than half of the swamps original acreage. Union Camp Corporation, a large wood products company and former owner the refuge property, donated the land to the Nature Conservancy, which turned over the land to the refuge system. In the realm of conservation and commercial exploitation, the larger picture overshadows the contribution of Union Camp Corporation. Union Camp, acquired by International Paper, a $25 billion/year company, in 1999 has operations in 40 countries. Several operations in Canada include various subsidiaries that “harvest” 2 million cubic meters of boreal timber annually according to Forest Ethics’ July 2004 report. The “harvested” forests of the Great Dismal Swamp, once completely at the mercy of commerce, will never return to its former self. Only 8% of the Canadian boreal forests are presently under some protection, which means commerce will continue to clear-cut northern Canada at a rate of five acres per day. The slow-growing forest will also never return to its former self, and far fewer migrants will be alive to pass through Great Dismal Swamp.
During the 1980s, Gary Graves and I discussed birding in Great Dismal Swamp. He studied Swainson’s Warblers for a Smithsonian project, and was interested in my visit to the swamp in the early 60s. Gary has visited the swamp annually since 1989 and reported that access to the swamp was relatively easy. It is now possible to drive in the refuge. There are dry trails for walking and biking. There is even a boardwalk. The man who rowed me across Dismal Canal would be amazed. I am too.

*****

12-15 October

Last night I was on the coast. I had driven south into North Carolina through the remainder of Great Dismal Swamp, then east to a spit of land jutting between Albemarle Sound and the Outer Banks. I drove south, passing little towns called Bertha, Mamie Harbinger and a roadside pointing to Spot, a shore hamlet just across Curritack Sound north Bodie Island’s towns of Sanderling and Duck. I had gotten off the road just a little too far, was stuck, and dug free before settling in for the night. Because the days were getting shorter with the season, I ate in the dark. This gave me more daylight hours for birding, but birding was not over. In the darkness, I picked my way to the east side of the spit. With the help of a flashlight and a bright moon, I identified several Sanderlings, some kind of peep and a plover, all scattered on the sandy beach. The plover was probably a Black-bellied, the same species I saw along with my first Royal Terns just before dark. The spotlighted plover seemed intrigued by the narrow beam from my 5-cell, and allowed me to approach it within about 30 feet. The other shorebirds were not so impressed and flushed at first glimpse of the flashlight. A curlew called through the moon shining on several foraging Black Skimmers that cut the glassy water.

The morning light brought more birds, including more Royal Terns and Black-bellied Plovers and a handful of Sanderlings, at least 30 cranky sounding Forester’s Terns and a few quiet Common [=Black] and Surf Scoters. There was a steady wind blowing the terns from side to side and it still blew as I approached Kill Devil Hill at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Everyone knows the story of their great experiment. A lofty granite monument swoops 60 feet up from its gray 1932 base. I wondered why memorializing the Brothers’ 1903 achievement took so many years. I also thought about their plane, the Kitty Hawk, I saw at Smithsonian.

In a few miles, I had entered Cape Hatteras National Seashore a park that includes Bodie, Hatteras and Roanoke islands, a 70 miles stretch of barrier islands occupying 31,000 acres. It is the nation’s first such recreational area. My destination was a campground near the south end of Bodie Island. I marked my campsite by leaving a note on the picnic table. I hope that the rock would keep the note from blowing away, and that no one would lift it and my campsite. I was anxious to visit Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge just to the south on the north end of Hatteras Island. Refuge headquarters, in the little town of Manteo, on Roanoke Island was easy to find. Charles Noble, the manager, told me that the refuge included 5800 acres of barrier reef, with fresh and salt-water marshes, which attracted mostly migrant waterfowl. About 25,700 acres of water are part of the 1937 vintage refuge that has yet to wash away from hurricanes. The refuge was the Atlantic’s southern terminus for wintering Snow Geese of which I was about one month too early to witness. Mr. Noble told me that although 172 species had been recorded on the refuge, most birders avoided what he considered to be limited habitat and mostly because of the hordes of mosquitoes.

I met the Levinsons on my return from Pea Island yesterday. They were from Portsmouth, a city in the Norfolk and Newport New region of Virginia, not far north of Great Dismal Swamp and not far west of Virginia Beach, home of Edgar Casey. When I mentioned that I was birdwatching and planning to try my luck at Pea Island refuge, they asked to come along. I explained that my stuffed car would not accommodate passengers. They said we‘d drive. Mrs. Levinson was especially anxious to learn birds although she had “Double-crested Gulls and Black-backed Cormorants” confused. The plan started, at least for me, when the Levenson’s seven year old accidentally dropped a large piece of driftwood on the boardwalk. Thump! It was time for me to get up anyway so I slipped on my clothes and crawled out of my VW berth. Most people usually get dressed after they get out of bed, but my berth had windows. Mrs. Levinson offered me a hot bowl of oatmeal and steaming coffee, which I gladly accepted.

Birding started with the free forty-minute ferry ride across Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island courtesy of North Carolina. Flocks of Laughing Gulls followed us across. Several people were tossing chunks of bread in the air and the gulls were wheeling around while attempting to rob the individual that caught the last piece. Someone told me the dredging the ferry canal of the shallow Oregon Inlet is a constant job. In fact, the whole area is shifting, eroding, changing, with each day and especially in storms. Entire islands may be flooded during severe hurricanes.

The starving gulls soon disappeared as we landed on Hatteras Island and drove to Pea Island refuge. Mr. Noble explained yesterday that Pea Island was many years ago an actual island separate from Hatteras Island. The inlet separating the two islands eventually filled in with drifted sand.

Once on Hatteras Island, we stopped to check out the beach. Only Mrs. Levinson, who, unfortunately I did not record her first name and I ventured east over the dunes and through the beach grass and sea oats that had been planted to stabilize perennially shifting sand. What we did not realize was that mosquitoes were bracing themselves from the heat and wind by inhabiting the vegetation. Wind or no wind, the hungry hordes were soon biting us, penetrating our summer clothing and making us generally hate them. The wind was much to light to prevent second helpings. I spotted a couple of small birds in the dunes. My first thought was Savannah Sparrows, but, in spite of the mosquitoes, begged a closer look. The birds seemed ever so slightly larger and noticeably paler than any Savannah Sparrow I had seen. They had to be Ipswich Sparrows [=a subspecies of Savannah Sparrow], a species confined Nova Scotia that winters south along the Atlantic coast. What a great find! A hasty scan of the beach revealed a Black-bellied Plover and a smattering of Sanderlings. This was not what Mrs. Levinson had hoped for because I was far too miserable to provide help in showing the salient differences between plovers and sandpipers let alone to discuss the details of separating Savannah and Ipswich sparrows. We retreated as fast as is possible across dry loose sand. Minnesota and Michigan paled at hosting the densest flocks of mosquitoes.

We found Louisiana Herons [=Tricolored Heron], a new life bird. So far, my list of herons was still missing Little Blue Heron, a species that, because of its similar size and dark plumage, reminded me of today’s new bird. I was yet to see the all-white plumaged Little Blue, and somehow I had missed Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Reddish Egrets would come in Florida. We saw a small flock of Canada Geese; early migrants that would later be joined by other flocks of geese and ducks.

The mosquitoes followed us around the refuge with such diligence that we were happy to leave. We ended up at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse near the south end the island. The 208 foot lighthouse, activated in 1870 helped lessen the frequency of many shipwrecks off the outer banks. Laugh and Herring gulls milled about, as did a few tourists, some who were on the ferry when we crossed Oregon Island on our return to Brodie Island campground. They probably did not see the pair of reddish-orange billed American Oystercatchers standing on their pinkish leg and calling noisily above the rumble of the ferry motor. Doubtfully they missed seeing over 300 nervous Black Skimmers landing and taking off again in one tightly organized flock.

The day for birds was not over. The Levensons invited me for an evening meal of fried chicken. The next morning I birded around camp. There were fewer mosquitoes and more time to help Mrs. Levinson hone her birding skills. She complained that fall warblers were very difficult. I told her that I had much to learn about fall plumages of warblers and other eastern birds. We also birded north at Kill Devil Hill, looking for birds on the seaward side of the inland brackish shores of Albermarle and Roanoke sounds. The uneventful search went on until late evening back at the campground. The Levensons were preparing to head home. Mrs. L and Ned, the seven year-old who dropped the driftwood, and I walked the beach. A big adult gull appeared to be courting a first year bird, taken to be a female even though mid-October seemed an unlikely time for gull courtship. The supposed male kept busy chasing away other adults and returning to the younger bird that tried to ignore the adult. This time Mrs. Levinson got the name correct. A Great Black-backed Gull. I hope that she will enjoy birding at least as half as much as I do.

On 15 October, I returned to Hatteras Island. A single oystercatcher sat at the water’s edge and gulls chased the ferry across Oregon Inlet. I did not want to add more mosquito bites to the chigger bites and poison oak I had picked up in Great Dismal Swamp. Luckily, my allergies are not too severe and in a few days, my skin would be back to normal. In the meantime, I combed the beach grass for another look at an Ipswich Sparrow. Much of the beach and grassy habitat was located at what had been a campground demolished by a nor’easter just a few months ago in March. I found the sparrow as well as a few Prairie and Palm warblers. On a nearby mud flat, I flushed a Piping Plover. It landed a few feet away. Minutes later I was looking seaward when a Herring Gull came screaming towards me. I had never heard this species of gull make such a frantic sound. The term frantic was apparently not anthropomorphic because not far behind the fleeing gull was a bird I first took to be a first year Herring Gull. I quickly realized that the pursuer was definitely too dark to be that species. That’s when I also noticed the white patches on the wings and the rounded central tail feathers protruding beyond the rest of its tail. My pulse quickened as I put it all together. I found a new life bird and a completely new family. My first Pomarine Jeager!

*****

Cape Hatteras National Seashore now has a visitor center that opened in 1992. Hatteras Island had a visitor center was in a 1854 building opened to the public in 1966. A new visitor center was built in 1999. Another major change was moving the Cape Hatteras Light Station. When activated in 1870, it was 1600 feet from the water, but the encroaching sea was within 120 feet before the whole structure was moved a half mile inland in the late 1990s. Although the islands are “protected,” vehicles are permitted to drive on parts of the beaches. I don’t recall vehicles on the beaches in 1962. Of course, the average tourist was less likely to drive any and everywhere as so many want to do today.

The Oregon Inlet ferry, started in 1924 under private ownership and operated by the state of North Carolina beginning in 1941, was replaced by a bridge in 1963. The stormy weather and other factors caused a dredge to destroy a section of the bridge in October 1990. In 1962, Hurricane Ella was approaching. It would be the last year for a stormy ferry ride across Oregon Inlet.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge checklist is now about 365 species strong, or more than twice the total in 1962. Although Canada Geese were on the old list, their status has changed in the last 40 years. In 1962, the species was a winter resident in the eastern United. The southern breeding range pushed southward. Following better habitat management and introductions, the species exploded to become the urban goose, the bane of golfers and bare foot children. The species now breeds as far south as northern Florida.

*****

16-18 October

Before leaving the Outer Banks, I compiled a list of nine sightings that I thought were significant to pass on to the appropriate regional editor of Audubon Field Notes. Then, I tried to sweep out the car; I had tracked in a sand castles worth of sand. I crossed the bridges to Roanoke Island and east across Croatan Sound to the mainland of Dare County. Croatan Sound was part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a part natural part artificial water route from Cape Code to Florida Bay. The 1700-mile route, began in 1919, is routinely dredged to maintain a minimum depth of 12 feet. Today’s crossing of the waterway was one of many that would be along my route. Deserted U.S. 264 took me through acres and acres of marsh. I didn’t want to arrive at my next destination late in the day, and pulled off the lonely road not far from the little hamlet of Englehard.

The sun eased over the flat eastern horizon the next morning. In just a few miles, I was at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Mattamuskeet is an Algonquin word meaning dry dust, which is what the lake site may have been long before either the basin was formed, possibly by a burned out peat bog, not unlike Lake Drummond in Great Dismal Swamp. Maybe the refuge could be a place where I might pick up a few southern species. As I usually did before entering a refuge, I scanned the checklist I had on file, and marked species I hoped to find. The checklist for Mattamuskeet listed 216 species. I optimistically flagged 21 species, but reasoned, based on past experience, I would find seven or eight of them. I discussed the list with Charlie Cahoon and Bob Brown of the refuge. They were not as optimistic as me, but happily escorted me to a couple of prime birding areas. We saw many Canada Geese. A couple of early Snow Geese had been seen two days ago, and a party of thirteen birders last week flushed a King Rail. We found neither. Nor did we find Anhingas or Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, one of the species I had checked earlier. We did find Little Blue Herons. I turned to check the throngs of Myrtle Warblers. Three yellow bibbed Parula Warblers perched in the open shortly before flitting out of sight.

The next day, 18 September, began with strong winds and a heavily overcast sky. Hurricane Ella was only three hundred miles south of Cape Hatteras. I was glad I off the Outer Banks. As Mr. Cahoon put it, “one good wave would melt the sand like sugar.” Ella stopped to rest out in the Atlantic. Meteorologists believed the storm would continue seaward in a northeast direction. Even so, boats were brought inland to safer water, and small craft warnings were in force from New York to Miami to the New Jersey coast. Yesterday, I helped the refuge staff lash down their big cabin cruiser they used at Swan Quarter, a nearby refuge Mattamuskeet administers. They had weathered Hurricane Alma, with its category 2 winds (about 85 mph) in late August and early September. That Hurricane slipped just offshore of Cape Hatteras, and damage was relatively minor. Hurricane Ella, with its category 3 winds (111-130 mph) and tide surges of 9 to 12 feet could wreak havoc in its path.

19 October

The morning wind was blowing stiffly. Hardly before I was able to become awake, I saw a male Yellow-headed Blackbird. Staff at headquarters were far more excited than I. My goal was to find more of the 21 species I checked off the checklist a couple of days ago. Bob suggested I try the end of a narrow road, the road where I have been parking the last two nights. Dust blew in my face and the trees bent in the noisy gale. I checked over a group of waterfowl swimming in a shelter. Ring-necked Duck was still missing from my list, but the mixed flock of Gallwalls, Black Duck, along with coots and Common Gallinule [=Common Moohen–even my spell checker doesn’t like the change] huddled together allowing far closer than normal. The swaying trees at refuge headquarters were alive with warblers, mostly Palms but a Magnolia Warbler was among the huddled masses. I tried to identify every individual while also maintaining my balance and keeping the flying dust out of my eyes. It paid off when I found two new species, Yellow-throated and White-eyed vireos. Most of the 21 species I had hoped to see were listed by the refuge as transients or would most likely had moved southward before October. I was happy with four new species. Lunch was just a crumb behind me. Maybe the next stop would bring more birds, and, after all, there is always tomorrow.

*****

Crossing bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway mean frequent stops. Sometimes a single pleasure cruiser would hold up traffic for 30 or more minutes as it slipped passed a raised drawbridge. The Army Engineer Corp maintains the system as well as 1300 miles of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Both are toll-free and provide a coastal route sheltered from the ocean. Funding has become a problem, and in 2004, there was concern that the system might be abandoned.

Once I landed in Dare County, I was in what some considered was a wasteland worth only the time to attempt to drain it. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which also administers Pea Island refuge, was established in 1984 to protect and restore its 152,000 acres to the wetland it formerly was before parts were drained.

Mattamuskeet, as in many refuges, experienced a dramatic drop in migrating and wintering waterfowl in the 60s. Unlike most refuges, especially western ones, Mattamuskeet has too much water. During 1914, large-scale drainage ditches dried enough land to found the aptly named town, New Holland where a room with bath was available for $6.60, but Pamlico Sound is only about five miles away, and high tides continued to be a problem. The refuge strategically positioned flood gates to prevent tides entering the 40,000 acre Lake Mattamuskeet. The sea-level lake, which is about 18 X 5 miles, averages only two and a half feet deep.

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