It was the best week of the entire year. It was one of the best weeks ever. Where do I begin? I could start by explaining what in the hell is the No Pants Birding Team. Or I could start by describing that we had secured reservations on a pelagic bird tour, (which is a fancy word for a seabirding tour), but the offshore weather postponed the trip by a couple days and my boss would not permit me to take off the extra time. I could explain that the magic of this week was in part due to the tremendous variety of wildlife we experienced from Barred Owls and Sandhill Cranes to Red Wolves, Black Bears, Otters, Whales, Nutrias and about 17 Million birds. I could describe how three friends teamed up and bonded over a multi-day adventure across coastal Carolina consisting of ups and downs, continuous laughter, overcoming obstacles and the relentless commitment by my friends to help me complete my goal of identifying 200 birds in a year.
I’ll back up just a bit and explain that back in June I realized I had seen 100 species of birds and decided that with half a year left I would like to double that number by the year's end. It is important to understand this benchmark is by no means a sort of bragging rights. It was a personal goal I established as a point of focus to maintain a driven sense of purpose as well as a course of action to experience authentic happiness, learning about the birds I love so much and meeting new friends who enrich life more so than anything tangible. It was a character building exercise and an obsession that inspires me. The first 100 species included low hanging berries such as blue jays, cardinals, doves, eagles and such. Back in June I made a facebook post that I intended to double my number by the end of the year. I remember someone commented that getting to 200 would be really difficult as it requires the identification of many rare and elusive species. Challenge accepted.
I studied the birds. I learned their habits, their migratory patterns, their sounds, their diets, their mother’s maiden names and shoe sizes. As much time as I spent buried in research, I spent a lot more time and endless patience standing in marshes waiting for a glimpse of the next target species. I always had my camera on me. It is possible to go birding without a camera, but I strive to progress my skills as a nature photographer, so anytime I am under God’s Great Sky I am armed with my shooting equipment. Plus, I like to share my photos, as well as study them. I reached 200 birds on December 30th, 2021. Sally Siko and Corie Latta tirelessly accompanied me to the finish line. We had some setbacks and hurdles, which made the victory all the more sweet.
We were supposed to go on the pelagic bird tour on Wednesday. Monday morning we were notified that the trip was postponed until Thursday. Sally drove to Wilmington and joined me Tuesday night so we could arrive as early as possible. We departed Wilmington at three o’clock in the morning. As I drove the 4.5 hours to the Outer Banks we counted three Barred Owls perched along the highway, illuminated by street lights. It was too dark for photos, but we knew that seeing these noble raptors was a good omen that the bird gods were smiling down upon us.
We arrived at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge at 7:00am. As the sun crested the horizon we spotted a massive black bear ambling into the tree line. Around the corner we spotted two Red Wolves! I have never seen a wolf before but have always felt a connection to them. There are less than 300 Red Wolves remaining in the world. They are an endangered species. Through telephoto lenses we watched them observe us with ears perked, then saunter across the field in the golden light of morning before they vanished like phantoms into the thicket. It seemed like magic. We were of no threat to them as they were of no threat to us. They are protected.
Before we left Alligator River I discovered a flat tire in my car. I installed the spare tire. Corie offered to take over the driving in her van. I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to get a new tire. It turns out my car has an uncommon rim size and I ended up having to order not one but two tires to get us back to Wilmington, but we’ll get to that. For now, I was just happy to have a ride so we could keep moving. Over the next three days we proceeded to take photographs from sunup to sundown. The tire was the least of my concerns.
During the course of the day we were again notified by the seabird tour company that they were now going to postpone the trip until Friday. This was heartbreaking information. The manager where I work was being inflexible about working with me to complete this goal. For a moment I feared the project would be a failure, that I would have to return to work without having completed my year long goal. The seabirding trip was my ace in the hole to see the last half dozen birds I needed. After having awoken at 2:30am, running off only a few hours sleep and straining my eyes though the long lens of a camera from dawn to dusk, we decided to have a nice dinner before making our decision. After some fresh seafood, we felt revitalized and decided that by-golly we are going to accomplish this goal on our own, without the help of the pelagic bird tour. We formed our team. Now all we needed was a name. And some new birds. We knew they both would come.
I came up with a list of 20 birds recently seen in the area that I had not yet observed. All we needed was five. Meticulously, we drove from Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to Alligator Island National Wildlife Refuge, then Jennette's Pier, Oregon Inlet, Bodie Island Lighthouse where we searched for an elusive Marsh Wren, then to Hatteras Island where we walked miles along the beach in search of the Icelandic Gull, California Gull, and Glaucous Gull. All three had been spotted there yesterday amidst a flock of hundred of gulls loafing around the large concentration of surf fishermen, the birds not so discreetly begging for handouts. The thing about gulls is that they all look more or less the same. We likely saw the seagulls we were searching for but without definitive information we couldn’t count them. We wound up at Good Winds to feast on some fresh seafood and laugh about the day. We didn’t confirm any new birds, but still had a wonderful day photographing wildlife and coastal landscapes in great company. We had hope for Thursday.
I have the metabolism of a hummingbird and can not make it past morning without some form of breakfast. I will snack on beef jerky or granola all day long, but when I am in the field I don’t want to stop for a real meal until all the good light is gone. By that time, no amount of trail mix will do the trick. I need real food and a lot of it. My eyes are bigger than my stomach when I look at that gleaming menu, but I pay my stomach no mind. After dinner, the belt is loosened. Now I am ready to stretch out on my king sized bed back at the Comfort Inn. I tell Sally and Corie “I can’t wait to get back to the hotel room and take off my pants”. Without realizing it, I had just discovered the name of our team. We agreed this no pants notion is familiar with anyone who has ever partaken in an adventure, and everyone can relate. It’s the simple pleasures in life we have to look forward to.
I called every tire shop in the vicinity. They told me it was like looking for a purple unicorn. Finally I found a place that said they could “vulcanize” the tire by fusing a piece of rubber to the inside of the puncture. Since the shop didn’t open until 8:30 we decided to go to the closest hotspot, Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, where pretty quickly we saw the first bird I needed, the Orange Crowned Warbler. After dropping off the tire we headed down to the Pocosin Lake National Wildlife Refuge to search for some shore birds but they didn’t seem to be out. On the drive back I discovered that a Sandhill Crane and Rough Legged Hawk had been seen that very day at Alligator River, so we raced up there with high hopes. The bird gods were smiling upon us once more, as we saw them both within the first 30 minutes. I have wanted to lay my eyes upon a Sandhill Crane for a long time. They look like they are straight out of a Japanese painting. They evoke feelings of peace and tranquility.
Afterwards we spent some time at Oregon Inlet looking for the Snow Bunting that apparently had been a common frequenter of the area recently before my arrival, but seemed to have moved elsewhere. We did see some Ruddy Turnstones and a talkative pair of Greater Yellowlegs, which unlike the name suggests, actually have purple legs. I am joking, they do have yellow legs. Back to Bodie Lighthouse to look for that silly Marsh Wren. We heard him, but their sound is so similar to the various other types of wrens we needed to see it to confirm. We also got a lead on a “snipey type of bird”, which we knew to be a Wilson’s Snipe, so we weaved in and out of the crowded boardwalk up to the observation deck to discover a common Clapper Rail. Why couldn’t it have been a Virginia Rail, King Rail, or even a Sora?
This day had flown by faster than a sea bird in the gulf stream and the sun was on the setting side. I still hadn’t heard from the tire repair shop and we needed that tire so we could get out of there after dark and back to our normal lives. I called and got some bad news: they were unable to patch the tire. There was absolutely no way we were leaving the island that night. It was getting cold and we were running out of places to look for the last couple birds. I felt pressure from work to return home asap, but I felt more pressure to complete this goal that I have been so passionate about. I would figure out what to do about the tire after the last light has faded and we accomplish the challenge.
The nearest hotspot was Jennette’s Pier. Piers are common places for fish to dwell, and where there’s fish there are hungry birds. There’s no telling what will be spotted near a pier. There could be loons, gannets, eiders, scoters, razorbills, or dovekies, which look a lot like penguins. We did not see any of these birds, but we did see a long haired, sandal wearing birder posted up at the end of the pier, looking through a hefty spotting scope on a tripod with a long lens slung across his shoulder.
Of course our group befriended him, Steve B as it was. Steve B was friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. When we explained our quest and our targets, he told us about a nearby hidden gem where the Virginia Rails and Soras are commonly seen. With many thanks, off we went for a final push. As the last light of the day faded, around the Wanchese Marsh we walked, scanning the shores with laser focus and trying to call out these last two birds I needed. Sure enough, they were there.
We did it! Our team succeeded. I identified 200 species of birds before the year’s end. Against the odds including my manager putting the pressure on me to return, the seabirding tour getting postponed to Friday, my flat tire, our little team came together, bonded like glue, and manifested an amazing adventure. We came, we saw, we conquered.
Ironically, if we knew about the tire delaying our departure until Friday, we may not have cancelled the seabirding trip. As a double irony, had we not cancelled the seabirding trip we would not have seen the whale, otter, bear in a tree and the cute little nutrias which look like large aquatic gerbils. Corie left Thursday after our mission success and returned to her family. She dropped us off at the tire shop right before they closed and they were able to order some tires for me that would be delivered first thing Friday morning. (As my car is all-wheel drive I had to order two tires or else the difference in tread depth would cause the tires to rotate at a slightly different speed which can damage the transfer case.) We had a delicious celebratory dinner at 3 Tequilas Mexican restaurant and went back to the South Shore Comfort Inn for the third night. During this time we had made friends with the assistant GM, Jennifer, who is the nicest person imaginable. She upgraded us to the 6th floor with an oceanfront balcony.
The pressure was off, and I would have my new tires installed at 8:30am, so we rested. We sat on the balcony at night watching a string of fishing boats rocking in the waves while the birds flocked around them. Friday morning we awoke and decided to have our coffee on the balcony while we watched birds and dolphins down below. It was the perfect vantage point. With cameras at the ready, we spotted a giant whale rolling around several hundred yards away! The fog was dense, but the remarkable scale of the whale was unmistakable. There was even a dolphin swimming with the whale, which looked so tiny compared to the massive whale.
It was New Year's Eve. I was expected at work two days ago, and Sally had to get back to her kids. We had to head back to Wilmington, but wanted nothing more than to stay and keep living the adventure. We decided to take the scenic route along the coast. Not long after departing the Outer Banks, Sally spotted a bear in a tree along the side of the road. I slammed on the breaks and parked immediately. We walked as close as we could get and watched the bear watch us while we snapped away. After getting our shots we gleefully returned to the car while the bear remained relaxed and stretched out in the crook of a tall pine tree. He knew we were no threat.
Our next stop was Lake Mattamuskeet. It is the largest natural lake in North Carolina. Its average depth is 2.5 feet. Its deepest point is a mere five feet. It sits three feet below sea level. Due to this low elevation, all the farmlands in the area drain into the lake. In 1913 the world’s largest pumping station was constructed as an effort to “dewater” the lake. Nine thousand acres of lake bottom and surrounding marshes were transformed into farmlands and entire communities were built in the dried up lake bed. It was some of the most productive crops ever cultivated in the Carolinas. Regardless, by 1934 the pumping station was shut down and the federal government declared the lake a waterfowl sanctuary.
Almost a century later and the waterfowl still flock by the thousands to these shallow waters for refuge and replenishment. In addition to the avian abundance, the lake is home to a wide variety of wildlife such as American Alligators, White Tailed Deer, Black Bear, Bobcats, Otters, Nutria, six types of frogs, 29 types of snakes, totaling 240 species of animals in all. I had my heart set on seeing a Nutria. Sure enough, at the end of the long dirt road Sally led me to a quiet overlook where we spotted two Nutrias swimming across the cove.
In the early 19th century they were introduced to the United States from South America for their fur. They proliferate rapidly and damage not only the vegetation which the native wildlife rely upon but also the root systems of the vegetation, which are necessary to hold the marshland intact from erosion. It is kind of the opposite of beavers building dams, which in turn create wetlands and stimulate habitat growth. It is too bad those Nutrias are so darn cute.
We left this magnificent lake and it’s fascinating history as dusk set in. Finally, after four days of driving or riding in a car, I took the camera off my lap. We drove home thinking about all the magic we experienced in nature over the course of our expedition and discussed plans for our future adventures. Our team, No Pants Birding, is hungry for more. Our kind is not meant to sit behind desks or work for the man. We are explorers who yearn to make a living doing what we love, amidst nature where we feel most natural, and to share it with you, our beloved friends and family. It is the joy of sharing our experiences that propel us to pursue our passions. We hope to instill inspiration, imagination, and initiative in caring of Mother Nature. On behalf of our team I would like to thank all our followers for keeping us moving forwards. Expect to see our smiling faces on Netflix in the future as we go Birding Across America!
I knew it would take me about a week to compose this article to the best of my abilities. It has been a week since our return to the “normal world”. I have begun the new year by identifying 50 species of birds in the first week of January. I think by the end of December I can make it to 300, and I won’t let anything get in my way.