At the end of April, I was invited to tour North Carolina’s Crystal Coast area, spending several days birding and enjoying the sights. On the first day, my husband and I joined Robert Mortenson of the American Birding Association for a day of birding by boat with Crystal Coast Ecotours. Learn about our boating adventures in this post, and come back next week to learn more about birding and sightseeing along the Crystal Coast.
It’s a little after eight in the morning, and I’m whizzing along Bogue Sound in the Lucky Dog, Captain Jess Hawkins’ 20 foot vessel. The sun is warm, the breeze is cool, and dozens of shorebirds are circling overhead and landing on the shore nearby.
“Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns,” the captain shouts over the motor. I know these birds; I see them at home in Florida all the time, but I’m no less enchanted by their antics over the water here in North Carolina. I’m distracted, though, by the bird ahead of us in the water. I point, and Captain Jess slows the boat so we can approach.
“It’s a loon,” he says. “Common, I think.” He pulls out the guidebook he always carries with him, A Birder’s Guide to Coastal North Carolina by local author John Fussell, and we find the right page. “Yup,” he confirms. “Common Loon, a juvenile.”
The common loon is less striking than I’d hoped, since juvenile birds lack the distinct black and white coloration I’ve always seen in pictures. Still, this is my first time sighting one in the wild, the first gift the waters of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast have given me that day. I stand watching for a moment with my legs braced against the bobbing of the boat, until with a swift sinuous movement, the loon dives beneath the water and is gone.
The captain powers up the motor and heads off. “I just saw some dolphins surface over this way!” he calls. “Let’s go!”
A few minutes later, leaving the dolphins behind, Captain Jess pulls the boat up close to the shore. “This is Rachel Carson,” he says, referring to the Rachel Carson National Estaurine Sanctuary, named for the famous biologist whose book Silent Spring changed the way many thought about the environment. We peer at the shore, counting Black-Backed Gulls, Least Terns, Black-Bellied Plovers, and more, reminding us why the locals call this area Bird Shoal. We’d stay here all day, but there’s so much more to see.
Captain Jess steers us next in the direction of Shackleford Banks, famous for its wild horses. Before we even near the beach, we can see horses in the distance. Captain Jess pulls the boat in close and we hop out, wading ashore where cannonball jellyfish and clam shells litter the beach amidst the tracks of the wild horses that have just passed by.
The bird spotting picks up again in earnest. “Wilson’s Plover!” notes Robert. “A Life Bird for me!” He checks it off his list as we continue checking out the bird life. Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone… the birds are on the beach, in the sky, everywhere, and our binoculars and cameras are constantly pointing in another direction as each person calls out a new sighting.
Back on the boat after a tramp across the sand dunes, Captain Jess thinks it’s time for lunch, and we agree. We head to nearby Harkers Island, stopping along the way to check out an osprey nesting on a channel marker and several Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets along the shoreline. We stop at the tiny Fish Hook Grill, where the hush puppies and shrimp burgers remind us of what good southern cooking should be, and where Robert learns what it’s like to devour a soft-shelled crab. Again, we’d love to linger, eat a slice of homemade pie, but our day is going fast, so we head back to the boat.
Captain Jess now unveils the biggest treat of the day, so casually we don’t even know what’s coming. “I had some folks out a few weeks ago, and we found some nesting White Ibis over near the lighthouse. Wanna check it out?” he asks. We do, of course, and head off accompanied by more dolphins toward Cape Lookout. Just shy of the area, the captain steers the boat around a small island and points to the shore. Our mouths fall open as we realize we’re looking at a White Ibis rookery filled with perhaps five hundred nesting birds stretched for a quarter mile.
And if we didn’t love Captain Jess enough by then, now he truly becomes a hero. He maneuvers the boat as close as he can, but we’re still several hundred yards away, and the water is too shallow for the outboard motor. Captain Jess raises the motor and hops out of the boat, waist deep in water with his toes in the mud. He takes hold the side of the boat and begins pulling us closer, closer, until we’re just a hundred yards off shore right at the edge of the marsh. We float there, binoculars and cameras glued to our faces, as the strong smell of five hundred White Ibis drifts toward us on the wind. We pick out other birds mixed in with the masses, Little Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, even a Black-Crowned Night Heron. Close by, an American Oystercatcher prowls the shore and we hear a Clapper Rail in the marsh, though he refuses to hop up and say hello in person.
Our time with Captain Jess that day has drawn to a close. We’re full of good fresh sea air, our clothes and sunglasses splashed with saltwater, our hair sculpted into crazy shapes by the wind despite our hats. We chug along back to shore, tallying our bird count for the day. We’ve positively identified fifty different species (fifty!), including some each of us has never seen before. We’ve been on the Lucky Dog for seven hours, and even so, we’re all very reluctant to leave the boat and head back to dry land. It’s the kind of day that only happens every so often, and we hate to see it end.
Of course, for Captain Jess Hawkins, there are many more such days ahead. He lives here on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, and every day he climbs back onto his boat to take people fishing, birding, shelling, clamming… anything the waters have to offer. As we wave to him, standing on the dock by his boat, there’s no doubt in any of our minds just who the Lucky Dog is.
Captain Jess Hawkins runs Crystal Coast Ecotours, based out of Moorehead City, North Carolina. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biology and has spent his whole life in and around the waters of North Carolina, earning multiple conservation awards over his 30-year career as a marine biologist with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. These days, Captain Jess is “retired”, though he keeps plenty busy running his company, teaching classes to local educators, and involving himself in promoting ecotourism along the Crystal Coast. He and the Lucky Dog can take up to six passengers out for full or half-day personalized tours. Learn more at his website, CrystalCoastEcotours.com.