Black River Cruise Part 2

It's hard work, this business of migrating thousands of miles every year, and birds visiting the river stay a couple weeks here eating and recharging. "Some of them will fly to Florida and then across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan and then down to Venezuela, Colombia, the Amazon Basin. Others will fly all the way across the Atlantic to South America, and not all of them make it across the ocean."

That last flight path is over long stretches of open sea with no rest stops. "We've done radio telemetry and we know that at least one bird got within 40 miles of the coast before it finally just gave out, having flown nonstop for several hundred miles."

He said herons, belted kingfishers and spotted sandpipers fly at night, typically in jumps of about 150 miles a night depending on the winds. "Many migrate at night because there are fewer winged predators at night, and also because of the gravitational patterns in the earth's crust. They do have a magnificent GPS system built into their brains so they know where they are all the time."

Large tracts of land in this region are owned by Progress Energy and jointly managed with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission as game land for fishing and hunting. He said wood ducks are primary hunting targets, while huge flocks of redwing blackbirds, grackles and sparrows can safely remain oblivious to the guys with the guns. In the fall they swoop in to take advantage of the various plants going to seed.

"Maybe 20 years ago these grasses would be filled with a migrating bird known as the bobolink, a cousin to the sparrow, a beautiful little bird that nests up in arboreal Canada and migrates down south for the winter. The bobolink is now unfortunately in decline but the swamps are also filled with colorful warblers. In the spring these woods are alive with warblers, bright lemon-yellow Prothonotary warblers, yellow-throated warblers, Parula, Swainsons, all kinds of warblers."

Apparently they behave like teenagers with text messaging capabilities. "They're all calling to each other, where are you, over here, worried about where the other is. They migrate at night and you'll hear them calling to each other."

They feed on caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders and small beetles, and like most smaller species are interior forest birds that live deep in the woods because they do not wish to become snacks themselves. "The edge out here is where the predators hang out, including the sharp-chinned hawk and Cooper's hawk, renowned birds of prey, so warblers, sparrows and woodpeckers are all inside the woods."

Overhead the occasional vulture circled, lingering just above the tree tops, vanishing and reappearing in slow, lazy circles. "The bulk of those are turkey vultures," he said. "They're also migrating south. Many of them follow the mountains but some come down the Atlantic flyway."

Turkey vultures feed on carrion that they locate by smell in forests, and it's not unusual to find a group of them clustered around a dead raccoon, a deer, even a big fish that washed ashore.

"Black vultures are still in the mountains and haven't reached our area in numbers yet. They are different from the turkey vulture in that the face of the black vulture is black and their wing tips are kind of grayish white. They have short wings compared to the turkey vulture, and the turkey vulture usually has a red face." Both species have no facial feathers so that when they're eating something disgusting, it doesn't stick to their faces.

"Turkey vultures circle around picking up the odor of a dead animal on a wind current, and they circle until they orient on where that smell is coming from. Black vultures are watching from some distance away, sometimes several miles, and as soon as the turkey vultures begin to settle in the black vultures will arrive. They don't usually get along very well but they have to share whatever they find."

When the Maffitt reaches its turnaround point, the captain cuts the engine and lets the sounds of nature fill the void. It's pretty quiet this time of year, nothing like the raucous conversations that go on during nesting and breeding seasons. Wood detected one lone distant call in the wilderness and said it was a pileated woodpecker. On the ride back he trawled for plankton and showed off his private collection of frogs, turtles and native plants-not the type of thing the Audubon Society generally goes in for, but don't you know it's all connected.

Wood also conducts the Friday tours of Mason Inlet from early April through mid-October. Audubon North Carolina began managing that area in 2002 and launched the educational tours in response to a public outcry against the roped-off areas and warning signs. Apparently locals felt it was their birthright to turn dogs loose on the beach, and he has now spent several years patiently explaining the error of their logic. The beach is teeming with oystercatchers, least terns, common terns, willets, osprey, brown pelicans and black skimmers.

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