The Bird That Got Away

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2001

What's the worst thing that could happen if you signed up for a weekend birding trip in North Carolina's Outer Banks, and it was windy and cold and you decided to bag it and leave a few hours early?

The group might spot a Sprague's pipit -- a bird that's never been documented before in the entire state. Birders from throughout the region would flock to see the elusive creature. Birding history would be made. And there you'd be, tooling down the highway on your way back to D.C., radio blasting, blissfully unaware.

Since my trip with the Nature Conservancy two weeks ago, I have come to know this nondescript, brown, sparrow-like bird very, very well, even though -- have I mentioned this? -- I did not see it.

I'd signed up for the trip in hopes of spotting a few "life birds" (birds you've never seen before) and getting away from anything having to do with spores. Nags Head would be nice in the fall, I thought.

At the beach, the sunburned, shouting, Coppertone-smelling humans of summer had moved on. The water slides were dry. Grocery checkers were doing their nails. Except for a couple throwing a ball to their golden retriever, a few fishermen and a woman looking for shells, I was alone during a Friday evening stroll along the shore.

But another group had muscled its way in. Huddled in groups, screaming over the sound of the waves and paddling determinedly in the sound's calmer waters were the birds I'd come to see. Thousands and thousands of shorebirds, songbirds, gulls, ducks and waterfowl, either passing through en route to winter homes or settling in for the season, dominated the landscape.

My prospects were looking good.

Over coffee and chocolate cake at the First Colony Inn that night, trip leaders John and Paula Wright outlined aggressive plans for our weekend assault. Our group of 24 birders, some from as far away as New Mexico, would patrol the beach and the inn's grounds before breakfast, then head south to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, followed by a "wolf-howling" Saturday night and ending with a quick trip to Cape Hatteras Sunday morning.

"Hopefully, we'll find something that's not supposed to be here," said John, who, with a life list of 670 birds and a North Carolina list of 393 birds, is one of the top bird guys in the region.

The wind whipped the sand into our faces as we hit the beach at 7:30 the next morning. A few pelicans, gulls, terns and sanderlings fought the gusts. A quick scan of the inn's bushes elicited a more interesting group: all three "mimics" (catbird, brown thrasher and mockingbird) in one bush, yellow-rumped warblers and a ruby-crowned kinglet in another. Psyched by our early returns, we jumped into our cars and caravanned south.

First stop, a scrubby area near an abandoned former Coast Guard station. When I caught a fleeting glimpse of a bird that just might have been an uncommon Connecticut warbler, John, who in real life is a mild-mannered high school science teacher, became the birding version of the Crocodile Hunter, crashing through the underbrush and expertly "pishing" to call in the bird. We identified it as a Nashville warbler, which isn't as good as a Connecticut, but isn't bad, either. Then Paula yelled for us to look up. There was one of the season's first flocks of impressive snow geese, their fat all-white bodies made more dramatic by black-tipped wings. Lots of oohs and aahs, and a life bird for me.

Down a small paved road, bunches of common field and chipping sparrows milled about. But there among the group were a couple of much more unusual clay-colored sparrows. I wasn't sure I could tell the difference, but it was another life bird.

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