Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ecotourism at North Carolina's Crystal Coast

The Crystal Coast of North Carolina is an ecotourist's dream come true. There is just so much to captivate the mind and excite the passion for nature. And there are great people there to make sure you have a wonderful experience. Your experience can also be customized to your preferences, but trust me, you'll want to do and try everything and just take it all in.

Jill, Ryan, and I were provided a spectacular opportunity to spend a day and half with Captain Jess Hawkins, owner of Crystal Coast Ecotours, Inc. One day we spent seven hours with him on his boat cruising all over the area and stopping regularly to explore. The next day Jess drove us around in his truck as we tracked down birds in the maritime forests and marshes. We had a blast!
Capt. Jess Hawkins shows how to lull a crab to sleep
Jess recently retired after 30 years as a marine biologist and his enthusiasm for the region will never retire. When it comes to this southern portion of North Carolina's Outer Banks, Jess knows just about everything there is to know about what is in the water, what is on the water, what flies over the water, and what surrounds the water. I really appreciated his encyclopedic knowledge and his friendly manner of sharing the history of region. He knows the local industries as well as he knows the local flora and fauna. It was a fascinating and enlightening experience.

Capt. Hawkins' tour leadership style is perfect for the setting and it doesn't hurt that he has a charming North Carolina accent and the vocal timber and cadence of Tommy Lee Jones. Oh, and he also got very excited about each thing we saw. He celebrated each of my life birds as if they were his own. He's one heck of a nice guy. At lunch on Harkers Island at the Fish Hook Grill, Jess introduced this landlubber to soft shelled crab, for which my palette is eternally grateful.

Its hard to imagine that there might be more interesting things to do at the Crystal Coast than birding, but there are lots of things to do: shelling, clamming, crabbing, seining, dolphin watching, exploring barrier islands and marshes, snorkeling, fishing, wild horse watching, butterflying, bugging, botany stuff, and more.
A few of the Wild Horses on Shackleford Island. We got to observe two males have a little man-to-man "discussion" about territory and harem maintenance. Learn more about the Shackleford Horses
Cannonball Jellyfish were a common sight on many beaches. We didn't know what kind they were, but Jess sure did.
We saw several pods of dolphins during out boat trip with Capt. Hawkins. The front dolphin appears to have an injury or illness on its dorsal fin.
Having a local guide and expert gives you the opportunity to see things that most would certainly miss. Jess knew about this nesting rookery on a small island near Cape Lookout. We saw nesting White Ibises, Little Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, and Black-crowned Night Herons. This picture does not do justice to the birding spectacle we beheld, nor can it provide you the pungent smell of guano that seas breezes occasionally shared with us. The water is pretty shallow surrounding this island, so Jeff actually got out of the boat and walked us in for a closer view. He knew to keep a respectable distance so we didn't cause disturbance during this critical time in a bird's life cycle. Here we also heard the distinct call of a Clapper Rail. It was just feet away, but we never did see it.

I recommend that you contract Jess to customize your Crystal Coast adventure.

While Jill, Ryan and I ran around the area in Jess's truck, another group of journalists enjoyed kayaking around Emerald Isle. I understand that the folks at Barrier Island Kayaks also know their birds pretty well. So, yet again another way to have some exciting birding adventures at the Crystal Coast.

More bird photography from the Crystal Coast coming soon!