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If nothing else, it makes for good stories!

We're back from vacation. It was a vacation of extremes, high and low--sometimes overlapping.

On the second day after our arrival at Hatteras, Mike and I made an hour-and-a-half trip to the mainland to Palmetto-Peartree Reserve in search of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, a rare and endangered species linked to old-growth pine savannahs. They are unusual in a number of ways, one being that they are the only North American woodpecker to dig their nest holes out of living wood, using the resulting flow of sticky sap as a deterrent against tree-climbing predators such as rat snakes.

I had no idea how off the grid PPR is. There were no outhouses, no rangers, no cars going by, not a soul in sight other than us. We drove down a muddy, slippery road with insufficient gravel, and ended up sliding into the ditch. We had to walk back to the main road before we could even get a signal on the cell phone to call a tow truck to pull us out, to the tune of $150 because he knew he had us over a barrel. We forgot to bring any sort of food (despite having eaten a very small breakfast), and left the sunblock in the car and forgot about it until we'd hiked a half hour and were now under the blazing midday sun in an unshaded wetland. Deer flies were abundant, and while the Off more or less kept them at bay, it didn't prevent me from waking up a few hours after our return with a tick embedded in my belly.

Lesson learned: do not trifle with mother nature. At least not in North Carolina.

For our trouble, I did not see any Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers. (Well, I may have. But far from satisfying and not enough to lifelist it.) But there were payoffs. It was one of the wildest places I've ever encountered, with tall, spindly, ancient-looking Loblolly pines, rich wetlands with reed beds towering over us, and pristine vistas over the Albemarle Sound. Green Herons, whom I have always thought of as shy and solitary birds that skulk around pond edges, were abundantly visible. They constantly flew back and forth across the road perching in those ancient pine trees. I'm sure they had a rookery up there.

For me, the greatest pleasure in encountering a bird is when it is utterly wild. I've seen many Osprey at Outer Banks, nesting on man-made platforms on top of man-made pylons, and paying humans little mind because they're long used to the sight of us. The pair of Osprey we met at PPR were nesting in a treetop, and they acted like they'd never seen a human being before in their lives. Though we were hundreds of feet away from their nest and could not have gotten closer without wading through knee-deep water, our presence incensed them. They circled over us calling franticly.

The Virginia part of my vacation was extremely buggy. Not mosquitos--mosquitos are trivial. Ticks and chiggers. The woods around and near my parents' neighborhood are excellent for birding, but they are also heavily infested. Over the course of the week I picked on the order of twenty ticks off my body, ranging from tiny pinpoint-sized ones (Lyme Disease!) to big ones with spots on them (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever!) I also got a rather nasty case of chiggers that left oozing, furiously itching sores all over my legs and middle, one of which is still scabbed over. However, in the very place that I probably picked up those chiggers (Swift Creek Trail), I got a thrilling life bird, Hooded Warbler, a gorgeous southeastern warbler with a black cowl encircling a vivid yellow cheek. (I didn't get any photos, so click on the link if you want to see a picture.) Was it worth it? Yes, ten times over.

In the coming days I'll share some of my Cape Hatteras photos.

King of butterfliesSurf birds at Cape Hatteras