By Tom Earnhardt
While fishing with my father near Cape Lookout on an October day in the mid 1960s, we watched the full moon rising in the east just before the sun set behind us over Shackleford Banks. The air was so clear that with the aid of binoculars we could see craters on the lunar surface. As we marveled at the golden light at day’s end, a “V” of cormorants appeared to fly over the moon. My father quickly proclaimed that it took “a very special bird to fly over the moon.” In the following years, we would laugh and look for high-flying birds whenever we saw a full moon.
Many of my most vivid memories come from those fishing trips on the North Carolina coast. It was a time before interstate highways, large outboard motors, and fast boats. There were no cell phones and no social messaging apps. Traveling in our small, slow boat, we had time to reflect and talk about what we had observed.
It was not lost on my father or me that the Tar Heel coast in autumn is a major thoroughfare for fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals heading north and south. On weekend fishing trips from September to November we saw giant sea turtles—loggerheads and leatherbacks. Beneath us there were vast schools of mackerel, false albacore, and tuna, passing through Tar Heel sea lanes. From our small craft we even saw whales just outside of North Carolina inlets on their way to other worlds.
Those early trips were an important part of my conservation journey. It was on those adventures that I began to learn about the lives of large coastal birds—egrets, herons, ibis, tundra swans, snow geese, Canada geese, and myriad ducks. Just like the creatures found in and under our waters, most of the birds using the North Carolina coast are not ours alone. We share them with the rest of the world. What happens on the North Carolina coast can affect bird and fish populations in Canada, New England, the Caribbean, and South America. The lessons learned in those early years are still true today: the things we value the most in the outdoors require the cooperation of men and women in multiple states and nations.
This past Thursday some of my early memories of the North Carolina coast came flooding back when I visited Hyde County to photograph wintering waterfowl. Although I picked a day on which I knew the waxing moon would soon be full, there was no guarantee that the sky would be free of clouds. Fortunately, just like the day at Cape Lookout with my father 60 years ago, the sky was perfectly clear as the moon rose in the east while the sun hesitated on the horizon behind me. And just like that moonrise long ago, I watched some very special birds fly over the moon.
The birds were tundra swans, large birds—12 to 20 pounds—that can live up to 20 years. They mate for life, and live and fly as families. Each year of their lives they do a round trip from the Arctic shores of Alaska and Canada all the way back to North Carolina, a distance of more than 4,000 miles each way. These magnificent creatures perform this miracle of navigation and survival without the benefit of GPS.
In the spring and fall each year similar navigation feats are performed by millions of other birds and sea creatures traveling to and from North Carolina. During the COVID pandemic we have all been reminded of our connections to people and nations around the world. We share air, water, and resources with others. Working together to protect these shared natural treasures is a necessity, not an option.
Wherever you live in North Carolina, there will be full moons and brilliant sunsets. The next time you see a full moon peeking over the eastern horizon in the late afternoon, watch closely and you may see some very special birds fly over the moon. If you have the opportunity, follow them and learn their story.