Winter wonder on the beach

Published 9:28 pm Thursday, January 30, 2020

 By Biff and Susan Andrews

Walking a beach is always a wonderful treat, but that’s especially true in winter. We walked miles on the beach south of Hatteras last weekend — yes, on a weekend — and saw nobody. Not a soul. No beach patrol. No surf fishermen, kite boarders, surfers, kayakers not even another hiker.

True, it was a bit airish. Fifty degrees is not too cool for a walk, but 15-knot winds off the ocean pierce one’s protective clothing. Still, a walk on a winter beach is worth a bit of hardship, especially given the rewards. The rewards come in two forms — visual and tangible.

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The visual treats were everywhere. Lines of pelicans soared about eight feet above the dune crests — riding the updrafts for miles without a wingbeat. Hundreds of Man of War “bubbles” (Men of War bubbles?) littered the beach with clear, blue-purple sacks trailing tendrils in the sand. Large bushes or small trees were in the process of becoming driftwood with every wave. There were no whale sightings this year as in past walks, but the surf and diving gulls still rewarded every glance seaward. And above all, the beach itself. We could see perhaps five or six miles of sand with no beach vehicles, sun worshippers, swimmers, surfers, even darling children. Just sand, wind and water. For miles. Not even any tire tracks.

But on the sand was another story. There were treasures everywhere. We had two 11-year-old granddaughters with us whose excitement made the event even more special. The beach was covered with shells and shell fragments. The girls now know the differences between knobbed whelks, channel whelks and lightning whelks. They have troves of scallop shells of every color, babies’ ears, “money” shells, olives, whelk center spiral “ice cream cones,” etc.

Of course, the Holy Grail of shell hunters eluded us — a perfect Scotch Bonnet. We found about 20 pieces, but no whole ones. One a year for a family of shellers is probably average. This was not our weekend. Someone suggested gluing fragments together to make a whole — an intriguing idea.

Beyond the shells were softer finds. There were skate eggs and whelk eggs, driftwood pieces large and small. There were sections of horseshoe crabs, calico crabs and ghost crabs. There were seagull carcasses, fish bones, and most of a cuttlefish carcass — the stumps of missing legs giving him away. And feathers everywhere. Seagull feathers, cormorant feathers, little shorebird feathers, tern feathers. Some were 15 to 20 inches long — probably from Great Blackbacks — and some less than an inch — probably sandpipers. Thousands of feathers. I don’t know if it’s molting season or just a rough time of year for plumage, weather-wise, but they were everywhere.

Every now and then we’d encounter a “target-rich environment” where an eddy had concentrated a large number of shells, Man of War bubbles, driftwood and other detritus in an area the size of your living room. Shell hunter heaven!

From our area, it’s a three-hour drive to Hatteras. Sandbridge or False Cape is just an hour. The next time your 10-year-old says “I’m bored!”— make the drive, take the walk, see the visuals, collect the tangibles.

 Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at