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The Shorebird Express

September 15, 2008

Hurricane Ike hit Houston last week, but the ramifications were felt all the way into North Carolina. See, we get nearly all of our gas from pipelines that run from around the Houston area, so when the power’s down around there, we get hit with supply problems. So much so that everyone in the area freaked out Friday night and gas prices around the triangle shot up around $6.00 per gallon over night. I decided to hold off on my birding trip planned Saturday and wait the craziness out.

Sunday things were somewhat back to normal, and with gas no higher than it was in high summer, I decided to make the run out to Lake Mattamuskeet to see for myself the shorebird extravaganza that had been reported earlier in the week before the true lunacy starts and $6.00 a gallon seems like a bargain. I hope I’m joking…

Anywho, Mattamuskeet is primarily known as a phenomenal winter birding locale. As I pulled up to the lake I was immediately amazed at the fact that the lake, already more wide than deep, was practically laid bare. I saw acres and acres of mudflats, and they were all crawling with birds.

It would be quite a list to name everything I saw, I ended up with 18 species of shorebirds, not to mention gulls, terns, and waders. They were mostly Yellowlegs, large numbers of both varieties, and Pectoral, Semipalm and Least Sandpipers. Within those multitudes were both Dowitchers, Stilt Sands, Semi Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, and lots of American Golden Plovers, many in basic plumage, many in gorgeous alternate plumage, and most in some stage in between.

In addition to the shorebirds were lots and lots of Gulls, mostly Laughing but also Ring-billed and greater Black-backed, Black,Caspian, and Forster’s Terns, and nearly every species of day heron regular to North Carolina, including several Glossy Ibis, new birds for my year.

But the bird I had foremost in my thoughts was of the sexy long legged variety. A Godwit, smaller grayer and certainly rarer than the Marbled birds huddled together near one end of the expanse of mud. A Hudsonian Godwit, photo below, not only a great bird for North Carolina for the year, but a lifer besides.

I ended up driving down to a second access point, near a pond that’s always full of ducks in the winter. The pond, like most of the lake, was nearly completely dry. A path nearby led out to the lake, where I was able to actually walk out on the lake bed to get closer to the birds I’d seen before, including refinding the Hudsonian Godwit in good light and watching as the bird amongst the Dowitchers and Yellowlegs. It was a pretty classic juvenile bird as illustrated in the Sibley Guide with nice black tipped wings. The views of the birds were phenomenal, and the setting very strange.

That wasn’t even the best as far as shorebird viewing. The causeway that cuts through the middle of the lake was dry on the high side, leaving a strip of mudflats that paralleled the road for nearly the entire five mile length. Most of the birds along the way were the usual Semis, Leasts, Pecs, and Short-billed Dowitchers, but the fact that the mudflats ran right along the road left the birds practically in my lap. I was able to get some pretty good photos as they foraged along next to me. Sorry about the grass in the second pic, that was kind of my blind.

As I began to think about heading back I noticed a grassy mudflat that looked good for Buff-breasted Sandpipers, but when I scoped it I instead found a flock of a half-dozen Baird’s Sandpipers, closing the book on regularly occurring Calidris pipers in the state, unless a chasable Red-necked Stint shows up somewhere.

I was packing up my scope when I heard a singing Northern Bobwhite, a bogey bird this year and nice way to wrap things up. If gas prices get too much worse, I may have to put my Big Year on hold, or worse, cut it all together. Birding is fun and all but I’m not going to go into debt running all over the state to do it. Hopefully things will relax a bit in time for a nice push towards 300 by the end of the year.

It’s not the record, but it’s an achievable goal.

  1. September 15, 2008 2:13 pm

    Sweet list of shorebirds, now I’m jonesing again for the chance to scope through some promising mudflats. And congrats on the lifer!

  2. September 15, 2008 5:08 pm

    @mike – Thanks, I had been in the mood for shorebirds for awhile. It was really nice to feed that urge.

    Sometimes you just need shorebirds, yaknow?

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