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Piping closer to home.

September 14, 2009

When my dad and I went to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge a couple weeks ago our primary purpose was to chase the Ruff that had been seen there. A Ruff in North Carolina, heck, a Ruff anywhere in North America, is a pretty special bird, but part of what made the trip an easy one to decide to do was the fact that the last couple years at Mattamuskeet have been a shorebird bonanza.  I figured that even if we didn’t find the Ruff, the birds we would come across would make the long drive worth it.

We saw lots of birds out east and I was pretty satisfied, and I would have probably stayed that way too if I hadn’t gotten a hair to make the trek out to the New Hope Creek mudflats on the north end of Jordan Lake, not 20 minutes away from home.  But I did, and it just goes to show that staying close can be as productive as anything in a so-called “hotspot”.

So anyway, in most years late summer is dry enough to draw down Jordan Lake in Chatham County such that some far shallow arms become pretty expansive mudflats.  This part of the state doesn’t have much in the way of traditional shorebird stopover habitat so when these ephemeral flats materialize the birds are drawn to them like a magnet.  In the past I’ve had phenomenal luck there, finding local rarities like Wood Storks and state rarities like Wilson’s Phalarope and Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but by and large you’ll find your normal assortment of east coast migrating shorebirds, which is typically enough to satisfy any shorebird jones a birder may come down with.

It’s a long walk though.  From the parking lot you have to traipse through the woods for a quarter mile before you even get out to the lakeshore and from there it’s a walk of up to three miles to the best flats, depending on how low the lake is.  It’s often muddy, so you either need rubber boots or my preferred footwear, sandals that can be hosed off at home.  You’ll need your scope too, since the birds are often on the far side of the lake, so you have to haul it as well.  But the reward is often worth it, as once you reach the best mudflats the sun is usually behind you offering great looks at a wide variety of species.  Some even stay close enough to photograph, like this Greater Yellowlegs.


My dad and I had planned to make the trip solo, but while there we ran into some guys I knew from the local Chapel Hill Bird Club and we all headed out en masses.  When parsing shorebirds is the order of the day, more eyes are better.  Once we got out to the best mud, the birding began in earnest and we soon had picked out the regular Pectorals, Semipalms, Leasts, Yellowlegs and began focusing on more unusual fare.   You know how these things go.  The scopes fan out and all chatter ceases in the face of a mudflat full of birds.  The drill is repeated wherever there are shorebirds and mud.  Yours truly is on the far left.  Silly me, it seems I forgot to wear my birding uniform.  I must not have gotten the memo…


There was a good sized flock of Stilt Sandpipers, 30 is likely a conservative estimate, that we could study at leisure. I picked out a couple Short-billed Dowitchers from the group, a locally uncommon species.  One of the best parts of birding with a group is that they often contain an excellent birder or two.  Bob, the group leader of the CHBC bunch, a guy I’ve birded with several times in the past and a real crack shot, picked a nice White-rumped Sandpiper out of a bunch of peeps.  We watched it for some time, the differences between it and the other peeps are always nice to remind yourself of.  My dad even got a picture.  Can you find the right bird?


The day ended for my dad and I, I didn’t want to push my luck with my wife at home all morning with a baby, but not before I pulled a nice American Golden-Plover from a distant group of Killdeer, another local rarity on par with the White-rumped Sandpiper.  Not a bad morning out when it’s all said and done, and comparable with the Mattamuskeet trip.  But if we had found that Ruff…

  1. September 15, 2009 6:13 am

    Nice day out, but what was that non-birder doing on a mudflat looking though a scope?


    And speaking of Ruffs, of course it won’t be there or anywhere near you until spring, when you will find a fine breeding-plumage male.
    You know, if you enjoy seeing Ruffs (and you know my take on that), you ought to see a breeding male as a lifer, not a female (called reeve and not ruff anyway) or immature (hmmm, I wonder how the Brits would call an immature male). I felt incredibly sorry when I went to Rondeau Provincial Park in Ontario with Laurent in hopes we would see his life Prothonotary. During the roughly 2-hour drive I kept on telling him how incredibly bright they are, how they seem to shine in the dark, the “supernova of the forest” etc etc and sure enough, we did see a Prothonotary but it was a dull female. Bummer!

    It just isn’t the same.

    So here’s to the right Ruff at the right time.

  2. September 15, 2009 9:11 am

    Nice shorebirds outing!!!!

    Disagree with Jochen. With a young baby at home, ANY ruff is a good ruff, and the fact that you found the time to chase it is just amazing!!!!! (And the female pronothonary was very cool anyway, along with the read headed woodpecker!)

  3. September 15, 2009 9:24 am

    @Laurent: agreed, I recently posted two migrating wagtails to a Heidelberg formu, which is like posting two migrating American Robins in a US forum as “migration news”.

    And any day spent with you in the field is a cool day.
    Aaaw, ain’t that a sweet reply.


  4. Nate permalink*
    September 15, 2009 9:30 am

    @Jochen- Yes, I’ll get the Ruff in due time. As it is, I’ll just have to make do with the migrating warblers. Did I mention I had a Blackburnian just yesterday? 😉

    @Laurent- Red-headed WP is undoubtedly a great bird no matter when you see it. Prothonotary, too. And the only reason I was able to chase the Ruff was because my wife and baby were out of town visiting relatives in Florida. It was a perfect storm to chase. It’s too bad the bird didn’t cooperate.

  5. September 15, 2009 9:45 am

    @Nate: see it as the finger of fate pointing right towards a visit to Germany’s Ruff havens some spring to come.

  6. September 15, 2009 9:47 am

    @Nate, I forgot: fall Blackburnians don’t count as Blackburnians. I am not envious, not in any way, and that’s the story I’m sticking to.

  7. September 19, 2009 6:01 pm

    Sounds like a great day to me Nate! I would also “settle” for a female Prothonotary Warbler or a female Ruff for that matter. As far as the “birding uniform” goes, you look like a typical California birder 😉 Shorts and sandals are in dude!

  8. Nate permalink*
    September 20, 2009 8:48 am

    @Larry- Shorts and sandals are my favorite birding uniform. I wish I could wear them all winter long!

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