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The Beginning of Fall

July 18, 2011
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They’re coming. If you sit quietly on a scorching mid-summer afternoon you might be able to hear them. The quiet whistling of wings and piercing squealed calls roaring out of the tundra before the rapidly shortening days make the place all but unlivable.  They arrive here while it’s still heating up.  Summer’s death knell.  The vanguard of fall.  And most happily, something around which I can structure my birding.  An entire month of crawling Calidrids and parading Pluviali.  The Shorebird express, arriving right on time.

Random shorebirds have been reported throughout the area in bits and pieces for about a week now, and not more than six weeks after the last stragglers heading northward left.  Those birds move fast, and the first of the breeders, adults leaving their progeny to fend for themselves for a couple weeks and heading post haste to wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast and parts south, begin to show up on mudflats across the Triangle.  They’re a difficult thing to catch in this tiny corner of North Carolina, as we don’t have much in the way of promising mudflats unless drought strikes and draws down the local reservoirs, and most birds tend to stay to the east taking advantage of the vast tidal mudflats of Carolina’s considerable coastline and their veritable shorebird smörgåsbord (which literally translates to “sandwich table” in Swedish, which… awesome) of invertebrate options anyway.  Needless to say, a birder can usually pick up the commoner species every year, but not much more unless the weather “cooperates”.  Because that cooperation usually means hardships for everyone else it’s a hard thing to root for, but the needs of birders rarely coincide with the needs of agricultural interests shockingly enough.

In any case, I figured mid-late-July was as good a time as any to check out reliable shorebird spots to prepare for the flood.  That means a little arm of Falls Lake in Durham County where Ellerbe Creek runs into the lake.  In good years it can be spectacular, but it’s easily one of the most unpleasant birding hotspots in the state.  Ellerbe Creek runs through north Durham, a heavily developed part of the region without much in the way of respect for the watershed.  As such, it’s the sort of place you can find Buff-breasted Sandpipers and plastic children’s toys, empty chemical bottles, and used clothing.  Scenic is not a word I’d use to describe it.  But you takes what you gets.

Yesterday, what I took was a lot of waders.  No post-breeding dispersal goodies, but lots of the expected Great Egrets and Great Blues.

Falls Lake isn’t quite low enough to show impressive mudflats, but I was able to walk all the way out to the end of an old fishing trail and set up on a small flock of shorebirds huddled on about a 30 meter square patch of mud.  Killdeer were very much in evidence, as were a handful of locally nesting Spotted Sandpipers, but mixed in with the group were about a dozen Least Sandpipers, several of which were still showing most of their alternate plumage which looked very dark in the gray light.  A pair of Semipalmated Sandpipers foraged on the mud in the back and a big Pectoral Sandpiper, a new bird for my Triangle Year, gave a few of the Killdeer the what-for.

They were representatives of the three most common migrant shorebirds I’ll be expecting in the next six weeks or so, but it was nice to see them.  A sign that the rest shouldn’t be too far behind and the the lake, as it sits now, is low enough to attract a few.  A few more weeks without rain and things will only get better.

176 down.

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