Move along, little shorebirds
I missed birding in the Triangle last week, particularly the mudflats around Falls Lake that have been so epically productive this year. Every free spent away from them feels like an opportunity for fantastic birds to be found by other people. And they are, of course. The back end of this seemingly arbitrary and singularly filthy arm of Falls Lake has been ground central for some really great shorebirding this year, a year that’s paradoxically been good for both shorebirds (which require near drought conditions) and storm-blown birds (which require well, a storm). I was willing to write off the shorebird season with the arrival of the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee through the area earlier this week, but thankfully the storm left the mudflats a little more inundated, but more or less accessible for both bird and birder alike. So even though you’ve heard this story many many times before, that’s where I went again. It is my intention to flog every last possible shorebird out of these mudflats before the season ends, and I’ve got only a handful of weeks left to do it.
Because my family was in town, I was joined this weekend by my dad and I’d hoped that a little bit of outsider mojo might be just the ticket to finally come across all these holes in my list (Red-necked Phalarope? Wood Stork? Where art though?). We headed onto the flats to be greeted by a gorgeous pair of American Avocets and to find the vast majority of bird set up in a large flock on the opposite side of the lake. A handful of Semipalmated Sandpipers made their way across the mud near to us, and it was sort of fortuitous that this small group contained a single Western Sandpiper, a bird I’d expended a fair bit of anxiety chasing around until finally coming across one two weeks prior. When it rains it pours, I guess.
My dad and I were debating whether to trudge over to the opposite side of the mudflats to get a better look at the impressive group of shorebirds congregated there, when a big dark bird shot past us on a line about six feet above the ground. I got my bins on it as it made a beeline for the big shorebird flock and shouted, unable to hide my excitement, “Peregrine!” It was about then that I realized what was going to happen. The big flock of birds exploded into the air as the Falcon keyed in on one of the slower Killdeer which led it on a twisting turning chase around the backside of the lake. The bird finally got away by cutting through a line of trees where the Falcon couldn’t follow, but the shorebirds were up in the air and, we though, gone for good.
Once things settled down the birds began to return and we realized what the Falcon had done. Instead of birds scattered hither and yon across the mudflat, the entire assemblage of shorebirds had congregated into a single massive flock, which had returned to settle about half again as close as they had been. We deployed the scopes and began the census and in short order had found both Yellowlegs, many Semipalms and Pectorals with a handful of Least and White-rumped Sandpipers mixed in, about a half-dozen Short-billed Dowitchers, a single Ruddy Turnstone, and remarkably, a pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers, the quintessential grasspiper, mixed into the mudflat workers. It’s sort of surreal to see Buffies right next to Dowitchers with Avocets working in the background.
We stayed until the Peregrine came back and scattered the whole group once and for all, an appropriate enough time to leave a pretty exceptional morning of shorebirding. But there’s no other way to describe a day in which you see Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Peregrine Falcon.
And that’s not even getting into the Common Nighthawks I picked up in Carrboro that evening. And the Parasitic Jaeger I successfully twitched at Falls Lake yesterday afternoon. And the Common Tern that was with it. But I didn’t get much in the way of photos for those birds so they’ll have to be mentions in passing (particularly brutal for that Jaeger, but them’s the breaks).