I had come, once more, to the Ellerbe Creek mudflats for Dunlin. They’re the latest of the regularly migrating shorebirds to pass through here, regular into November with a few sticking around a bit later. They were also one of the last two shorebirds species I could really expect to get for my Triangle Big Year. These plump, extremely, long-billed, Calidrids and the maddeningly elusive Black-belled Plovers were the only ones left uncrossed off a pretty extensive list of waders I had made at the beginning of the year. Sure there were at least a half dozen other shorebirds I managed to miss (most of them because of my own stupid misunderstanding of the exact placement of the county lines), but I’d even picked up such locally uncommon species as American Avocet, and White-rumped and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. And any year you get a Buff-breasted Sandpiper in the Triangle is a good year. I have no room for complaining.
But I came here now for the Dunlin. It didn’t take long to find them. Migration has seemed to run about 7 to 10 days later than usual this year, and as such there were still some birds on the mudflats, even if the diversity has decreased. Both Yellowlegs popped up, and masses of Least Sandpipers dragging their bellies on the mud. I pretty easily found a significant flock of larger peeps in the shallow water, feeding amongst a surprisingly massive flock of American Pipits. There were Pectorals for sure, a few Leasts and a couple token Semipalmated Sandpipers, and just over a dozen Dunlin. Big, gray, and impressively endowed with that epic schnozz.
The birds were flighty, such that I though, nay, hoped, that a Merlin would be around (no such luck). They flew up and down the peninsula along the creek channel, finally allowing pretty close approach as I trudged back from the tip of the spit having struck out on the BB Plovers.
The light was more or less behind me. The birds seemed calm. And in front of me stood a pasture of foot high sedges. The stars, it seemed, were aligned. The birding was pretty slow, so I decided to get in touch with my inner wildlife photographer. I set up my scope on the mudflat, hung my binoculars around the legs, and hit the ground belly first. I was gonna stalk these birds to see if I could get some decent photos.
I crawled closer – shoulders down, butt up, like a boot camp flunkee – trying to keep myself as low as I could while still holding a foot long camera lens in my arms. The birds seemed unperturbed, and I managed a few record shots through the grasses.
When I began birding, I had some trouble distinguishing Dunlin from Western Sandpiper, the long tapered bill being a field mark for both species. I’m not ashamed of this, shorebirds are hard after all, and they take time to get comfortable with them, but I wonder now, looking at the huge chunky bodies of the Dunlin how I could have ever made the mistake.
The Pecs were nice too, and the closer I got to the flock I got to see the bizarrely extreme sexual dimorphism evident in this species. The females are huge, the males are tiny. No wonder Pecs can look like practically anything.
I must have flinched, infinitesimally so because I didn’t think I moved. The bird noticed though and took off to the far side of the mudflat where they stayed until I packed up and left. The Dunlins were new birds for the Big Year, and while I was packing up my car and noting the large flock of Chipping Sparrows tucked into a bramble, that nemesis of nemeses, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, bolted over my head. Two new birds for the year then, and that second one that would have been a serious embarrassment to miss.
I’m out of town this week, so the Triangle Big Year has to wait for one week. Hopefully, nothing good will show up that doesn’t stick around…