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Friday, May 18, 2012

A Beach of a Hike

Early Thursday morning, James and I found ourselves looking down a long expanse of beach filled with shorebirds. We were at the Fort Fisher spit, a skinny bit of land that apparently runs all the way down to Bald Head Island. And we were on a mission: to locate a Wilson’s Plover, the only breeding shorebird I’d yet to see in the state.

Willets are much more common, and we found several in their nice breeding plumage like this one.

Unfortunately, as soon as we started, some guy started walking his dog next to the ocean, which meant that all those promising shorebirds we’d seen were perpetually 300 feet in front of us. Not a fun way to spend the first mile of a birding trip. Finally, the guy turned around, having had his so-called “fun”. Birds started appearing before us – flocks of running Sanderlings, several skittish Black-bellied Plovers, and a Willet or two. We found this nice American Oystercatcher trying to roost between some old tire tracks.

American Oystercatchers may look like clowns, but the crazy sounds they make are downright comedic!

I’m not sure if she had a nest there or not, and I never got an answer. You see, the beach is Off-road Vehicle accessible, and sure enough, a giant pickup barreled its way down the beach and would have run over the bird had she not flushed just in time. The occupants of the truck didn’t care, of course – they had fishin’ to do. Closer to the water, I noticed that some of the Sanderlings were starting to attain their breeding plumage, and several of them sported flecks of red in their dusky feathers.

I will take literally anything that makes poring through hundreds of Sanderlings more interesting.

At this point, we’d walked almost two miles, and were starting to lose hope of seeing a Wilson’s Plover. We flagged down a passing State Park employee picking up old signs and dumping them in his flatbed, and asked him where they could be found. Just ahead, he answered. At Crossover Four. We walked up and found an off-road path cut through the dunes, abutting an expansive estuary. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that this is the kind of habitat Wilson’s Plovers enjoyed, not beachfront. Other birds enjoyed the muddy shores as well, and this Dunlin showed in his breeding best as he dashed back and forth, probing for food.

Come to think of it, this may be the first breeding-plumage Dunlin I've ever seen. How did I mess that one up?

As we passed by some reeds, we heard a raspy song nearby. Immediately, I knew it was an Ammodramus sparrow, and as Seasides are the only ones we get as common breeding birds, I immediately passed it off. James spotted it and got me on the bird, and immediately I knew I was dead wrong, and of course the song sounded wrong for Seaside – instead we were looking at a beautiful Nelson’s Sparrow, the last of the so-called “maritime sparrow” trio I needed for my life list. I don't know why he's not back in New England by now, but I'm glad he decided to stick around!

And I'm even happier that he decided to pose for pictures!

Coming off such a great bird, we noticed that the mudflats around us just teemed with birds – tons of Ruddy Turnstones ran around, well, turning stones, and several Semipalmated Plovers flashed breeding displays at each other. James turned on his “Jackal mode” and sidled up to this nice Tricolored Heron dancing around in the shallow water, spearing at fish.

They see me rollin', they hatin'....

Everywhere we looked, we saw one or two Black-bellied Plovers hanging out amongst the other shorebirds. Of course, that look would be your last, as the birds have this uncanny ability to flush before you’re anywhere close. James joked that they should be called the “Killdeer of the Sea,” although unlike Killdeer on our mudflats back home, these guys don’t take the rest of the shorebird flock with them when they bail. Still, with a little effort, we were able to get a decent look at one before it flew off.

It's been a ridiculously long time since I saw one in this plumage. Like, years!

Probably the most obvious bird in these parts has to be the Laughing Gull – they’re big, raucous, and can literally be found in parking lots or dumpsters. That makes them about as close to a “trash bird” as you can get, but when you look closely they’re actually really cool. This one stuck around after his compatriots flushed from the mudflat, and it soon became apparent why. It had been standing on one leg for a while, but as soon as it started walking, we noticed a distinct limp. We didn’t want to put it through any more trouble, so left it to roost on the flats in peace.

This now rates as one of the best pictures we've gotten of any bird ever.

At this point, James and I thought about turning around, but decided to push on just a little farther. This turned out to be an immediate good decision, as a flying Whimbrel gave me my first look at this species in the state. But it would get even better, and couple hundred feet farther up I heard an odd high-pitched call, and watched as a bird barreled towards me, landing at my feet. No way, I thought. But sure enough, I’d stumbled upon my lifer Wilson’s Plover!

I quintupled the number of Wilson's Plovers I've ever seen in just a few short minutes.

Soon, I heard another squeaky call, then two more. Soon, I’d found five Wilson’s Plovers, all right in front of me. There were several drab females and a couple dapper males, with ink-black bands stretching across their chests. We tried to get a little closer, when suddenly one of the males rushed off, low to the ground, with one wing hanging off to the side. He was pulling the classic broken-wing trick, a defense mechanism to draw predators away from a nesting site. Clearly, we’d stumbled nearer than he felt comfortable with, so we turned around and watched him run back to his lady friends.

Aaaand out the frame he goes!

After walking two miles barefoot through the sand, heading down Crossover Four was the best decision we made all day, and it wasn’t done handing out gifts just yet. Sure the incessant calling Clapper Rails were cool, as was the alternate-plumage Horned Grebe swimming around and parading his head-tufts. And it was super awesome to see hordes of Fiddler Crabs march across the flats like advancing armies. No, that didn't quite do it.

There were almost a thousand of these guys moving in huge groups. Really cool to see!

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small sandpiper zoom into the flats, and immediately I told James to get on it. I’d already ID’d it in flight (boo-yah!), but I enjoyed watching my first of the year Semipalmated Sandpiper all the same. Plus, the last time James saw this bird he got terrible looks, so it was nice to get something a little more up-close and personal.

Not the most glamorous bird in the world, but one I see far too infrequently.

With that, we headed back for a long walk through the sand. Turns out, that kind of exercise does a number on your calves, but while the Wilson’s Plovers were our goal for the day, they weren’t the reason we’d come down to this part of the state. I needed to stay awake and healthy for one very special bird – and thankfully, said bird put on quite a show! Stay tuned!

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