It's not pretty - Mud Island is a large brown expanse that rises just inches above the water level. Birds love it because it is easily visible from the sky - something I can attest to having just flown over it in a plane less than a month ago. I arrived there just before 9 AM with my dad and my friend Sam, and we immediately began scoping the mudflat. After picking through a mass of Killdeer, I spotted the first migrant shorebird of the day - a Greater Yellowlegs. The key I use to distinguish the Greater from its cousin, the Lesser Yellowlegs, is to look at the bill - Greaters' are slightly upturned. They are also noticeably bigger when compared side-by-side, which is not always possible, like today.
While observing the Yellowlegs, Sam spotted some peeps that we ID'd (after careful observation) as Least Sandpipers based on their overall darker upperparts. Two Spotted Sandpipers were working the island as well, bobbing among the abundant Killdeer. We decided to scan the island one last time, and I spotted another large shorebird near the Yellowlegs - a Dowitcher. But which type? The Long-billed/Short-billed Dowitcher complex is one of the most notorious "slashes" in birding - even worse, in my opinion, than Alder/Willow Flycatcher and Greater/Lesser Scaup. In Winter, I'd say it's downright impossible to ID a Dowitcher without a vocalization (and sometimes with), at least for a relatively inexperienced birder like me. Luckily, this Dowitcher was in "worn breeding" plumage, a term that means it has been in its breeding garb for a while and it's starting to look a little old. It was very dark, with dark red that extended through the lower belly, unlike a Short-billed, which has a bit of white and is lighter overall. It lacked spots on the breast, and had an overall longish bill compared to Short-billeds I've seen in the past. All these signs pointed toward it being a Long-billed Dowitcher, a year-lister and a rare bird in Wake County.
Long-billed Dowitcher probing Mud Island like a sewing machine, taken with my 400mm lens - the digiscoped iphone photo was even worse.
If anything, Long-billed Dowitcher is a great bird for Wake County, and is hopefully just the beginning of the shorebirds I will see in the coming months as fall migration ramps up. I will definitely be back to Mud Island - maybe something else cool will turn up.