Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sunset Beach, from a Birder's Perspective

Sunset Beach, North Carolina, prides itself on being a family-friendly beach with extensive sand, warm waters, and its lack of high-rises.  It lays claim to some of the most complete dunes on any developed Carolina island, and consequently is the only beach in the state that is actually growing in size - a sharp contrast to Rodanthe on the Outer Banks, which always has one or two new houses literally falling in the ocean.

Sunset Beach also has a tiny sign on the drive in that says "bird sanctuary", which barely does this place justice.  Just a quarter mile from the last row of houses on the beach is a sandy point that juts out into the inlet, reaching toward crumbling Ocean Isle.  On my first evening in the area, I opted to go for a short walk up to the inlet to see what was around.  As the sun set behind a thick bank of clouds, I spotted my first Piping Plover - an endangered species.  It was somehow deeply moving to see such a ghostly bird alone in the falling darkness.  The only member of its species in sight - a fitting, but ominous, metaphor for the Piping Plover's current position on the very brink of existence.

Perhaps no other bird has sparked so much controversy among non-birders.  Piping Plovers depend on relatively undisturbed barrier islands to breed, nest, and migrate. Some people see seasonal beach restrictions to protect the plover as a complete travesty and an infringement on their rights, and stand sharply opposed to conservationists trying to save the bird from extinction.  This environmental battle has been playing out for several years - and there is no question which side I stand on.

Damages to nesting and migration habitat have whittled the Piping Plover population down to only 8,000 adult birds.  Luckily, organizations like Audubon care, and have been fighting to save this bird from extinction (much to the dismay of Hatteras residents).  Many other ground-nesting birds depend on the same habitat as the Piping Plover, such as the Least Tern. This particular plover I saw was likely passing through from its breeding grounds in the north to its wintering grounds in the south, and Sunset Beach was an ideal stopover.

The next morning, I returned to the inlet, hoping to see more birds in the daylight.  I was certainly not disappointed.  I got excellent views of terns and Black Skimmers, bizarre-looking birds that skim their bills in the water to catch prey.

Two Black Skimmers who gave a close fly-by.

In addition to the terns, skimmers, and copious amounts of dowitchers on a distant island, I spotted one of the all-time coolest marsh birds - which also happens to be a rarity in NC, and a lifer - a Reddish Egret. 

Reddish Egret!!!

Reddish Egrets are perhaps best identifiable by one strange quirk of their behavior - instead of waiting slowly to catch its prey, it will flap its wings and run around in a frenzy, trying to herd and catch small fish.  I spent several minutes watching the bird's antics through the spotting scope, until a flock of pelicans spooked it away.  I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the bird, let alone to see it so well.

Inland, on a quest for a reported Roseate Spoonbill, I spotted a large flock of Wood Storks and many Common Gallinules.  Good birds, but no Spoonbill (I saw one there last year).

Immature Common Gallinules near Calabash, relatives of both coots and rails.

The next day was less eventful, as I walked down to the other end of the island - to what used to be a separate "Bird Island" until a hurricane changed all that.  The four-mile barefoot walk proved to be not quite as productive as the day before.  At least I saw some Sandwich Terns, a few Ruddy Turnstones, the ubiquitous Sanderlings, Semipalmated Plovers, and some Willets.  Maybe I was just spoiled from the masses of fascinating birds I saw the day before.  I still enjoyed some photo-ops with some of the shorebirds (my favorite), and managed to snap a few keepers.  Sunset Beach is truly one of my favorite places to bird, and little guys like the one below keep me wanting to come back.

Ruddy Turnstone feeding on tiny Coquina clams.

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