Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Shorebirding Eastern NC

Late August - the peak of shorebird migration.  Tempting reports were flooding in all week from American Turf Grass Corporation - a.k.a. "American Turf Farms" - about 2 hours east of Raleigh.   You may be asking - why do shorebirds flock to vast expanses of sod?  I thought shorebirds like the shore!  Well, some species, particularly ones that nest more inland or in the arctic tundra, like to chill in wet grass.  There are three sod-loving species in particular that really get the Carolina birder's heart pumping:  American Golden-Plovers, Upland Sandpipers, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers.  In fact, these birds have etched their very own nicknames into the birding vernacular - Goldies, Uppies, and Buffies, respectively.  I was toying with the idea of going out to the Turf Farm for months, and finally decided to take my good friends Sam Jolly and Edward Landi on a "shorebirding" trip down east.   The aforementioned species were our primary targets.

In typical birder fashion, we left Raleigh insanely early at around 5:45 AM.  After a quick meal of Cajun Filet Biscuits at Bojangles', we figured we would arrive around 8.  In reality, we got to the sod farm at about 8:30 due to a wrong turn down a sketchy dirt road.  We arrived at the turf farm optimistic - but our high hopes were only greeted by Killdeer.  We continued down the main gravel road under US-64 and immediately noticed a massive flock of shorebirds across a vast shortgrass field.  Like any good birders, we got out of the car and began scoping the flock.  

Sam and Edward busy sifting through the killdeer.

The first great find was a beautiful American Golden-Plover, still partially in breeding plumage.  A truly spectacular bird to watch, and one of my all-time favorites.

One of the Golden-Plovers at the farm.  This was the first one I'd seen since a trip to Alaska in 2005, before I was a birder.  Even then, I was impressed by this bird.

We soon spotted our next target, Upland Sandpiper, out a little further.  We eventually found four in total, and had amazing views through the scope.  Uppies breed in prairies and pastures further north, and are among the first shorebirds to pass through North Carolina on their way south.

Upland Sandpiper, among the strangest shorebirds.

Twenty minutes had gone by, and we still had not seen a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which would be a lifer for me.  Eventually, Sam called out "buffie" and I rushed up to the scope.  It was about a mile away (okay, actually only a half mile) and was periodically invisible due to the heat distortion in the air.  Not exactly the view I wanted, but I was content with the new bird.  We eventually headed further down the road to get closer to the two Buffies.  At long last, I was satisfied - through the scope, I could see every little detail on their feathers.  Another excellent shorebird to add to my life list, and one I will cherish.  I've said it once and I'll surely say it again:  shorebirds are my favorite.  And Buff-breasted Sandpiper is one hell of a shorebird.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - henceforth referred to by the rather adorable moniker "buffie".

Take any birder within two hours of Lake Mattamuskeet and they can feel its pull, like how migratory birds feel the pull of the Earth's magnetic field.  Of course, we couldn't resist stopping by the largest natural lake in NC.  It is one of our favorite places in the state, and we were hoping it would draw in shorebirds like it draws in birders.  

The subtle beauty of this vast lake, once drained for farmland.

Lake Mattamuskeet is vast - it's the only lake I know of in the state where you can't see the opposite shore.  Despite its huge size, it is incredibly shallow (average depth: 2 feet) and is essentially shaped like a giant pinto bean.  Along the way to the lake, we joked about seeing rare birds like Hudsonian Godwits or Wilson's Phalaropes once we reached the refuge - like always, dumb optimism was our go-to attitude (it could be worse).  

The first destination at the lake was the Wildlife Drive, which has yielded excellent birds in the past.  Not this time.  The impoundment was all but deserted, and we barely managed to find a Yellow Warbler and two Tricolored Herons before heading to the eastern shore of the lake, known as Lake Landing.  Now, understand, we had never been to Lake Landing before, and our expectations were much higher than they should have been.  We pictured beautiful, Pea Island-esque impoundments brimming with dowitchers, peeps, and godwits.  No such luck.  Most of the "impoundments" on the map were almost completely overgrown by weeds and shrubs - great habitat for Indigo Buntings, but not for what we wanted to find.  Luckily, as the road conditions deteriorated (bad to worse), the birding conditions ramped up.  Things were set off by a Northern Bobwhite, always a reassuring species.  Then we found two Pileated Woodpeckers up in a tree.  The road began following some canals, and we spooked an immature Night-heron.

Several minutes later, we pulled along the ditch to eat our lunches.  We noticed a steady stream of Yellowlegs flying by to a point on the lake we couldn't see from our position.  I climbed up on the car to see over the cattails.

"There's a pretty big flat out there, and it's crawling with birds"  I said, "to bad there's no good way to scope it from here."

As determined teenage birders, we couldn't resist the temptation of that huge mudflat in the corner of the lake.  We spent the next hour figuring out a way to see it, concluding in a Bear Grylls-style bushwhack through dense seven-foot marsh grass.  At long last, we had reached the lakeshore.  Now down to business.  Scoping mudflats can be a tedious process, especially from as great a distance as we were at. Sorting through all of the common, less desirable birds for the lifers proved difficult.  Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers.  All cool, but nothing new.  After at least five thorough scans of the whole expanse, we finally picked up something of interest.  A slim shorebird was facing away from us, preening alone on the mudflat behind some gulls.  It had a gray cap and a contrasting white face, more so than any nearby yellowlegs.  A Wilson's Phalarope - the bird we had joked about wanting to see earlier was actually within our grasp!  Phalaropes are aquatic sandpipers with lobed toes and unique feeding patterns, involving spinning and twirling while floating on the surface.  They are highly prized by Carolina birders due to their beauty and relative rareness - phalaropes are notoriously difficult to find on the East Coast.  We also spotted two (my first in NC) Black Terns out on the flat with the Laughing Gulls.  Getting to the scoping spot was well worth the effort, despite our complaints.

Me scoping the mudflat a long way away - birding is starting to get intense.

Lake Mattamuskeet never fails to impress.  I get at least one lifer every time I go there, and this time was no different - Wilson's Phalarope.  The highlight of the day (or even the month) for me was birding American Turf Farm, though.  I absolutely love all three of our target species, and we got better views of them than I ever expected.  It was an incredible day, concluded with milkshakes from "Little Man" (yes, the quotes are actually part of the name) restaurant in Plymouth.  Shorebirding is officially my favorite sport.  

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