Monday, October 29, 2007

Nothing Finer than Carolina

A month or two ago, my wife and I planned an extended weekend trip to see our son, The Drinking Bird, and his lovely wife. An end of first quarter getaway turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for us. Yes, teaching junior high students is fun, but requires seemingly endless stores of energy. So, this weekend was about respite and, nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina as the first blast of autumn weather put a dent in the drought and brought in a fine wave of fall migrants.
The welcomed Friday rains gave way to a breezy and overcast Saturday morning, so we set out for Jordan Lake near Chapel Hill to see what the precip dropped in. I was hoping for shorebirds as Ozark shorebirding has been dampened by too much rain and high lake levels. This, however, was certainly not the case in parched North Carolina, where dropping lake levels have caused more mud to be exposed than water in many of its lakes.
My anticipation and excitement grew as I got my FOY Dunlin at our first stop. Special thanks to Doug, Bruce, and others of the Chapel Hill Bird Club birders for that one.
Soon we parted ways with the bird clubbers, and we headed for the mud flats. After a 1/2 mile hike, on which we shared a rare and beautiful Gray Fox sighting, we arrived on the lake shore. A dozen American Golden Plovers greeted us from the first mudflat, as our first Bald Eagle soared over the distant point. We turned to our right just as large mixed flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds took to the skies a mile or so up the arm of the lake.

We couldn't resist the long walk to the next point, but were rewarded amply upon our arrival there. On the way, a small flock of Semipalmated Plovers fearlessly foraged nearby. (photo courtesy of The Drinking Bird) From the point we scoped the following duck species: Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, Northern Pintail, American Widgeon, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and Northern Shovelor. Shorebirds species included: Wilson's Snipe, Dunlin, Least Sandpipers, American Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, both Yellowlegs in the same view, Pectoral Sandpipers, and surely I few more that I've forgotten! Five Bald Eagles circled near the power lines crossing the lake arm. All in all, we had a great flurry of avian activity and a wonderful morning of birding. But then there was Sunday........
We headed for the beach at Wrightsvillle early Sunday for a leisurely picnic with birding as a secondary activity, or at least my son and I tried to make it seem like birding was not the primary objective. But the potential for North American lifers for me was strong on a NC beach, and this beach and my son delivered well. Within 5 minutes, I checked off Northern Gannet, a species that we both have seen in multitudes at Bass Island near Berwick, Scotland. Many flew at the edge of the scope's range, but later in the day, to my delight, an immature flew near the shoreline. Minutes after the first Gannets of the day, two Black Scoters (lifer #2) hugged the breaking waves as they glided 2-3 feet above them, passing by and under the pier. After lunch on the beach we headed for the marshy areas at the north end of the island. There we saw hundreds of birds in the distance and quickly began our trek to the far end of the island. There we saw hundreds of Royal Terns and Black Skimmers, mixed with American Oystercatchers, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, an Osprey, a Northern Harrier, and several shorebird species. Among the shorebirds was a couple Red Knots (lifer #3). But my favorite lifer of the day didn't come until we were heading back to the car. Almost totally blending into the white crystalline sand was a trio of shorebirds. One was the common Sanderling, but he was joined by two Piping Plovers, one mature and one immature. What a magnificent and graceful species! Certainly this was the highlight of my NC birding!

My mood, however, was slightly dampened by the fact that this species is in serious trouble largely due to irresponsible humans disrupting nesting grounds on beaches upstate from this very beach. When will we ever learn? And what can we do now to enact and enforce laws to protect this and our other threatened and endangered shorebirds of the Eastern Seaboard?

And so, I end this entry with a conservation question, and a great big thank you to my son and daughter-in-law for a memorable and productive weekend of North Carolina birds, beer, laughter, and relaxation! It just doesn't get any better!

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