by Steve Shultz
Each fall millions of Arctic, prairie, and northern coastal nesting shorebirds wing their way south along ancient routes to wintering locations in the southern United States, Central America, and even the southern part of South America. For some of these incredible creatures, like the Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper, life is spent in an “endless summer” where days are always long and temperatures moderate. No less spectacular is the familiar Sanderling, flying from Carolina beaches to breeding grounds in the high arctic before returning again.
For those of us who do not live along the immediate coast, shorebird migration, one of the most protracted fall migrations of any bird family, may go relatively unnoticed. But given the right set of conditions, inland shorebirding in the Carolinas can be quite rewarding, especially during the peak August through October timeframe. The trick to finding numbers and diversity of shorebirds in the fall season is locating appropriate resting and feeding habitat. Often transitory, this type of habitat may include wet, short-grass fields flooded by late summer thunderstorms or the remains of tropical systems, mudflats exposing by dropping lake levels, and river bars and flats.
Pectoral, Least, Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers and American Golden and Black-bellied Plovers are often sought after species at sod farms and other similar habitat throughout North and South Carolina. The season for the “grasspipers”, as some members of this group are often collectively known, begins in mid to late July with the arrival of Upland Sandpipers. “Uppies” are rare to uncommon in most areas, but may be found with regularity at favored locations such as the Wilmington, NC airport (ILM), Super Sod Farms in Orangeburg, SC and Hendersonville, NC, and less frequently in the fields near the detention center adjacent to the Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, NC, among others. Any large sod farm may produce this species, especially after recent rains.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a much sought after fall migrant, favors the same locations and habitat as the Upland Sandpiper (though not recorded often at ILM or Cherry Hospital), but is more often found later in the season, with late-August to mid-September being the best time to look. “Buffies” are often seen singly, but I was once treated to the sight of eighteen of these golden shorebirds wheeling over my head at Falls Lake, NC.
American Golden Plovers are frequently later migrants than the Buff-bellied and Upland Sandpiper, though at certain times all three have been seen together in the Carolinas. The American Golden Plover may be seen most regularly from September through early-October, and caution should be taken to exclude the similar looking Black-bellied Plover, which is seen inland in small numbers throughout the migration period.
Often the most common species in short-grass habitats, Pectoral and Least Sandpipers may sometimes be seen in daily numbers exceeding one hundred.
While moist short-grass habitats are among the most permanent habitats, at least during the fall season, mudflats exposed by drawn-down lakes and ponds may provide some of the most exciting inland shorebirding.
Lakes, and especially municipal or regional reservoirs, are often at their lowest levels during the late summer. While this can be exasperating for boaters, who constantly have to worry about damaged propellers and bent skegs, the conditions can be exciting for birders.
An August morning at an expansive Piedmont mudflat can result in sighting of more than a dozen species of shorebird, and scores to hundreds of birds. Mudflats often form in the shallower sections of lakes, usually in areas farthest from the dams. Often these areas are along tributary creeks, such as New Hope and Morgan Creeks at Jordan Lake (central NC) and Ellerbee Creek at Falls Lake (north of Raleigh-Durham). Access to the emergent flats can be a challenge, as they are often difficult to approach by boat due to shallow water, and many are not near water access points, which are more likely to be found in deeper water. Fortunately the same conditions that create the flats often allow for pedestrian access via the recently exposed shoreline. The walks to some of these flats can be long, especially in the summer heat, so take plenty of water and plan for an early morning or late afternoon visit. The locations of productive flats change from year to year, and even from day to day within the migration season. Local birders are often the best source of information on location and access to mudflats at your nearby lakes. Carolinabirds, the internet e-mail group, often has messages detailing conditions, access, and sightings during years of favorable water levels.
Lake flats can attract most any shorebird that has been recorded in the Carolinas, from rarities such as Ruff to the more common species. Commonly located birds may include: Pectoral, Western, Least, Semipalmated, and Stilt Sandpipers, Dunlin, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher (with an occasional Long-billed making an appearance), Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, and more. Less common sightings may include White-rumped and Baird's Sandpipers, Wilson's Phalarope, Red Knot, and Sanderling, among others.
When birding lake mudflats it is often important to remember that birds tend to congregate on or near recently exposed mud. As water levels drop, once productive areas may dry up, literally and figuratively, as birds move to better feeding areas. The variety and number of birds changes day by day, with events such as weather fronts and local thunderstorms acting as contributing factors. Inland shorebirding can be especially exciting just after a storm passes through the area, and I've been reminded more than once how amazing it is that so many birds are flying overhead when some of them are forced to the ground where they can be seen.
As shorebirding at lakes is largely dependent on water levels, it is convenient to know at what point one can begin to expect birds to appear. For example, in my “neck of the woods” I can expect to find mudflats, and hopefully birds, at Jordan Lake (Chatham County, NC) when water levels drop to or below 214.0 feet above sea level. At Falls Lake (Durham and Wake County, NC) birds begin to appear at water levels around 250.1, and if water levels approach 248.5, I might have to take a vacation day, because conditions are prime for shorebirds. Finding out the current level of your local lake or reservoir is often as simple as checking the daily newspaper or checking the internet. Most Piedmont reservoirs are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which posts daily information including water level information.
River bars and flats can be productive for shorebirds as well, with some of the large waterways reliable year after year. Access to the sandy bars, spits, and flats can be problematic though, and birders may have to rely on public access points that provide viewing of a relatively small portion of river. Birders with access to boats may have more luck as they can traverse longer sections of river and explore more remote areas.
Speaking of boats, kayaks and canoes can be especially handy forms of transportation when mudflats appear at your local lake. Relatively lightweight and easy to maneuver, many draw only inches of water and allow birders close access to birds. Birds that might flush at 50 yards from a birder on foot may allow close study and photography from mere feet from a birder seated in a small watercraft.
Here's hoping for wet sod farms, low lake levels and lots of shorebirds!