While those to the north are busy wallowing in shorebirds of impressive diversity and numbers, we to the south sit and wait for the scraps to trickle down into our own scopeviews.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a bona fide shorebird hotspot minutes from one’s home, the mind boggles at the implications.  The mud.  The stink.  The mind-numbing rarities. The opportunity to avoid the awkward re-learning period one must go through when suddenly faced with shorebird-y shapes on distant mudflats.  I’ve been told that you can regularly find yourself in some pretty exceptional shorebirding in North Carolina as you get closer to the coast.  On rare occasions I’ve even been able to participate in it, but that part of the state is distant and sparsely populated.  For we birders in the more populous but less birdy Piedmont region of that state, the shorebirding is hit and miss.  One year it can be epic, and the next, nothing.

See, we are dependent on rain, specifically the lack of it, to get those mudflats really hopping, and this puts us in a difficult situation with regard to the non-birders with whom we share a community.  In order to get the kind of epic shorebird bonanza that one dreams about, we need a good drought.  And well, people tend not to look forward to those sorts of things.

This past weekend I headed out to the Ellerbe Creek arm of Falls Lake in eastern Durham County, otherwise known as shorebird central during those dry years, to see how the lake levels were doing and to check to see if any brave plovers or sandpipers were checking out the bare edges of what could charitably be called “mudflats”.

As you might guess, there wasn’t much there.  Killdeer, of course, but they’re everywhere.  A solitary Solitary Sandpiper, and a pair each of Pectoral and Least.  Nothing special.  Nothing unexpected.

I couldn’t help thinking back to last summer, which, despite not being a particularly dry year around here, saw Falls Lake levels drop like draining bathtub.  Yes, 2011 was a great year for birding the Triangle.  And since it’s raining as I write this, 2012 is looking just so-so.  So pardon me for jumping into the way-back machine and reminiscing of shorebirds past.

The season started with an American Avocet, self found I might add, in late July.  It was going to be a very good year indeed.

We quickly ramped things up with huge numbers of Semipalmated Sandpipers, a few Sanderlings (excellent away from the coast), and perhaps the most exciting of the unexpected sandpipers, the amazing Buff-breasted Sandpiper, seen here in  a mixed flock.

With large numbers of shorebirds present, the falcons came.  There was a Peregrine Falcon hanging around the back arms of the lake all season, scaring up the birds right when you thought you had a Western Sandpiper nailed down.

And then, as the season slowly fades into winter, the arrival of the Dunlins, all pot-bellies and massive bills. Maybe this year the lake will drop in time for us to enjoy these, at least.

Just looking at these photos from last year gets me a little choked up that we’re not going to have a similar run this time around.  That is, unless the good citizens of Raleigh start using a lot of water really soon.  And not that I would encourage such irresponsible behavior, but people of Raleigh, just look at your neighbor’s yard. Isn’t it green?  You should get on that….

Written by Nate
Nate Swick is a birder. He grew up in the midwest but currently makes his home in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are birders too. He has a soft spot for Piping Plovers and loves pelagics even when his stomach doesn’t, which makes him the quintessential Carolina birder. Nate is the editor of the ABA blog, host of the American Birding Podcast, and author of two books, Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.