Shorebirds in Western North Carolina

Published 9:28 am Monday, August 8, 2011

Here we are living in one of the world’s greatest forest ecosystems, and migration is almost upon us.
At this time of the year, every day brings more and more birds winging their way further south. They follow rivers, mountain ridges and coastlines on their way to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere.
This vast river of birds includes such obvious species as hummingbirds, swallows and ducks, but also warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes and swifts.
In other words, almost every species of bird undertakes some migratory movement throughout the year, and this includes many species that we don’t associate with the green, forested mountains of the southern Appalachians.
What about those birds that most people associate with the beach, shorebirds? Many members of this large family breed on the tundra, in the high Arctic of the US and Canada, and winter along the coastlines of South America.
Logically, this means that many individuals have to fly over the southeastern United States on their way from point A to point B, and indeed they do.
During the spring and fall months, shorebirds pass over most parts of the Carolinas on their journeys, but they are not often seen by anyone but serious birders.
Most fly over at an elevation of up to 1 mile without stopping to feed and rest and it is only in bad weather that individuals or small flocks are forced down into open fields and grassy areas. Many do not remain for longer than a day or two and may even be off as soon as the weather system clears.
So, what species are possible in our area?
Well, as is the beauty of bird migration through our area, almost any species of shorebird is possible that breeds in the north and winters in the south, and indeed, we are adding more and more species to our respective county lists on a yearly basis.
The most common species are those that frequent fresh water habitats, such as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary, Pectoral and Spotted Sandpipers and Wilson’s Snipe. Most of these species are easy to see at the appropriate seasons. Slightly less frequent species include Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, and Short-billed Dowitcher.
Another group of shorebirds is colloquially known as “grass-pipers” and most are rare in our area, although a few can be seen regularly at certain sites in the mountain counties. These include Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers and American Golden-Plover, all species that undertake very long migrations from northern Canada and Alaska down to the pampas of Chile and Argentina.
This leaves us to the most rare of the rare, those species that have occurred fewer than half a dozen times. Both Sanderling and Dunlin occur every year in the single digits, while Willet, Baird’s Sandpiper and Black-bellied Plover are sporadic at best.
As birds that most people never see, shorebirds fly silently over us on their way south. Their brief stops give us but a small window into their lives. That is the beauty of bird migration.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours, He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store.

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