I spent the morning last Saturday checking some wetlands along the Catawba River in search of wading birds and shorebirds.
At one stop I flushed a midsized shorebird from the shoreline that gave a few high-pitched calls and flew away in a distinctive stiff winged flight. It was a spotted sandpiper, not an uncommon bird at all but a significant find on that day. Though the date was July 16, it signaled the start of fall migration through Mecklenburg County. Spotted sandpipers do not nest here; they are only migrants.
It seems shorebirds are always on the move. Less than 60 days ago I saw a couple of spotted sandpipers at a local pond. Those birds were still heading north. Many shorebirds have a very short nesting window of time. Their young hatch already able to run and forage for themselves.
Once the chicks reach a certain size and age, the adults may go ahead and start moving south. The chicks lag behind until they are strong enough to move south, too. Shorebirding aficionados know the earliest migrants to appear are adults. The juveniles come later.
From now until early October it may be possible to find adults and juveniles of many species if good habitat develops. That is always a big IF. More than any other avian group that passes through our area, shorebirds are affected by weather conditions.
Shorebirds generally require exposed mudflats or muddy shorelines. Last year excessive drought resulted in low water levels, and the resulting great habitat produced a shorebird bonanza along the river. We have had a lot of rain recently and water levels are high. Rainfall amounts over the next month will be critical to determine how good the shorebirding will be in the Piedmont this year.
The fall migration period lasts much longer than spring. The sense of urgency that migrants have in the spring is absent from the fall journey. The travelers take time to fatten up, moving south only when conditions are conducive to travel.
Most July and August days are too hot for this birder to spend in the field. There will be plenty of time to catch the fall migration, but that little spotted sandpiper definitely got me thinking about it.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com