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Piedmont birding: Reports of snowy plover lead to Wrightsville Beach

By Taylor Piephoff

Snowy plovers love barren sand flats where the bleached sand matches their plumage.
Snowy plovers love barren sand flats where the bleached sand matches their plumage.

It has been more than two years since I added a bird to my state list. It is getting harder to do. I’ve been compiling a state list for about 40 years, so I have seen just about all of the species that occur in the state on an annual basis plus a good many that occur only rarely. So when I heard that a snowy plover was being seen regularly by birders at the north end of Wrightsville Beach, my interest was immediately piqued.

I was to be in the area last weekend, so I inserted “bird chase” into my schedule.

Snowy plovers are the smallest plover species in North America. They are a tiny, pale species that loves barren sand flats where the bleached sand matches their plumage perfectly. They nest in two distinct populations, one along the Gulf Coast and the other in the Western United States. The Gulf population is declining dangerously, and the Western birds are listed as threatened. The species has occurred in North Carolina before in similar habitats, but I had gone to see them. They are a bona fide rarity in this state.

Despite ominous reports that the bird was not seen the day before, I walked out to the north end of Wrightsville Beach around the early evening low tide last Sunday. Plenty of people were on the beach, so all of the shorebirds were across the inlet on Figure Eight Island. An initial scan with a scope was not productive; it was evident the bird would have to be waited out … if it was even still present. Rare birds have a way of keeping on the move.

More than an hour of constant scoping of distant beach and mudflats yielded no snowy plover, though black-bellied, semipalmated, piping and Wilson’s plovers were all present. Shortly before 8 o’clock as the sun was getting low, the tiny white beauty appeared in my scope field of view. Run a few steps, stop. Run a few steps. Stop. Typical plover foraging behavior. I had my bird! No. 410 for my North Carolina Bird List. It wasn’t the best or closest look, but it counts all the same.

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