Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Snowy June? You bet!

It has been over 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 of the species 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 never made the trip to see them. It is a
bonafide 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. There were plenty of people 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 bird would have to be waited out…if it was even still present. Rare birds have a way of keeping on the move.

Over 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. But then shortly before eight 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! Number 410 for my North Carolina Bird List. It wasn’t the best or closest look but it counts all the same.

This is the tiny bird that caused me big anxiety and then even bigger relief. Note the straight thin black bill, black partial collar, and black forehead. also note how the overall plumage color is a perfect match for the beach sand where these birds live.

Snowy Plover by John Ennis

There is a similar plover species at Wrightsville Beach, the piping plover. You can easily see that this species has a stubby orangish bill, orangish legs, and a more extensive black collar. It is slightly larger than the snowy and has slightly darker plumage on the mantle. This photo was taken at the same site where the snowy is being seen.

Piping Plover by John Ennis