September birding: Shorebirds, migrants and rarities!

By on September 8, 2018

Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits (Jeff Lewis)

September is a welcome month on the Outer Banks. Schools have started back and traffic is tolerable again. Although still mostly summer, we start to have some cooler nights and some much-needed north (mostly northeast) winds.

On the beach, the water warms and clears up; in the deep blue ocean the marlin and sailfish bite,; and for birders, the north winds bring fall migrants!

Shorebirds are still the hottest ticket in September, with over 30 species possible. We will cover some of them here, starting with the plovers.

Black-bellied Plovers are common – sort through them for the occasional American Golden-Plover, a slightly smaller bird with a thinner bill, white supercilium with dark cap, long wings, and a dark rump. They also lack the dark armpits (axillaries) that readily identify the Black-bellied Plover in flight. If you’re lucky, the golden-plover will still be in its gorgeous breeding plumage! For more field marks consult a good field guide.

Looking like a miniature Killdeer, but with only one breast band, Semipalmated Plovers are common in September and almost can’t be missed. A similar looking bird, but much paler, is a Piping Plover. Both can be found on ocean beaches, but Semipalmated Plovers prefer tidal or mud flats.

Slightly larger and with a long, thick bill, Wilson’s Plovers (what few we have) leave us by the end of September. Look for them on sandy beaches and mudflats.

American Avocet numbers should increase in September. These are one of our most striking shorebirds, a long-legged, black and white bird with an unusual up-turned bill, used for feeding in a back-and-forth, sweeping motion. There may be just a hint of the buffy breeding color left in the neck on a few birds, especially early in the month.


Baltimore Oriole at Pea Island (Jeff Lewis)

Quite a few sandpipers are migrating through this month. Some will fuel up here on the Outer Banks and continue on their southward journey while others will spend the winter with us. Common species to enjoy include Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Western Willets, Sanderlings, Western Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, and Short and Long-billed Dowitchers.

Fairly easy to find with some effort are Solitary Sandpipers (usually one!), Spotted Sandpipers, Whimbrels, Marbled Godwits, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Dunlins (toward the end of the month) and Stilt Sandpipers. Look for the Willets, Sanderlings and Whimbrels on the beaches and the rest on mudflats, tidal flats and near the inlets, although there is some overlap. If the lawns flood on Bodie Island, at the Wright Brothers Monument or at the airports, definitely take a good look – many of these shorebirds will take advantage of the ample food supply brought up by the rain.

Sandpipers that may take a little more effort to find include Hudsonian Godwit, Red Knot, Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

Hudsonian Godwits take either a lot of searching or some good luck – usually both. Look especially where there are good numbers of Marbled Godwits around – Hudsonian Godwits sometimes hang out with them. A Hudsonian will be smaller and less cinnamon-colored than the Marbled Godwits, with a different wing and tail pattern. Tip – any time that you find a flock of godwits, be sure to study each godwit carefully, as there could be an extremely rare Black-tailed or Bar-tailed Godwit present. It is important to note the colors and patterns on the rump, tail, and wings. Consult a good field guide for details and by all means, take some photos if possible.

Once easy to find, Red Knots are declining – look for them primarily on the ocean beaches, the more secluded, the better. They will not (knot?) have the red breast in September.

Baird’s Sandpiper mostly migrates through the central U.S. but can be found occasionally in wet, grassy habitats. They are similar to the more common White-rumped Sandpiper but are more of a buffy-brown color, rather than the gray of a white-rump, plus Baird’s has a dark rump.

Wilson’s Phalarope may be seen feeding in shallow water or on mudflats. In water, it often feeds by spinning like a top, stirring up its prey. On land, it walks and plucks. One good field mark is the thin, needle-like bill.

Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers both prefer grassy fields for feeding – check the airports.

Turf farms are even better if you can gain access. A spotting scope is almost a necessity since these birds tend to be way out in the middle. If these habitats are wet, you may also see other shorebirds, especially Pectoral and Least Sandpipers.

September bird migration means more than just shorebirds. There are many passerines and relatives headed south, as well.
Warblers are one of the most popular families of songbirds, and it’s easy to understand. Tiny, colorful, and good singers (well, most of them), these birds are primarily tropical species that spend a portion of the year with us, nesting. This time of year they are headed back to Central and South America, for the most part. It is possible to see at least 25 species of warblers in September in coastal North Carolina!

Adding to the mix of warbler migrants on a good fall morning can be cuckoos, flycatchers, vireos, swallows, wrens, thrushes, sparrows and orioles – and other families, as well!

A good day of birding for migrants starts with a good north wind the night before. Northwest is best. Songbirds generally migrate at night, and a north tail-wind saves energy. An early start the next morning improves your odds greatly. You’ll want to head to one of the migrant “traps,” places where migrant birds tend to collect. These are areas where there is either a habitat barrier (usually open water) that discourages the birds from continuing any farther that day or a location where the land mass or preferred habitat narrows, funneling the birds into a small area.

American Golden-Plover (Jeff Lewis)

Here are the “hot-spots,” from north to south.

The village of Corolla, with barriers to the east and west (the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound). The lush, maritime forest with its ample food supply attracts and holds songbirds while they refuel. This area is seriously under-birded, due to the logistics of getting here. If the water is low, you can expect some shorebirds, as well.

The town of Duck. Same east and west water barriers as Corolla, with the best habitat being right along the sound, where there is a convenient boardwalk (and lots of noisy people). The birding is best here very early when the birds are just dropping in, or late afternoon, when the birds tend to work their way out to the west edge to bathe.

The north end of Roanoke Island, where the Croatan, Albemarle and Roanoke Sounds discourage flight in all directions except southeast. The habitat here is primo, and birds sometimes linger for days. This area, extending from the old Mann’s Harbor bridge back to Fort Raleigh has hosted a LOT of birds over the years, including an amazing 39 species of warblers, including Townsend’s, Black-throated Gray and MacGillivray’s Warblers – all western species!

The north end of Pea Island.

This is the traditional hot-spot for migrants, and I still consider it the best place to try first thing in the morning after a northwest blow. There is very little habitat here anymore, which means birds don’t typically linger. This does, however, allow for better viewing, since there are only a few stunted trees and shrubs in which to hide.

This area was formerly a lot better when the inlet was wider because birds were more leery about crossing. Nowadays, it mainly just holds them up for a few seconds to several minutes, and then they cross anyway. This is a good (and frustrating) location to study birds in flight since many do not even slow down! Still, hands down, it’s the best place to find a rarity – and many have been seen here over the years!

Other good locations to try are Nags Head woods and the various habitats near the Bodie Island lighthouse. I recommend these later in the day when you’re done with the prime locales. These areas are good because they are islands of good habitat in an otherwise barren environment. Same for the woods in Kitty Hawk and Southern Shores. They attract lots of migrants but there is so much good habitat that the birds are spread out and harder to find.

Keep an eye on the weather forecast, and if the wind is out of the north – I’ll be out birding!

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