I got up early last Sunday to go to the airport. Not to catch a plane, but to try to find an Upland Sandpiper.
Upland Sandpipers, long-necked shorebirds that prefer grasslands to the actual shore, have an affinity for airports. They migrate through eastern North Carolina during the steamy days of late summer, and in July and August of most years birders report a few in the grassy fields that surround the runways at Wilmington International Airport, northeast of downtown.
I am not one of those birders. I’ve never seen an Upland Sandpiper. But several have been reported at the airport in the last few weeks, so I went out Sunday to try to add one to my life list.
The Wilmington airport has an outdoor observation area where you can park, sit at a picnic table, and watch the planes land and take off. (Apparently this is a thing.) I held my binoculars up to the chain link fence that prevents distracted birders from wandering out onto the runway and scoured the green expanse, sweat rolling down the back of my neck under what was, even before breakfast, already a sweltering sun.
Zip. Grasshoppers made feeble parabolic flights as if they were wearing underpowered jetpacks. A few dragonflies clung to the tips of wheaty stalks. But not a single visible bird interrupted the treeless plain. Not a Killdeer, not a grackle, not a robin. Definitely not an Upland Sandpiper.
Maybe the birds were out there but hidden, as grassland birds so often are. Maybe I was looking in the wrong direction; it’s a big place. I did score a trio of Eastern Kingbirds, my first in New Hanover County this year, patrolling from atop the fence, but after baking to a crackly crunch for a while I conceded. Someday maybe I’ll see an Upland Sandpiper. It won’t be today.
But the day was still young, so I activated Plan B: Operation Anhinga.
The reptilian waterbirds are not terribly difficult to find along the Southeastern coast, if you know where to look. I’ve seen several of them in and around Wilmington, but when I looked over my year list, I was surprised to note that I didn’t have one yet in 2016. So I left the airport and headed for Greenfield Lake.
Although it’s an urban lake with a paved trail around its five-mile contour, an amphitheater, playgrounds, and a boathouse, most of the shoreline is a scribble of quiet coves and shady bays lined with cypress trees dripping with fringed curtains of Spanish moss. Alligators raft its quiet surface, and most of the year it’s a terrific place to look for birds.
During the cooler months, American Coots sail in black flotillas, and Pied-billed Grebes dive near the shores. Double-crested Cormorants crowd together on the branches of tiny mid-lake islets, and there are times when Great Blue Herons and Great and Snowy Egrets spangle the trees like Christmas ornaments. In migration season, warblers, vireos, and other passerines flit along the wooded shore.
The dead of summer, though, is, if not quite dead, at least drowsy. When I got there on Sunday, everything was eerily still. From my vantage point, not a Mallard or a Canada Goose stirred the mirrored surface. Even the cormorants were gone. Nothing feathered moved except for a Northern Mockingbird hunting in the grass and a pair of Carolina Chickadees chasing each other in a pine tree. The odds of finding an Anhinga, or anything else, didn’t seem all that promising.
Still, I was here. I gathered my binoculars and camera, skirted the amphitheater, and walked down to the water’s edge. As I stood and scanned the distant treeline, the lake looked as barren as the airport fields.
Something caught my eye right in front of me, a solid form breaking up the feathery leaf edges. My eyes shifted from distant focus to near, and — well, look at that. A Green Heron, motionless in a tree growing out of the water not thirty feet out.
At the same moment, I noticed a sound, a soft guttural croaking. The sound drew my gaze down the tree trunk and — and there, smack in front of me, its white wing patches blazing (how on earth did I miss them in the first place?) was an Anhinga.
Relatives of the cormorants, which they superficially resemble, Anhingas are striking but strange, prehistoric-looking birds; I can imagine them perched on crooked limbs above oozy primordial swamps. They’re sometimes called “snake birds” for their habit of swimming completely submerged except for their heads and serpentine necks. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds something vaguely spooky about them; the Tupi people of Brazil considered them evil spirits and gave them the name we still use for them: Anhinga, meaning “devil bird.”
This one extended its long neck, opened its spear of a bill and uttered another few raspy croaks. I watched for several minutes before it spread its wings and launched itself toward the far side of the lake.
Most days when I can go birding, I go into the field without a specific target in mind; I go to see whatever I can see. Occasionally, though, I go out in search of a specific bird — or, as on this morning, two of them.
One, the Upland Sandpiper, remained completely out of my grasp. The other practically flapped into my lap.
That’s how it goes, I thought. As often happens, a line came to mind from that guide to enlightened living, The Big Lebowski: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.
Sometimes both on the same morning.