Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Dunlin - Calidris alpina
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General Comments Though a Calidris species like most other small sandpipers, the Dunlin is often not considered a "peep", as it is larger than most others and as its grayish winter plumage renders it less confusing. Nonetheless, the Dunlin can still be misidentified as a Western Sandpiper and a few other species, and the very rare Curlew Sandpiper is quite similar to a Dunlin. Dunlins are, by far, the most numerous shorebird wintering on the North Carolina coast, and many CBC's record over 1,000 birds. Perhaps not surprisingly, in fall migration it is one of the last shorebirds to make a strong push, often not until Oct and Nov. Yet, instead of being an early migrant in spring, the spring migration is quite late, with a noticeable northbound "push" in the middle of May. Such a late spring migration in many shorebirds may relate to timing of arrival on the Far Northern breeding grounds; in such tundra habitats, suitable insect populations might not be available until Jun. Along the coast, Dunlins strongly favor tidal mudflats and sandflats, but they do occur at times on ocean beaches; good numbers also can be seen in shallow water of impoundments and pools, often in fresh water. They can also be seen at times on jetties, on lawns, and in plowed fields. Inland, Dunlins are rather infrequent and are found mainly at extensive mudflats of large reservoirs.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank S5N
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient, and winter resident along and near the coast. Coastally, very common to abundant migrant and winter resident; large numbers winter even north to the Outer Banks, where it is by far the most common shorebird in winter. In the Tidewater zone, it is a fairly common to common migrant, and locally numerous winter resident, mainly at brackish water shores. Farther inland, it is a rare spring and rare to (at times) uncommon fall migrant, sparingly into winter (late Dec), but there appear to be no Jan-Feb records. Along the coast, mainly mid-Sep to early Jun, but small numbers all year. Farther inland, mostly late Oct to mid-Dec, and mid-Mar to late May. Peak counts: 8,500, Oregon Inlet, 18 May 1976; 8,000, Portsmouth Island, 22-24 Jan 1993.
Piedmont Transient, lingering into early winter in the eastern portions. Rare spring migrant, and rare to uncommon fall migrant, mostly at large impoundments where there are suitable mudflats. Mostly mid-Apr to late May, and mid-Oct to late Nov, with scattered records in Sep, and a handful of records in Dec, with a late record of 6 Jan 1995, 2 birds at Falls Lake. Very unusual in midwinter was one at McAlpine Waste Treatment Plant (Mecklenburg) on 9 Feb 2022. Peak fall counts: 120, Falls Lake, 2 Nov 1997; 104, Jordan Lake, 3 Nov 2017; 97, Jordan Lake, 31 Oct 2023; 86, Falls Lake, 3 Nov 1991. Peak spring counts: 66, Lake Crabtree (Wake), 19 May 2020 and 22 in northern Durham on that same date (following Tropical Storm Arthur); there were two other double-digit counts in the province following this storm on 20-21 May.
Mountains Transient. Very rare spring and very rare to rare fall migrant, at low elevations, with nearly all published records from Henderson and Transylvania. Mostly early to mid-May, and late Oct to late Nov, with records on 28 Mar 2006, and on 7-8 Apr 2003, being quite early. Peak counts: a remarkable 200, at Hooper Lane (Henderson), 30 Oct 2002; a remarkable 50+ at that site, 5 May 2013; 15, at VanWingerden Pond (Henderson), 28 Oct 2011; 13, at Hooper Lane, 11 Oct 2015.
Finding Tips Dunlins can hardly be missed on a birding trip to the coast in late fall or winter.
Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-10], LeGrand[2023-03-10], LeGrand[2022-04-25]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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