Despite being one of the most numerous winter shorebirds found on the North Carolina coast, Dunlin gets some of the least attention. Possibly it's because their drab plumage does not stand out in a crowd, or maybe it's that they arrive late in the year--generally first sightings come in October and flocks don't reach their full size until November or December--when many people are staying warm indoors. But, Dunlin are one of that special tribe of Arctic migrants that make flights of several thousand miles twice a year as they follow the food resources they need to survive.
You won't see Dunlin in North Carolina in the summer because they're busy breeding in the northwestern and central Arctic, over 3,000 miles away. On their breeding grounds, Dunlin undergo several changes. First, they molt out of their drab winter plumage and develop a rusty red back and a black belly. Second, they switch their diet. During winter and migration they feed on invertebrates that live in the sand, small worm-like creates, arthropods, and molluscs. On the Arctic tundra they consume mostly insects and their larvae. Finally, Dunlin switch from being found in large, gregarious wintering flocks to defending a territory. The males construct a scrape and attract a female by performing display flights in which he swoops and dives, accompanying himself with a trilling song. Once the pair is established, the female lays four eggs that hatch in about three weeks. Like plover chicks, Dunlin are able to leave the nest the day they hatch in order to begin the search for food. Their parents brood them and lead them to foraging areas, and in a little over three weeks, the young Dunlin are able to fly.
After raising their young on the tundra, Dunlin linger in the north to molt out of their breeding plumage. Once they've rested up from growing a fresh set of feathers, they head south, traveling as far as Central America. However, many winter in North Carolina, forming large flocks of hundreds or even thousands of birds. They huddle together for warmth on cold, windy days and feed together on sand and mudflats at low tide.
Dunlin may be recognized most easily by their long bill that droops down--an easy way to remember how to identify on is that "Dunlin" and "droop" both start with D. Dunlin will be in North Carolina until early May, when they will depart once again for the north.