One of the most prolific species at Lea-Hutaff IBA is the common and often overlooked Dunlin. Dunlin are small (less than 9 inches long) and rather drab shorebirds that may be distinguished by their medium-long black bill that droops down at the end.
Five years of shorebird surveys at New Topsail and Rich Inlets at the north and south ends of Lea-Hutaff Island have consistently found flocks that number in the hundreds feeding on emergent shoals and roosting on the upper beach. It is not unusual for total numbers on a single day to exceed 1,000 at a single inlet.
Large flocks of Dunlin can be a dizzying sight. When a predator like a Merlin or a Peregrine Falcon appears, or when the flock is startled by some other disturbance, the birds take flight simultaneously, changing direction in as little as two tenths of a second. Some scientists believe that the tightly-packed formations that weave and turn in the blink of an eye is a learned behavior that younger birds are not as adept at as adults. However they achieve it, flocking behavior confuses predators. When they are not disturbed, Dunlin roost or feed in similarly large groups, probing into wet sand or mud for marine worms and small crustaceans and mollusks, which is how they are most often seen on Lea-Hutaff Island.
Dunlin will remain on Lea-Hutaff Island for a month or two more, waiting for spring to arrive on their northern breeding grounds, and by May all or most of them will have departed.
-- Lindsay Addison