Oystercatchers, Black Skimmers, Least Terns, Willets, and Common Terns. They’re all shore birds. They’re all listed as species of special concern in North Carolina. And they’re all nesting in colonies at the tip of Wrightsville Beach.
Keeping people away from these colonies is critical to their success.
[sounds of birds, ocean waves crashing on the shore…]
KATHY HANNAH: I was a middle school teacher for forty years. And when I see people up close to the postings or people with their dogs, I don’t use my teacher voice. I use my grandma voice. It’s a whole different way of approaching and educating.
Kathy Hannah is a bird ambassador for Audubon North Carolina. She’s one of about 80 volunteers who take turns patrolling the south end of Wrightsville Beach to keep people at a safe distance from the nesting birds. And she’s one of three keeping watch this morning. It’s early – just after 7 AM – and she’s already completed her first rescue of the day.
KATHY HANNAH: Where the rangers’ trucks go through are these big ruts. And there was a little chick stuck in rut. He couldn’t get out. So I went up and I scooped up the little chick and took him over and let him go and watched him run off to go over and find his family. You feel like you saved a life!
An unwitting human could have stepped on the Least Tern chick thanks to its very effective camouflage. Once your eyes adjust, the week-old chick resembles a freckly cotton ball on a pair of miniature stilts.
KATHARINE FRAZIER: And that’s what really helps them hide from predators like the crows.
College student Katharine Frazier and her mom, Michelle, are spending their summer as nest stewards.
The three women, along with Audubon North Carolina’s Coastal Biologist Lindsay Addison, face the nesting grounds at the tip of the barrier island where the oceanfront winds gently around to a quieter inlet.
LINDSAY ADDISON: Looking at this colony, what you see in front of you is a flat, sandy area, very few little pieces of vegetation, and then back behind it a dune line. And what these birds want to nest in is this open, sandy habitat. They want very little vegetation, and they want to be able to see a predator’s approach.
Temperatures are already climbing this morning. That’s one of the challenges facing the birds. The surface temperature of the sand, says Addison, can exceed 150 degrees.
LINDSAY ADDISON: And with this recent heat wave, we’ve had temperatures in the high 90s, heat indexes in the 100s. They’ll actually go to the ocean and get their belly feathers wet, they’ll come back and they’ll drip water on the eggs and the chicks in an effort to keep their temperature low enough either that the eggs don’t cook or that the chicks don’t overheat. And if they’re flushed up off their eggs or their chicks, they can’t do that. And if they’re flushed up for too long – even just 15 or 20 minutes – those eggs or chicks can just cook on sand.
Then it happens. The colony of Least Terns is suddenly disturbed…
LINDSAY ADDISON: Something may have spooked them…
Possibly a person on the beach got a little too close – which is when a bird ambassador like Michelle Frazier would go into action. But, says Frazier, sometimes onlookers approach the stewards first.
MICHELLE FRAZIER: One evening we were here just watching the colony, and a young couple came up. We’re often asked, ‘could you take a picture of us with the colony?’ And, you know, when they asked that question, he whispered in my ear, ‘I’m about to propose so get good pictures!!’
It’s the busiest time for the nesting birds, according to Biologist Addison. But it won’t be long before all five species have taken flight to find warmer winter climes. Least Terns and Black Skimmers will winter in the Caribbean and northern South America.
LINDSAY ADDISON: The Oystercatchers will go down as far as Florida, although we do have a population that stays year-round in North Carolina. And the Common Terns will go as far south as Southern Brazil.
And like clockwork, the birds and their human protectors will return next April.
Five types of shorebirds classified in North Carolina as species of special concern are nesting on the southern tip of Wrightsville Beach. These birds are, in a sense, competing with humans for habitat. But that’s not necessarily a drawback; it gives the colony protectors a very public opportunity for outreach and education.
Least Terns, Black Skimmers, Oystercatchers, Willets and Common Terns are nesting on this nice, wide stretch of beach. To protect the colonies, Audubon North Carolina has recruited more than 80 volunteers to patrol the area and educate beach-goers about the impact of human disturbance.
Lindsay Addison, the Coastal Biologist for Audubon here, explains that the birds are cordoned off with symbolic fencing – two-by-two posts connected with string.
"This posting has a significant number of Least Terns and Black Skimmers nesting in it. So it’s actually important to sustaining populations at the state level. We have in this posting, 232 pairs of Least Terns and 175 pairs of Black Skimmers. And that represents about 7% of the state’s nesting Least Terns and about 21% of the state’s nesting Black Skimmers."
It’s the largest colony of Black Skimmers at Wrightsville Beach since they started nesting there in 2009. Most of the birds will head for warmer climes by late August. The Black Skimmers will disappear by September.