CAPE HATTERAS — The Outer Banks has a strong connection with North Carolina birds.
Wild ducks stop on their Atlantic Flyway from the Arctic to the tropics, and the town names of Duck and Kitty Hawk bring their namesakes to mind. With the ocean, the sound and the woods, there are a variety of environments that nearly 400 different kinds of birds the Outer Banks call home.
In the 1800s, many birds were considered valuable because of their plumage, meat or eggs. While these birds are protected by laws and are no longer hunted for profit today, they are still subject to predators, storms, and disturbance from humans.
In response to these dangers, staff members at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have made it their mission to protect the wildlife they find. Sometimes that means regulating walking and driving on the beach, or closing parts of the beach entirely.
“When shorebirds show signs of nesting, small areas of beach — 100-200 yards — are closed to public entry to reduce disturbances and to prevent direct impacts to eggs and chicks,” said Meaghan Johnson, deputy chief of resource management and science at the national seashore. “While these closed areas are important to facilitate successful wildlife nesting, the large majority of beaches remain open to the public during nesting season.”
Every morning, seashore staff check on these closures, which consist of posts, string and signs, to ensure that they successfully “provide undisturbed habitat needed by breeding birds to successfully nest and raise their young,” according to the National Park Service. Taking care of nests in this way requires a great deal of care and dedication.
“Intensive monitoring, using binoculars and spotting scopes, is designed to ensure protection of developing chicks that may be highly mobile and require daily adjustments to protection areas,” Johnson said. “Monitoring and management of nesting wildlife occurs seven days a week, so … different trained individuals may take shifts as they monitor nesting progress.”
Among the protected birds are the American oystercatcher and the piping plover. The oystercatcher is a loud, large bird with dark brown and white plumage and an orange bill, while the plover is smaller and more soft-spoken. Its pale buff color serves as camouflage, helping it blend in with the sand.
“For some species, such as piping plover, more intensive monitoring may occur once chicks are present and if the chicks are using habitat close to visitor activity,” said Johnson.
The population of these two species at the national seashore declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to the American Ornithological Society Committee on Science Arbitration, or AOS. While the plover population has since increased, the oystercatcher is still recovering. A recent report from the AOS shows the extent that beach closures benefit nesting birds.
Despite the global pandemic affecting life on the Outer Banks this summer, the national seashore has not cut back on any of its wildlife care. “There have been no changes this year to shorebird monitoring and resource protection areas compared to previous years,” Johnson said.
The shorebird nesting season is currently wrapping up, which means that national seashore staff will analyze the nesting data for their shorebird annual report. Initial estimates of these nesting numbers are similar to previous years, Johnson said.
The annual report, the Resource Management Field Summary, is updated weekly between mid-April and the end of sea turtle nesting season in August. As of Thursday, 43 American oystercatcher nests, six piping plover nests and 413 colonial waterbird nests have been found across the Outer Banks this year.
There is a sense of accomplishment when the hard work pays off.
“Any time we have a bird leave its nest, or fledge, there is great excitement and pride among our staff that have spent countless hours protecting and monitoring these important shorebirds at the seashore,” Johnson said.
While the staff has been working to take care of the birds that live on the island, new and unusual birds have had the opportunity to find their way to the Outer Banks this summer.
A white-winged tern was spotted on the national seashore, near Ramp 44 in Buxton, in June. The only other time that the small European bird has been seen in North Carolina was in August 1994 near Bodie Island Lighthouse.
Bodie Island Lighthouse also attracted another rare species. On July 13, the national seashore reported that a sandhill crane had stopped by the lighthouse.
“These birds migrate from Florida and Texas to the western United States and are typically not seen in this area,” according to a Facebook post from the park. “Sandhill Cranes are one of the largest cranes in North America….They stand between three and four feet tall with a wingspan of more than six feet!”
The beach is not the only place that visitors can find birds. The nature at Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo attracts nearly 175 different species of birds every year. This summer was no different.
“The birds were feeling exceptionally at home while the garden was closed to the public,” said Dan Hossack, gardens manager.
From bald eagles and osprey to a great blue heron and screech owl, the gardens have been populated throughout the spring and summer this year.
“The new children’s garden is usually full of curious kids and their associated noises,” he said. “Without their presence, the great blue thought it was a peaceful place to rest and have a bite to eat.”
At this point in the summer, staff at the gardens are already looking forward. “We are preparing to clean our birdhouses this winter to help attract some of the diversity that we come to expect in this type of woodland and open forest setting,” Hossack said. “Our summer is usually fairly predictable with who comes and goes from the grounds.”
Each day, the gardens can expect to see familiar birds such as cardinals, jays, nuthatch, Carolina wren, chickadee, and ruby-throated hummingbirds. Staff at the gardens strive to mimic and enable natural cycles to provide the birds with a natural environment and keep them comfortable.
“The seasonality of fruit that our birds can depend on is a more reliable network than feeders and human intervention,” Hossack said. “We carefully manage our trees, shrubs, and perennials that provide nutriment for our local birds and that is what keeps our bird population in good stead.”
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