Sanctuaries of the Cape Fear River: Part 2

For more than 25 years, Audubon North Carolina has managed a network of habitats along North Carolina’s coastal plain offering a haven for birds. With specialized habitats and protection from predators and human disturbance, coastal birds in our state have special places to thrive. Read on to learn more about the Coastal Sanctuary Program and the birds they protect.

With this blog series, we are taking a peak behind the curtain and sharing the secrets of the sanctuaries in North Carolina.

Along the Cape Fear River, Audubon North Carolina manages seven coastal sanctuaries that protect essential habitats for waterbirds and shorebirds. With diverse habitats ranging from sand and grass to forest and marsh, this network of islands attracts flocks of waterbirds by the thousands. Species like the White Ibis and Brown Pelican boast thriving populations today because of their breeding success at these sanctuaries.

No Name Island 

A natural marsh island along the Cape Fear River surrounded by shallow water, No Name Island has provided a home for nesting American Oystercatchers and Laughing Gulls, and sometimes Brown Pelicans, for many years. Audubon has managed the site since 1990 and works with a number of conservation partners at each sanctuary to protect birds and maintain habitats. Audubon partners with the NC Wildlife Resource Commission at No Name Island.

North Pelican Island

One of Audubon North Carolina’s 96 Important Bird Areas, North Pelican Island is a manmade sanctuary that provides marsh, shrub thicket and mudflat to nesting birds. Nesting birds found at North Pelican Island over the past 10 years have included:

Aside from nesting waterbirds and shorebirds, North Pelican Island has hosted a number of Seaside Sparrow, Least Bittern, Clapper Rail, Marsh Wren, Black Duck, Willet, and other birds.

Since 1990, Audubon has managed North Pelican Island to provide the best possible nesting habitat for birds and has ongoing, long-term monitoring projects, protection from human disturbance, and conducting censuses of nesting birds. Pelican banding and research on pelicans and wading birds has also been conducted at the Sanctuary.

Audubon works with a number of conservation partners at each sanctuary to protect birds and maintain habitats. At North Pelican Island, partners include NC Wildlife Resource Commission,  NC State University, along with many researchers.

Shellbed Island

Overseen by Audubon staff, Shellbed Island is a natural island with a shoreline made up of oyster shell “rakes” and marsh habitat. Also identified as an Important Bird Area, the island has been used as a study site for American Oystercatchers where banding, band re-sighting, demographic studies and censuses of oystercatchers have been conducted.

American Oystercatchers and Laughing Gulls nest here, as well as Clapper Rail. Non-nesting species at the island include Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrow, Northern Harrier, Virginia Rail, many species of waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds.

Audubon works with a number of conservation partners at each sanctuary to protect birds and maintain habitats. At Shellbed Island, partners include NC Wildlife Resource Commission, NC State University, and NC State Parks.

Photo by Donald Mullaney.

Photo by Donald Mullaney.

South Pelican Island

A manmade island of sand, grass, shrub thicket and marsh habitat, South Pelican Island supports an array of nesting birds including Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, American Oystercatcher, Snow Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, and White Ibis. Willets also nest on the island and shorebirds stopover during migration.

As many bird species are attracted to the South Pelican Island, long-term banding studies of American Oystercatchers, Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, and Sandwich Terns has occurred at the sanctuary. Additional research focused on nesting productivity, demographics, food and foraging, and nesting habitat has also occurred on the sanctuary.

Audubon has managed the sanctuary and Important Bird Area since 1990 by posting, conducting long-term research and monitoring, vegetation management and protecting the birds from human disturbance. Habitat management activities include restoration and enhancement of the island with dredged sand.

Audubon works with a number of conservation partners at each sanctuary to protect birds and maintain habitats. At South Pelican Island, partners include NC Wildlife Resource Commission, NC State University, UNC Wilmington and the US Army Corps of Engineers, along with many other partners. Partnerships with the US Army Corps of Engineers and others encourage the beneficial use of dredged sand to restore and maintain habitat at sites like this one.

Striking Island

Striking Island is a natural island made up of marsh and shell habitats that support nesting American Oystercatchers, Laughing Gulls, Willets, Clapper Rails and occasionally Gull-billed Terns. Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rails, Northern Harriers, shorebirds and wading birds utilize the sanctuary as well.

The sanctuary and Important Bird Area has been managed by Audubon since 1989, but Audubon’s involvement in the management of the sanctuary pre-dates the establishment of our North Carolina Coastal Islands Sanctuary System. Beginning around 1980, Audubon teamed up with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Dr. James F. Parnell to protect the island, the island’s birds, and have it serve as a laboratory for scientific research. The island continues to be an important part of the Audubon sanctuary system and continues to serve its original purpose of protecting important habitats for North Carolina waterbirds and shorebirds, as well as advancing our knowledge of coastal birds to further conservation efforts.

Audubon works with a number of conservation partners at each sanctuary to protect birds and maintain habitats. At Striking Island, partners include NC Wildlife Resource Commission, NC State University, and NC State Parks.

Now that you’ve seen the important conservation work happening across our coastal sanctuary system, support the continued protection of our nesting and migrating birds on the coast. Click here to donate to the Coastal Sanctuary Program.

Sanctuaries of the Cape Fear River: Part 1

For more than 25 years, Audubon North Carolina has managed a network of habitats along North Carolina’s coastal plain offering a haven for birds. With specialized habitats and protection from predators and human disturbance, coastal birds in our state have special places to thrive. Read on to learn more about the Coastal Sanctuary Program and the birds they protect.

With this blog series, we are taking a peak behind the curtain and sharing the secrets of the sanctuaries in North Carolina.

Along the Cape Fear River, Audubon North Carolina manages seven coastal sanctuaries that protect essential habitats for waterbirds and shorebirds. With diverse habitats ranging from sand and grass to forest and marsh, this network of islands attracts flocks of waterbirds by the thousands. Species like the White Ibis and Brown Pelican boast thriving populations today because of their breeding success at these sanctuaries.

Battery Island

Battery Island is an island along the lower Cape Fear River and one of Audubon North Carolina’s 96 Important Bird Areas. Audubon has protected and managed Battery Island since 1981 by planting trees for habitat enhancement, conducting long-term monitoring projects, and working to protect birds from human disturbance.

Several habitats are found at Battery Island including sandy beach, shrub thicket, forest and marsh offering preferred nesting habitats for birds. See a few of the birds recorded nesting at Battery Island over the past 30 years:

Non-nesting species spotted at Battery Island have included Saltmarsh Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier and many shorebird species.

Audubon works with a number of conservation partners at each sanctuary to protect birds and their habitats. At Battery Island, partners include NC Wildlife Resources Commission, NC State Parks, Cape Fear Garden Club, and NC State University.

With sea level rise affecting the entire North Carolina coastline, Audubon is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and other conservation partners to maintain the Battery Island sanctuary.

Photo by Chris Lambert.

Photo by Chris Lambert.

Ferry Slip Island 

Audubon has managed Ferry Slip Island since 1990. Audubon’s coastal team maintains posted signs to show that these places are off limits to the public, monitors nesting birds, manages diverse habitats, plus restores and enhances many of the sanctuary sites with dredged material. Audubon sanctuaries like Ferry Slip Island are also laboratories for scientific research that leads to a better understanding of birds and their habitats.

Ferry Slip Island is a manmade sanctuary and considered one of Audubon NC’s 96 Important Bird Areas. The island provides sand and grass habitat for nesting species including the Royal Tern, Sandwich TernBrown Pelican, Gull-billed Tern, Laughing Gull, and American Oystercatcher.

When the Army Corps of Engineers removes sand from the Cape Fear River, all of that material needs a place to go. For years, Audubon has worked with the Corps to distribute the dredged material in the most efficient ways that also create the best possible habitat for nesting waterbirds.

Audubon works with a number of conservation partners at each sanctuary to protect birds and maintain habitats. At Ferry Slip Island, partners include NC Wildlife Resources Commission, NC State University, UNC Wilmington, and US Army Corps of Engineers.

Success Stories of the Coastal Sanctuaries

For more than 25 years, Audubon North Carolina has managed a network of coastal sites along our state’s coastal plain offering a haven for nesting waterbirds. With specialized habitats and protection from predators and human disturbance, coastal birds in our state have a chance to thrive. Read on to learn more about the birds the Coastal Sanctuary Program protects.

During the two decades and across the 20 islands and beaches that make up the Sanctuary system, Audubon’s conservation efforts have led to real change for the species that frequent our coastline.

Brown Pelican

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and Audubon North Carolina monitor and protect Brown Pelican nesting sites. About half of the state’s Brown Pelicans nest on Audubon’s islands where they are safe and have excellent nesting habitat.

Pelicans were first recorded breeding in North Carolina on Royal Shoal, one of the state’s first Audubon sanctuaries, in 1929. From those 14 pairs, the population grew to more than 100 pairs nesting around Ocracoke Inlet on islands that Audubon still protects today.

Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, Brown Pelican began to expand their range northward, and their numbers in North Carolina continued to grow. This was possible because there was a network of protected islands available for nesting.

Today 4,000-5,000 pairs nest in North Carolina. The Sanctuary Program is special to these pelicans because they have exactly what they need to thrive.

White Ibis

White Ibis are abundant in North Carolina, making them a responsibility species for conservation protection. To ensure their population remains healthy, it’s vital to maintain safe, high-quality nesting sites.

White Ibis were first recorded breeding on North Carolina waterways in 1889, but they were not found nesting in large numbers until 1950. Then, in the early 1960s, they began to appear on Battery Island. Numbers grew, and now as many as 14,000 pairs nest on the island in a single season, making the Audubon North Carolina managed Battery Island globally significant to maintaining their population.

Photo by Donald Mullaney.

Photo by Donald Mullaney.

Model of Conservation Partnerships

North Carolina is a great model in the way partnerships and collaboration can work to benefit birds. Through planning, land management, habitat restoration, scientific research, banding and census initiatives, not only are the birds protected, but environmental conservation programs are enhanced through these statewide partnerships.

Partners across the state currently working to protect and maintain the sanctuaries include the Cape Fear Garden Club, NC Coastal Federation, NC Coastal Land Trust, NC State Parks, NC State University, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, State Natural Heritage Program, Town of Wrightsville Beach, US Army Corps of Engineers, UNC Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Elementary School, and more.

Importance of the Sanctuaries

Protecting these sanctuaries from predators and people during nesting season is incredibly important for the health of our birds.

Without these special places, birds like the Brown Pelican, White Ibis and many other coastal birds would have very few suitable nesting sites in the state. For example, there is nowhere within 100 miles of the Cape Fear River that have the right habitat for nesting Brown Pelicans.

Birds are sometimes taken for granted, and many think that they will always be here. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. Audubon’s Sanctuaries are essential to our coastal birds; they need active protection and active management in order to maintain healthy populations of waterbirds.

To learn more about how you can help protect coastal birds or get involved with the Sanctuary Program contact Audubon North Carolina’s coastal biologist Lindsay Addison.

Wintering with Warblers in Nicaragua

Anyone who regularly reads our newsletter, blog, or attends our programs knows that Audubon North Carolina has spent a lot of time and effort over the last few years working to learn about and conserve Golden-winged Warblers (GWWA). And we are not alone. The Golden-winged Warbler Working Group (GWWAWG) was established in 2005, by more than 75 partners, to dig deep into the science and life cycle of this species. Learn about all the work of the GWWWG and what this collaborative effort has done to protect this tiny gem of our forests. 

Early this year, Curtis Smalling visited our partners in Nicaragua to continue work to study Golden-winged Warblers and protect their wintering habitats. Please welcome Director of Land Bird Conservation Curtis Smalling.

I had the great fortune in late January to visit our partners in Nicaragua for a working visit to conduct Golden-winged Warbler work. I was met by our partner Lili Duriaux Chavarria at the airport and whisked off to El Jaguar where she and her husband Georges manage a private reserve and coffee plantation. During the visit, I was able to work with Dr. Amber Roth of Michigan Tech University to attach the latest generation of geolocators to 20 Golden-winged Warbler males.

Crimson-collared Tanager

Crimson-collared Tanager

Geolocators provide vital bird data

Geolocators are used to track and monitor the migration behavior of many priority species including the Wood Thrush and Golden-winged Warbler. The data we’ve collected from these tiny backpacks have helped shape conservation efforts to protect birds in North Carolina and across the entire Atlantic Flyway.

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These new geolocators are very small, (<0.4 grams) and now they are finally small enough to be attached to birds as small as our 8.5 gram male Golden-wings. These small backpacks sit on the back and are held on with leg loops. The geolocator does not transmit any data but rather records it. We’ll retrieve the information from the geolocators physically next year when (hopefully!) the birds return to the wintering location at El Jaguar.

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The geolocators record the exact time of sunrise and sunset. This data tells us within about 100 kilometers where the bird is on any given day. We have learned a lot from these devices for a variety of species including Wood Thrush, shorebirds and of course Golden-winged Warblers. George and Lili had deployed 70 of these devices on Wood Thrush a couple years ago and retrieved data from four birds. This subset showed us where the birds wintering at El Jaguar went for the summer. Learn more on Audubon’s Wood Thrush tagging project here.

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A Community Effort for Widespread Bird Conservation

The visit to the cloud forests at El Jaguar was challenging at times as we had pretty wet weather throughout the visit. It was quite cool and windy for Nicaragua, but even with the weather challenges, it was a great visit. Our assistant, Moises, is a fantastic technician and very adept at setting nets in often dense vegetation. He’s very good at handling birds.

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Moises and I also conducted point count surveys of an adjoining farm known as La Garza.

La Garza is also owned by Georges and Lili. It’s used to grow beans, raise cattle and provide other farm products to support the operations at El Jaguar.

Both farms are part of a larger reforestation project where we are partnering with American Bird Conservancy, Southern Wings and other partners. The goal is to reforest 10,000 acres of land along a corridor connecting El Jaguar with Cerro de Yali, a protected area about 30 kilometers northwest of El Jaguar. Nurseries have been established for growing seedlings, and a new forester has been hired to reach out to landowners and farm cooperatives to increase participation.

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It is always a treat to see Georges and Lili and Moises, and to spend time in the beautiful countryside in Nicaragua. Our work there is important for Golden-wings, Wood Thrush and a host of other migrant species as well as high priority resident birds as well. We could not do it without the support of Audubon members like Juanita Roushdy, and Jim and Doris Ratchford, who have made multi-year commitments to help us fund the projects there.

For more information on Audubon North Carolina’s work to preserve Golden-winged Warbler habitats visit our website

Bird-Brained Landscape Design

Launched in 2013, Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities initiative is a partnership program involving more than 20 organizations with a vision for creating a more bird-friendly North Carolina. This vision statement guides the goals and projects of the group: “Bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.”

Please welcome guest-blogger Lara Berkley, member of Cape Fear Audubon Society, and a team member of Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities program.

In this four-part series, learn from Wilmington-based landscape architect, Lara Berkley, how incorporating bird-friendly practices into architecture and landscape design can have a wide-reaching impact on the birds in your backyard and community at-large.

What inspired you to use bird-friendly practices?

Inspiration for bird-friendly design in our practice comes from a lifelong appreciation of nature, and its fascinating mutualisms and connectedness. We spend a lot of time outdoors, and keep binoculars next to our work area; it’s a great way to keep our computer work from becoming all-consuming. Animal-watching is infinitely more fun than drawing or taking phone calls, and it also gets us to be more tuned in to the natural world.

Here in the lower Cape Fear River watershed, there is a disconnect between appreciation for ‘plants and flowers,’ and appreciation for existing patches of awesome native habitat. Our region has a garden culture that tends (no pun intended!) to see the landscape as something to be managed and shaped, and this is not always to the benefit of birds, or any other creatures. Cape Fear Audubon has done an amazing job working with local garden groups and creating incentives to help shift this perspective. We’ve been happy to notice an increase in interest for bird-friendly practices in the garden.

Are bird-friendly practices a priority for you and your team?

Bird-friendly practices are definitely a priority for our practice. Bird-friendly equals sustainable, in our minds. We think about what the site and its surroundings have before we begin making design decisions. Careful site analysis means looking at hydrology, existing clusters of native vegetation, any presence of exotic invasive species, snags (dead trees are home to many kinds of birds and insects), and already-existing areas of disturbance. We look for ways the site can inform what can and can’t be done. Design decisions come from a combination of listening to the site and listening to our clients.

Although our fee comes from people, we feel a huge obligation to make sure there is room for non-human habitat, at any scale. Bird-friendly practices typically benefit people and other creatures, as well. We look for opportunities to keep and enhance existing layered native vegetation, provide natural sources of water, and accommodate on-site drainage to groundwater.

We prefer to use local natural materials for site features, and do this by minimizing site disturbance and looking for ways to recycle any trees (deadfall, benches or path mulch) that do need to be removed for buildings. A big part of the design process is future management of the landscape. The people that inhabit and use the landscape over time have to be on board with the idea of occasionally less-tidy-looking sites. If our clients understand habitat preservation, this is a straightforward process, but in many cases, we find ourselves promoting Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, or in some cases, appealing to a client’s pocketbook to communicate the value and different methodologies of caring for habitat. Layered habitat does not have to ‘look unkempt,’ and sometimes, we employ creative mowing, fencing or signage strategies to demarcate areas of ‘habitat.’

This rain garden includes several Local Roots Bird-Friendly Native Plants of the Year: Virginia sweetspire (2015), fringe tree (2016), and sweetbay magnolia (2016). Photo by Alan Cradick

This rain garden includes several Local Roots Bird-Friendly Native Plants of the Year: Virginia sweetspire (2015), fringe tree (2016), and sweetbay magnolia (2016).
Photo by Alan Cradick

How are you using bird-friendly practices in your projects and designs?

Bird-friendly practices that we use include ‘having a bird-brain’ during design. Does the site look like a nice and safe place to land from above?

We think about places for refuge, food sources that include larval host plants, seed-producing grasses, and fruit- and nut-producing plants. If we’re lucky enough to have a few large snags, we encourage our clients to keep those as well, in places where they are less likely to pose a danger. Water sources can include best-management practices like stormwater wetlands, or at the small, residential scale – birdbaths or gentle fountains. We ‘disconnect’ drainage, so that driveways, for instance, aren’t carrying pollutants into our waterways. We think about noise and other disturbance sources. We look for ways to ‘double or triple up’, so that a required buffer for noise abatement and visual screening also becomes a wonderful habitat patch or corridor.

We are always looking for connections, at all scales. If we can link some of the perimeter vegetated areas to adjacent ones, that’s even better! Instead of clearing a site and then re-landscaping, and providing feeders and birdhouses, we encourage clients to allow the birds to make their own homes by leaving those opportunities in place.

For buildings, there’s a fine balance in providing natural daylight and passive conditioning for building occupants, and lessening the likelihood of bird strikes. We talk with our clients about window placement, reflection-minimizing options, and reducing night lighting. Discussion of construction staging and landscape maintenance over time is a big part of our design process.

All too often, we have seen good intentions be destroyed by heavy equipment practices, and dumping of materials during construction, to post-occupancy damage, including severe pruning, and extreme applications of pesticides, herbicides, or even fertilizers.

Want to learn more on bird-friendly design? Stay tuned for the next installment: Why bird-friendly landscape architecture matters for cities and towns.

Lara Berkley is a NC-registered landscape architect, LEED-accredited professional, and partner with B+O: design studio, PLLC, in Wilmington, NC. She started B+O: design studio with her husband/partner, architect Scott Ogden, working in a variety of scales and project types, including design for educational/institutional, single-family, and commercial projects. Lara is currently co-chair of the North Carolina Native Plant Society SE Coast chapter, a member of Cape Fear Audubon Society, and a team member of Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities program.

For more information about Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Communities program, visit our website.