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A History of Success with Coastal Sanctuaries

For more than 25 years, Audubon North Carolina has managed a network of coastal sites along our state’s coast offering a haven for nesting waterbirds. By protecting the specialized habitats that birds need, coastal birds have a chance to thrive. Read on to learn more about the birds the Coastal Islands Sanctuary Program protects.

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

Different birds require different habitats. Audubon’s Coastal Islands Sanctuary Program is providing just that – individual, diverse habitats that offer birds what they need to thrive and raise their young during nesting season. With a safe place to go, free from human disturbance and predators, coastal bird populations are thriving along North Carolina’s coast.

Least Tern by Donald Mullaney.

Least Tern by Donald Mullaney.

Only a few dozen islands along the North Carolina coast have the right mix of characteristics to support waterbirds. These islands are essential to waterbird conservation in North Carolina because they provide the perfect place where species like the Brown Pelican and Great Egret can raise the next generation.

Setting aside this network of islands dedicated to protecting nesting birds has positioned North Carolina as a vital piece of the conservation puzzle. Recognizing and protecting these islands has long been a part of Audubon’s work.

History of Bird Conservation

Audubon has been a conservation leader in North Carolina with a focus on protecting waterbirds in our state. In the early 1900s, unregulated market hunting threatened birds across the U.S. The early Audubon leader T. Gilbert Pearson worked in North Carolina to educate the public, pass legislation to protect birds, and hired wardens to protect nesting islands.

Two islands in Pamlico Sound became the first Audubon sanctuaries in the state. Though they are gone today, lost to erosion decades ago, descendants of the birds that nested on them still occupy islands that Audubon protects.

In the 1960s and 1970s, conservation attention again focused on nesting islands. Loss of natural nesting sites to development and increasing human disturbance, and the importance of manmade dredge islands, was documented by UNC Wilmington’s Dr. James Parnell and other ornithologists. By the early 1980s an informal sanctuary program with two islands, Battery Island and Striking Island, served as the catalyst for a new kind of conservation plan. The islands would become on-the-ground research labs where conservationists could study waterbirds and apply that knowledge to conservation and develop new habitat management tools to ensure habitats could be sustained over time.

DSC_0020Dr. Parnell and his graduate students served as wardens for Battery and Striking Islands, monitoring and protecting the birds nesting there while conducting thesis research on waterbird biology and ecology.

The Coastal Islands Sanctuary Program formally opened in 1989 with Walker Golder, a student of Dr. Parnell’s, as the manager. In order to develop more comprehensive, statewide protection for waterbirds, Audubon identified important nesting islands and worked to secure their protection.

Today, with a growing network of staff, researchers and conservation partners, Audubon’s Sanctuary Program is working to ensure that waterbird nesting sites in North Carolina are protected.

“Audubon has worked closely with conservation partners throughout the state for decades to coordinate what we do to ensure islands are adequately protected and the birds have high quality habitats they need for nesting,” said Walker Golder, Director of NC Coast and Marshes Program.

Why it Works

The goal of the Coastal Sanctuaries Program is to ensure that North Carolina has diverse habitats to support diverse populations of waterbirds. We are continually working to provide places for species to nest—from wading birds, to terns and pelicans, and more.

 

“If birds don’t have safe places to nest and raise young, it’s pretty simple, the birds will disappear from our coast. They need high quality habitats, and that’s what we provide,” said Golder.

The birds are attracted to the islands managed by Audubon North Carolina because:

  • They have high quality habitats they need.
  • They are protected and managed to provide the best possible nesting conditions.
  • There are no nest predators like raccoons and foxes.

Habitat Management and Research

Different birds require a variety of habitats. For example, herons and egrets prefer to nest in trees and shrubs, and pelicans nest in grasses or shrubs. However, most terns – like royal, sandwich, common, least and gull-billed – prefer open, sandy areas.

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To sustain these specialized habitats overtime, the Sanctuary Program was designed to develop successful conservation strategies and habitat management techniques. The sanctuaries are living laboratories where researchers can learn more about the birds that are here and apply their knowledge to future conservation work.

Audubon staff are always looking for new and innovative ways to manage coastal habitats. Some of the techniques developed locally have been used across the Atlantic Flyway.

Check back to learn about the success stories of the sanctuary system.

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.

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.

Click here to learn about more of our Cape Fear River sanctuaries.

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. Read our first installment of the Cape Fear River sanctuaries here.

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.