Rich Inlet Is Naturally Important to Birds

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 beach birds. By protecting the specialized habitats that birds need, shorebirds have a chance to thrive. Read on to learn more about sharing our beaches and the big benefits it can bring to our priority birds.

Please welcome Tara McIver.

The North Carolina coast is bordered by narrow ribbons of sand called barrier islands. These sinuous, sandy islands stretch from Corolla to Sunset Beach fronting the mainland. Where two barrier islands meet, you’ll find an inlet: a waterway that connects the ocean with the sound.

Inlets provide essential habitat for many species of shorebirds like sandpipers, Wilson’s and Piping Plovers, American Oystercatchers and their relatives including:

  • Expansive tidal flats rich with food that wintering and migrating shorebirds require;
  • Sandy spits that serve as resting and roosting sites that shorebirds need to rest, digest, roost and conserve energy;
  • Open or sparsely vegetated sandy habitat that shorebirds need for nesting.

Vital to Species Survival

In 2005, noted shorebird biologist Brian Harrington coined the term “inletophilic” to describe shorebird species that not only need, they require inlets for their survival. He analyzed shorebird distribution and abundance at 361 sites in the southeastern U.S. over many years and found that the lives of seven shorebird species are completely tied to inlets including six listed as “High Conservation Concern” or “Imperiled” in the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Preserving Natural Inlets

One of the best inlets in North Carolina for shorebirds is Rich Inlet, located in Pender County between Figure 8 Island to the south and undeveloped Lea-Hutaff Island to the north.

Of the twenty inlets in North Carolina, Rich is one of the few natural inlets left in the state. It has escaped hard structures like jetties and terminal groins that drastically alter inlets and destroy habitat that birds require. Rich is also one of the most stable inlets in the state and has remained in the same general location for the past 100 years.

View Rich Inlet from above and you can see the vast sandflats, mudflats and tidepools, as well as sandy spits on both sides of the inlet. These features are typical of large, natural inlets, and they serve as essential foraging, nesting, resting and roosting habitats for many species of shorebirds, including the federally-threatened Piping Plover and Red Knot. The abundance of fish near the inlet as well as excellent nesting habitat attract terns, skimmers and other waterbirds.

Rich Inlet with Hutaff Island on the left and Figure 8 Island on the north. Photo by Walker Golder.

Rich Inlet with Hutaff Island on the left and Figure 8 Island on the north. Photo by Walker Golder.

Audubon at Work for Shorebird Conservation

Audubon North Carolina has been monitoring how birds use Rich Inlet since 2007. During weekly surveys, we count all species of birds at the inlet, and over time we have documented its importance to shorebirds and other bird species. We also record locations of Piping Plovers and Red Knots and carefully inspect all shorebirds for bands.

Our surveys confirm Rich Inlet is important to shorebirds and waterbirds year-round.

A Thriving Habitat

Last year, more than 800 pairs of Least Terns nested on the large, sandy spit located on the north end of Figure 8 Island, along with American Oystercatchers, Common Terns, Black Skimmers, Piping Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers and Willets. It was the largest colony of Least Terns in North Carolina and one of the largest on the entire Atlantic coast. This year, Rich Inlet is again hosting the largest Least Tern colony in the state.

Federally-threatened Red Knots use Rich Inlet during spring migration to refuel during their long journey to breeding grounds in the Arctic. From bands, we know that some have come to Rich Inlet from wintering areas in Brazil and Argentina. Piping Plover from the Atlantic, Great Plains, and the critically-endangered Great Lakes populations also depend on Rich Inlet during migration. Thousands of Canada and Arctic breeding shorebirds like Dunlin, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher, Western and Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Black-bellied Plover are abundant.

Terns and skimmer staging at Rich Inlet. Photo by Walker Golder.

Terns and skimmer staging at Rich Inlet. Photo by Walker Golder.

It is widely known that many shorebird species are in serious decline. Declines in shorebird populations are driven largely by habitat loss and degradation. Despite ongoing conservation efforts, serious threats to shorebird populations remain and loss of habitat at inlets is high among them; Rich Inlet is no exception.

Natural, unaltered inlets are essential to shorebirds and waterbirds. Without these important habitats, shorebirds and waterbirds would not have critical habitat to feed, rest and nest. Audubon and partners are working hard to protect Rich Inlet so thousands of shorebirds and waterbirds have the unique and essential habitats they need to survive.

Learn more about Audubon North Carolina’s conservation efforts to protect the seas and shores our birds need to thrive.

HATTERAS UPDATE: We’re Gaining Momentum & Need Your Help

In the past week, we’ve gained some major allies in our fight to protect wildlife at Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Seashore). Raleigh’s The News & Observer Editorial Board has taken our side in the fight and covered the story. Read them here:

Now, we all have an opportunity to tell the National Park Service that birds and wildlife matter. Tell them that birds and wildlife deserve protection. And as the N&O so eloquently stated:

“Nature was there first and, under protections of a National Seashore designation, has a right not to be run over.”

AMOY-and-checkAs we shared last week, the Park Service is evaluating the special regulation and considering modifying morning opening of beaches, extending the length of fall and spring seasonal ORV routes, plus modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas. Public scoping will help inform the development of alternatives that will be analyzed in an Environmental Assessment (EA).

We need you to submit comments in support of the current plan and wildlife it protects. We’ve included a few guiding talking points at the bottom of this email. It’s not too late to make a difference for our birds and wildlife.

COMMENT BEFORE AUGUST 21: Go to this website and fill out the form with your comments.

Or submit written comments by mail to:

Superintendent
Outer Banks Group/Cape Hatteras National Seashore
1401 National Park Drive
Manteo, NC 27954


POSSIBLE COMMENTS – Please make this comment your own, but here is a start:

I am here to speak up for the birds and sea turtles that can’t speak for themselves.

Please protect our National Seashore for all wildlife!

Specifically, my concerns are:

  • I want to see the beaches checked for bird and turtle nests, as well as eggs and chicks before the beaches open in the morning. I prefer that the beaches are cleared before ORV traffic is allowed on the beach.
  • Do not extend the ORV routes or extend spring and fall closures on any area of the beaches that affect sea turtles or birds. Limit the extended closures only to areas that do not affect wildlife.

I am counting on you to protect:

  • The current plan. Any rule changes should be supported by peer-reviewed science as the law states, not just convenience or community pressure.
  • Night driving restrictions. Continue to prohibit night driving as a requirement. Driving on beaches at night endangers sea turtles and their nests, as well as nesting birds and their chicks.
  • Our birds. Allowing more ORV access isn’t the stewardship we count on from the National Park Service; vehicle free areas should be expanded to protect red knots and other shorebirds.
  • Seashore visitors. Beaches riddled with vehicles and tire ruts is not the experience we expect when we visit a National Seashore and a safety hazard for families with young children who want to enjoy beaches without fear of being hit by a vehicle.

Our wildlife deserves these protections, and scientific research has shown that these North Carolina native birds and sea turtles need beach-driving restrictions to survive.
Please listen to the public that loves our beaches and the wildlife that calls it home. We’re asking you to cease further actions affecting the wildlife, such as decreasing the size of buffers on the Seashore without peer reviewed scientific research to support them.

Chapter of the Month: Forsyth Audubon – Citizen Science at Bethabara

Audubon North Carolina has 10 amazing chapters across the state who help put a local focus on bird preservation and conservation issues. In this special blog series, we’ll focus on a chapter each month to learn more about their history, what they are working on, and to increase the statewide understanding of special ecosystems and habitats. Each month will include a series of posts about each chapter including a post from our biologists that will share a unique research project that is happening in the chapter’s geographic footprint. 

This month’s chapter is Forsyth Audubon in Winston-Salem. Please welcome guest writer Katherine Thorington

It began with eager chapter members, two field biologists (myself and Kim Brand) and a park with lots of human history and natural history data. The Forsyth Audubon breeding bird census of Historic Bethabara Park started in spring 2009 with a goal: capture a baseline “snapshot” of bird species breeding in the Park, and do it in such a way that the study could be replicated by Audubon volunteers in the future.

The study would document changes associated with human land-use, invasive species and climate change.

Bethabara means “house of passage” and is the location of the original 1753 Moravian settlement in North Carolina. Our results are a published scientific paper in Southeastern Naturalist and Audubon citizen scientists who are actively involved in research and conservation.

The Park is a favorite with birders because it is one of the best and most diverse places within Winston-Salem to see migrants and resident species including Blue-winged Warblers, Brown-headed Nuthatches and Barred Owls. The Park and similar greenspace patches located in urban and suburban areas provide important resources for birds and may be crucial for breeding success and individual survival as habitats and climate change.

Katherine Thorington laughing Kim Brand looking thru bins by David Shuford 2015

Katherine Thorington laughing Kim Brand looking thru bins by David Shuford 2015

THE STUDY IN QUESTION:

We trained 12 experienced birders from Forsyth Audubon in standard territory mapping methods and conducted weekly surveys of the park April–July 2009 and 2010. Birders recorded all birds they saw and/or heard during these surveys on the Park maps, and then Kim and I took their data to assess the breeding bird community, archiving our observations in eBird.

We saw or heard 109 bird species–60 for which we documented breeding territories. The breeding community was split between migrants (32 species) and residents (34 species) and included 3 exotic species.

Some species are particularly hard to detect while others are particularly apparent—in 2010, birders on a Carolina Bird Club field trip found a rarity in a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest that signified a territory not found by our census efforts. Northern Cardinals, on the other hand, are hard to miss! In 2009, we found 69 territories and 5 nests, and in 2010, we found 89 territories and 2 nests.

Katherine Thorington smiling with Wood Thrush by Jean Chamberlain 2015

Katherine Thorington smiling with Wood Thrush by Jean Chamberlain 2015

NEW TERRORITIES:

We documented territories for 10 woodland interior species including Wood Thrush, Ovenbird and Scarlet Tanager. Partners in Flight designates two of these birds—the Wood Thrush and Brown-headed Nuthatch—as US birds of conservation concern. Eight other documented species qualify as Piedmont species of conservation concern during the breeding season; three of these are common species in steep decline: Chimney Swift, Belted Kingfisher and Northern Flicker.

As expected, Brown-headed Nuthatch territories were concentrated in habitats with access to pines. All observed territories were within 125m of a pine stand. However, three of the four known nest locations—those on the wetlands—were in snags standing in permanent water.

NEW PROJECTS FOR FORSYTH:

Six volunteers led a pilot study of nesting Wood Thrush in 2009 and found nine Wood Thrush nests and 21 territories. In 2010, when we were not actively looking for nests, we found 18 territories and one nest.

Territory density and locations were similar between years, but the Wood Thrush population will face increasing pressure as urbanization around the park increases. Because of these observations and Forsyth Audubon members’ passion for Wood Thrush, we are collaborating with Audubon International Alliances, Audubon North Carolina and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center on a migratory connectivity study.

In 2014, we put GPS backpacks on 22 Wood Thrushes at Bethabara and at Pilot Mountain State Park Yadkin River Section, and in May 2015 we began recapturing them to find out exactly where they spent the winter, how they got there and how they got back.

A big thank you to all of our participants! Citizen science does so much to document the changes we see in urban and suburban bird populations. Also a special thanks goes out to Ellen Kutcher, then executive director of Historic Bethabara Park, and the rest of the park staff, for letting us conduct this research and continue the Wood Thrush research within the Park!

Chapter of the Month: Forsyth Audubon – Yadkin Nature Trail Now Open

Audubon North Carolina has 10 amazing chapters across the state who help put a local focus on bird preservation and conservation issues. In this special blog series, we’ll focus on a chapter each month to learn more about their history, what they are working on, and to increase the statewide understanding of special ecosystems and habitats. Each month will include a series of posts about each chapter including a post from our biologists that will share a unique research project that is happening in the chapter’s geographic footprint.

This month’s chapter is Forsyth Audubon in Winston-Salem and we’re proud to highlight their partnership with Forsyth County to open a brand new trail in one of their parks!

The Yadkin River Nature Trail at Tanglewood Park officially opened June 10 with a ceremony for local officials and other invited guests, including Forsyth County Commissioners Ted Kaplan and Gloria Whisenhunt. The trail is the result of a collaborative effort between Forsyth Audubon and the park, and is located in the area between the river and the BMX road – now designated as the Audubon Trail.

A Partnership Like No Other:

The project comes after a previous collaboration between the County and Forsyth Audubon on a native warm season grass restoration project. After years of this enriching partnership, the County then asked Forsyth Audubon to develop signage for a nature trail.

Forsyth Audubon set to work securing funding and designing the educational signage. Twelve signs now welcome visitors in the southwest corner of the park.

This area includes geographical features, including the native grassland, bottomland woods and an oxbow that support a diversity of wildlife from frogs to butterflies to hawks and owls. Funding was provided by US Fish and Wildlife Service, Duke Energy and Pilot View Inc./Resource Institute.

The first of 12 signs interpreting the wildlife along the trail.  L-R: USFWS biologist Laura Fogo, Ron Morris, Carol Gearhart and the graphic designer, Diane Villa.

The first of 12 signs interpreting the wildlife along the trail. L-R: USFWS biologist Laura Fogo, Ron Morris, Carol Gearhart and the graphic designer, Diane Villa.

Open to the Public:

Forsyth Audubon introduced the trail to the public with guided nature walks along the trail June 14 and June 21. Now anyone can visit the park and check out the trail, which loops around an area long a favorite of local birders during all seasons.

It’s easy to access the trail from the parking area near Skilpot Lake. By using the website address or QR code on the introductory sign, trail users can access additional information about what they will see.

Much thanks goes to everyone who worked on this project! Forsyth’s own Ron Morris developed the content for each sign, and Carol Gearhart worked to bring everything together. Graphic designer Diane Villa, David Disher and Will Stuart donated most of the photographs used on the signs as well.

Finally, we want to recognize the contributions of County Parks and Recreation Director Mark Anderson, Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Chris Weavil and Mark Serosky, recently retired from the Tanglewood staff.

Why It’s Important to Share the Beach with Birds

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 beach birds. By protecting the specialized habitats that birds need, shorebirds have a chance to thrive. Read on to learn more about sharing our beaches and the big benefits it can bring to our priority birds.

Please welcome Lindsay Addison.

Take a walk at the south end of Wrightsville Beach and the sand will seem alive with Least Tern chicks running back and forth, seeking shade and begging for fish from their parents. It’s a great time to see lots of activity at the site, and a great time to think about how this nesting site fits into the bigger picture.

A need for space:
The numbers of adults and chicks at the south end don’t just seem large—they are. This year, our census of the Least Tern nests revealed 232 nests, with additional pairs still starting to renest. That is about seven percent of the state’s nesting Least Terns! Not to be outdone, the Black Skimmer census found 175 nests. That set a new record for the number of skimmers nesting at the south end and makes up nearly 21 percent of the state’s nesting skimmers!

A bird steward shows the next generation of humans the next generation of terns and skimmers. Photo by Lindsay Addison.

A bird steward shows the next generation of humans the next generation of terns and skimmers. Photo by Lindsay Addison.

That means this site is important not only for the great wildlife viewing opportunities it presents, but because it holds significant percentages of North Carolina’s Least Tern and Black Skimmer populations.

Beach-nesting birds like the terns and skimmers do not have as much habitat to nest in as they once did. Though they are adapted to survive extreme conditions on the beach (such as temperatures that top out near 100 degrees) and renest doggedly after an early storm washes out their nests (they are eternal optimists), they can’t compete with humans for habitat unless we choose to help them.

Making room for birds:
Beach-nesting birds are easily flushed off their nests and separated from their young chicks. That leaves the chicks exposed to many dangers— temperature stress, predation from gulls and crows and even abandonment, if the disturbance is so severe or so long that parent birds become too stressed out to return to the site. Therefore, posted areas help beach-nesting birds by providing them with the buffer distance they need to tend to their young.

A skimmer fledgling learning to skim. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

A skimmer fledgling learning to skim. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

When they have space, birds can succeed spectacularly. At the south end of Wrightsville Beach, the skimmers have fledged at least 228 chicks, which averages over one chick per pair: an excellent number. We know this by the counting fledgling skimmers, which stay around the colony for weeks or even a month or more after fledging.

Least Terns have produced fledglings at likely about the same rate, but they are harder to count because they depart within a week or two. Our high count of 133, followed by regular counts of over 50 in following weeks suggests that more than 200 young Least Terns have taken wing this year from the colony.

By setting aside space at beaches around the state, many agencies and organizations are helping these birds succeed. The south end of Wrightsville Beach is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a big piece. If the posting and the outreach and education provided by the Beach Bird Stewards can ensure that the colony is free of disturbance and a safe place for the young chicks to grow up, the south end of Wrightsville Beach can make a big contribution to this year’s class of terns and skimmers.

That’s good news not only for the birds who are working hard to raise their next generation, but also for our next generation. Today’s kids will be able to show their kids and grandkids the great-great-great grandchicks of these birds and share the same joy and wonder that they experienced when they first saw a fuzzy little chick. 

Learn more about Audubon North Carolina’s conservation efforts to protect the seas and shores our birds need to thrive.