The 2014 Coastal Nesting Season Wrap-up

The tourists are filtering out of the beach towns and the air is turning cool, signaling the passage of summer to fall. Most of the coastal birds that nest in the state are moving south, and this year’s busy summer nesting season is on the books. Every year, Audubon North Carolina manages 19 islands and beach sites for nesting birds. Five field staff and over 70 volunteers helped to monitor nesting birds, protected them from disturbance, and enjoyed observing the annual journey from egg to chick to fledgling.

This year’s biggest project was the twelfth statewide colonial waterbird census. It documented more than 67,000 nests from more than 20 different species all along the coast. This effort, coordinated by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) and assisted by Audubon North Carolina, is a recurring effort dating back to the 1970s when Dr. James Parnell and other biologists first began studying waterbirds in the state. Long-term data is valuable, though difficult to come by, because it provides information on population and geographic trends that can inform conservation decisions.

In a typical year, about one in three colonial waterbirds nesting in North Carolina are found at sites managed by Audubon North Carolina. Species that particularly relied on Audubon sanctuaries this year included the Brown Pelican (47% of statewide nesting on Audubon sanctuaries), Great Egret (24%), White Ibis (65%), Royal Tern (22%), Sandwich Tern (35%), and Black Skimmer (15%).

A Brown Pelican with its chick on Ferry Slip Island. By Lindsay Addison

A Brown Pelican with its chick on Ferry Slip Island. By Lindsay Addison

Great Egret chicks. By Lindsay Addison

Great Egret chicks. By Lindsay Addison

When not working on the census, staff continued to monitor American Oystercatcher nesting. While continuing to manage Audubon sites at Ocracoke Inlet, Lea-Hutaff Island, and the Cape Fear River, we also assisted the North Carolina Coastal Reserve with its new bird monitoring work. Technician Brooke Milligan followed 33 pairs on Masonboro Island and watched four chicks fledge.

Ongoing predator control is slowly improving productivity on the island. Meanwhile, bird stewards on Wrightsville Beach found that fledging success was down at the site this year, as a beach renourishment project disturbed the area in the middle of the nesting season. However, two oystercatcher chicks fledged from the four pairs that attempted to nest there. One chick, banded CKN and pictured below, worried everyone watching when it sustained a leg injury and spent a week limping. Happily, it recovered and now it’s with the local oystercatcher flock that roosts on docks along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Oystercatcher chick and parent. By Lindsay Addison

Oystercatcher chick and parent. By Lindsay Addison

Finally, though Audubon North Carolina focuses on bird management, we also monitor sea turtle nesting on Lea-Hutaff Island. This year, the island received one of the first (laid May 24) and one of the last (laid August 27) nests in the state. Nests are still incubating, but so far 355 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings have made it to the ocean.

A New Kind of Leaf Season

This year, Audubon North Carolina is working to grow the Bird-Friendly Communities initiative. A new partnership program with a vision for North Carolina, 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 Russ Regnery. Russ is President of the Highlands Audubon Society in Highlands, NC, and a founding member of the Bird-Friendly Communities Implementation Team.

What we leave on the ground of our yards may be just as important to birds as planting native plants, providing nest boxes, and keeping cats indoors. Pun intended! Yes, I’m talking about leaf litter.

Leaf litter is the zone where vegetation (e.g., fallen leaves, stems and downed twigs) naturally breaks down to organic soil and humus, with the help of a wide variety of insects and other organisms. Many people struggle with the concept of letting leaves naturally decompose, but what they may not realize is the positive impact ground leaves have on birds and their babies!


Did you know many leaf litter insects are food sources for some of our most loved woodland birds?

Some of my favorite bird species are completely dependent on leaf litter. For example, thrashers, thrushes and ovenbirds couldn’t exist without it. Ground nesting birds depend on good leaf litter as a component for nest site selection. And of course, native plant communities rely on leaves as well. Try to imagine any of our native orchids growing in the absence of a little litter.


Since entomologist Doug Tallamy published Bringing Nature Home in 2007, we have all become more aware of the symbiotic relationship between native plants, the insects that have evolved to feed on natives, and the critical importance of those insect species as essential high-protein food sources for native birds, especially baby birds.

Tallamy’s research has provided exact numbers to prove why native plants matter to birds.

  • Native oak trees host more than 500 different types of caterpillars (a.k.a. baby-bird food)
  • Ginko trees, which are native to Asia, host only 5 types of caterpillars

And another win-win-win for birds, native plants and biodiversity!

In our work to build bird-friendly communities across the state, perhaps one of the most valuable bird conservation activities in which we can participate is to learn more about the importance of leaf litter. From this, we can then educate communities and change the perception of what makes a ‘good garden’.

Hopefully the day will come when people will admire a garden not only for the plants that grow from the soil, but also for the quality of leaf litter that provides a crucial component of habitat for many birds and wildlife.

But then, what will happen to all of those leaf blowers?

Welcoming Our Waterfowl

What do ducks, swans and geese have in common? They are all types of waterfowl. The Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Corolla is a haven for many species of birds, and in the winter months we provide resting and wintering protection for thousands of waterfowl. Fall and winter are the best seasons to go duck watching, and northeastern North Carolina hosts several refuges where these birds can be easily seen.

Many ducks spend the latter part of the winter in the southern United States, Texas, California or Mexico. Ducks are divided into two types: dabblers – those that tip up and feed from the bottom and diving- those that dive underwater to feed.

Join us in welcoming the migrating waterfowl to the Audubon Sanctuary. Read on to get to know a few of our feathered friends that spend time in the Audubon Sanctuary.

September-October Arrivals

Blue-winged Teal

Carolina Blue. Duke Blue. North Carolina has many shades, but the prettiest blue wing color may belong to the Blue-winged Teal. Unlike other dabbling ducks that form pairs in the fall, this teal begins courting in the spring and often does not acquire the familiar breeding plumage until December or January. They can be found passing through the Audubon Sanctuary and Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge during September and October before heading to Central America. But you can catch them again on their way back up in March and April too!

November Arrival

Green-winged Teal

Also known as the “Common Teal,” the Green-winged Teal will be at the Audubon Sanctuary from November to March, and can be spotted at the Mackey Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Green-winged Teal by Donald Mullaney


This duck has the largest range of all ducks, and is one of the dabbling ducks; it feeds by tipping forward, so that the tail sticks up as it reaches for plants on the bottom. Check out the Audubon Sanctuary or  Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to find this fowl.

Gadwall by Edwin Anderton is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Gadwall by Edwin Anderton is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

American Widgeon

Unlike its brown and gray Gadwall neighbor in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Widgeon is a colorful duck with green, yellow, brown and white patches. Widgeons will graze on farm fields like geese, and will abound at the Audubon Sanctuary this season.

American Widgeon by Bill Gracey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

American Widgeon by Bill Gracey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Northern Pintail

These beautiful ducks possess distinct long, slender necks and can be spotted at the Audubon Sanctuary and Lake Mattamuskeet Wildlife National Refuge beginning in November. They will arrive in flocks of thousands for their wintering grounds in the Southern United States.

Northern Pintail by Mark Buckler

American Black Duck

Contrary to its name, the American Black Duck is actually a dark gray, and it’s among the United States’ largest ducks. They can be found at the Audubon Sanctuary and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in November. American Ducks are one of the waterfowl Audubon is focused on protecting. Their large size has made them susceptible to overhunting, and they are a species threatened by the impacts of sea level rise.

American Widgeon by Bill Gracey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

American Widgeon by Bill Gracey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


The Mallard is one the world’s most widely distributed, well-known and adaptable ducks. The small curled tail feathers of the male distinguish it from other ducks in all seasons. Wintering spots in the region include the Audubon Sanctuary and the Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.

December Arrival

Lesser Scaup

This diving duck has many names, including blackhead, bullhead, blackjack and river bluebill. Scaup will spend several months overwintering at the Audubon Sanctuary until it departs in March.

Lesser Scaup LMO 3 by THE Holy Hand Grenade! is licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

Lesser Scaup LMO 3 by THE Holy Hand Grenade! is licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0


Redheads do most of their feeding at night, spending the daylight hours resting on water. The male’s call can resemble the meow of a cat. They will make their winter home on the Audubon Sanctuary and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Redhead by Shell Game is licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Redhead by Shell Game is licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Year-round residents

Wood Duck

These striking, colorful ducks were once on the brink of extinction, but thanks to the tireless efforts of many, they are now thriving in North Carolina. The dramatic plumage and droopy crest of the Wood Duck can be found on the Audubon Sanctuary year-round and in the near-by Dismal Swamp.

Wood Duck by Donald Mullaney.

Wood Duck by Donald Mullaney.

If you are planning a trip to the Outer Banks this winter, always remember, Waterfowl distribution varies year-to-year and week-to-week, so it’s good to check in with sites to see who is around before you schedule a visit.

A New Alliance Addresses the Health of Currituck Sound

Please welcome Audubon North Carolina’s Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary Director Robbie Fearn. Robbie will direct Audubon’s restoration and revitalization efforts for the Audubon Sanctuary and the adjacent Currituck Sound.

On September 22, Individuals gathered in the Cooperative Extension Auditorium in Barco, NC with the expressed goal of forming an alliance to ensure a brighter future for Currituck Sound.

Wood Duck by Donald Mullaney.

Wood Duck by Donald Mullaney.

Conservation Needs at Currituck Sound

A look back at the history of barrier island migration, sea levels and inlet formation started our day as a diverse group of nearly 40 citizens, government officials and nonprofit leaders gathered to discuss and plan for the improvement of Currituck Sound.

The meeting was hosted by Audubon North Carolina, the UNC Coastal Studies Institute, the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuarine Partnership, Mackay’s Island and Currituck National Wildlife Refuges, and the Currituck site of the National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Currituck Sound has long held a special place in the hearts of those that have experienced it. Abundant waterfowl lead to the establishment of major duck hunting lodges here in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fishing also became a major draw. The beauty of the sunlight on the water inspired artists and took their breath away.


Northern Shoveler by Donald Mullaney.

Northern Shoveler by Donald Mullaney.

Today the sound has too high a sediment load from marsh loss due to erosion and a reduction in submerged aquatic vegetation resulting in less abundant birds and fish. The Currituck Alliance will work to reduce erosion and restore marshes resulting in clearer water and a more productive ecosystem – ultimately supporting more fish and more waterfowl.

What Was Accomplished

Participants at the meeting worked to identify ways to engage community members in the dialogue, discussed the current status of various elements of the ecosystem, debated to what level we would seek to restore the sound, and explored what changes might be wrought by sea level rise. But most importantly we began a dialogue to identify what we could do together to benefit our local environment and our local economy.

Life in northeastern North Carolina is often a life on the edge. The wind can howl, storms rage, some years the ducks are plentiful, some years not, but by protecting the sound we are together focused on the infrastructure of our community; that which binds us all and propels us forward, and that which will continue to bring not only ducks, but tourists – flocking to a wonderland that still takes one’s breath way.

Citizen involvement is critical to protecting wildlife. Working together for the health of Currituck Sound, we will ensure a bright future for the life of our region.

Tundra Swan by Will Stuart.

Tundra Swan by Will Stuart.

Check back to learn more about the Currituck Alliance and the conservation efforts at the Audubon Sanctuary in Corolla.

A Fall Guide to Coastal Migration

Leaves are changing colors, the weather is getting chillier and North Carolina’s coastal birds are preparing for a change in scenery too! While this fall brings bird migration departures, many new arrivals are starting to appear along our coast. So, grab your binoculars and take a trip over to the beach to see your favorite birds.



One of the coasts’ newest additions this October will be the droop-billed, colorful Dunlin. Its populations will peak over the winter at inlets across the NC coast.

Dunlin by Walker Golder

Dunlin by Walker Golder


These small white birds may stand at six inches tall, but in August to mid-September, they can be spotted at any beach in North Carolina picking at the sand. Sanderlings leave at the end of the winter for the Arctic. They enjoy the cold, but not winters in the Arctic!


Sanderling on Rich Inlet shoal by Lindsay Addison

Black-bellied Plover

The distinct whistles and speckled backs of the Black-bellied Plover can be heard and seen at coastal inlets from July to October.

The Black-bellied Plover, an actic breeder, is sometimes seen on its wintering grounds in breeding plumage. / Lindsay Addison

The Black-bellied Plover, an actic breeder, is sometimes seen on its wintering grounds in breeding plumage. / Lindsay Addison

Western Sandpiper

The Western Sandpiper, with its long beak and orange and brown speckles can be spotted at coastal inlets in the fall wading in shallow water along beaches. Their populations are especially large between September and October.

Red Knot

redknotThe red-bellied Red Knot arrives on the NC coast in August and stays until mid-November. Small flocks will stay for the winter. They can be found at Cape Point at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Cape Lookout National Seashore.


Royal Tern

With little black crowns on their heads, Royal Terns rule over the inlets of North Carolina, especially in mid-September. They leave their kingdoms to migrate to Florida, the Caribbean and South America in October to avoid NC’s chilly winters.

Marlene Eader releasing Royal Terns. Photo by Lindsay Addison.

Marlene Eader releasing Royal Terns. Photo by Lindsay Addison.

Black Skimmers

Black Skimmers are known for their large, red beaks. In August, they can be found at Mason, Rich and Topsail Inlets along the NC coast in flocks of over 1,000. Viewing is limited, as they are nearly all gone by Thanksgiving.

Black Skimmer family on Wrightsville Beach. Photo by Kathy Hannah.

Black Skimmer family on Wrightsville Beach. Photo by Kathy Hannah.

Wilson’s Plover

NC coastal inlets will be losing Wilson’s Plover to Florida and South America in September for its winter migration.

Wilson's Plover/Lindsay Addison

Wilson’s Plover/Lindsay Addison

Arriving and Departing

The American Oystercatcher

The large, long-beaked and chicken-legged American Oystercatcher is hard to miss. August through November, however, it can be found even more easily on the coast of North Carolina, especially in the Masonboro Sound and on the rocks at Fort Fisher.

American Oystercatchers/Lindsay Addison

American Oystercatchers/Lindsay Addison

Piping Plover

This small, pale shorebird with a characteristically small beak is protected on NC’s beaches and inlets. Piping Plovers can be particularly found during the fall and winter at the Rachel Carson NERR, Topsail Inlet, Rich Inlet, and the spit at Fort Fisher, Tubbs Inlet.

Bandit the Piping Plover/Lindsay Addison

Bandit the Piping Plover/Lindsay Addison

When you are out spotting this season, always remember to share the beach. Click to learn how Audubon NC is working to protect our coastal birds all year-round.