Between 8 and 20 percent of North Carolina’s least tern population nests on the sandy end points of Wrightsville Beach each year, but during 2014 only four nests can be found on the north end.
Habitat loss resulting from the Coastal Storm Damage Reduction Project prevented any least tern pairs from successfully nesting at the south end.
“Problems with human disturbance and a lack of appropriate management for beach nesting birds at the north end of Wrightsville Beach have caused that colony to essentially fail,” said Lindsay Addison, Audubon North Carolina coastal biologist, during a May 29 phone interview.
Audubon North Carolina managed the Mason Inlet Waterbird Habitat Management Area at the north end of Wrightsville Beach for 10 years. The county did not renew its contract with Audubon after the shorebird nesting season ended in September 2013.
Addison said staff and volunteers logged as many as 125 least terns on the north end as part of a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission census conducted in early May. She believes human disturbance during Memorial Day weekend could have contributed to the colony’s failure to nest.
Addison said postings around the area do not form an unbroken perimeter, which can mislead beachgoers to believe it is okay to enter at unmarked locations.
“They don’t know they’re doing any harm. You can’t expect people to know there’s a tiny sandy-colored bird with an egg the size of your thumbnail in the sand,” Addison said.
Another problem she said is loose or dangling string, which can ensnare birds, sea turtles and other marine life.
“A lot of signs washed down and strings have not been maintained and the posting has not been adjusted to accommodate the needs of the nesting birds. … It’s very simple work that makes a huge difference to the birds,” Addison said, estimating it would take two or three hours for five people to fix the posting issues.
Audubon has received calls and emails concerning the state of the posting. A recent mass email fielded further comment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both organizations are involved in the permit that establishes management duties for the protected area.
County engineer Jim Iannucci said the county is working on solutions to the problem, including a transition to more permanent posting materials and area realignment to limit damage from incoming tides. A May 30 meeting at the management area called by the Fish and Wildlife Service provided direction that allows the county to move forward with those solutions.
“They were really good at working with us and walking the whole area. So we’ll be in the process of ordering new signs, getting up additional stakes and strings, then eventually having more of a permanent solution of some sturdier posts and better rope and things that will be a lot more visible for the public to see,” Iannucci said during a June 2 phone interview.
Iannucci said new signs will more clearly denote the area as protected habitat for shorebirds.
Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kathy Matthews said once the county addresses expectations established in the meeting, the groups can shift focus to the county’s request to modify management requirements outlined in the 30-year permit issued for the Mason Inlet relocation project.
The county’s management responsibilities are fewer while the permit modification process is underway.
“We told them they didn’t have to report numbers of birds and eggs to us while we are going through consultation. Even though they don’t have to report numbers, they do need to maintain that area and know where birds and nests are so they can adequately fence around them if they need to,” Matthews said during a June 3 phone interview.
Matthews said once the corps submits a formal request to initiate a consultation, the Fish and Wildlife Service would prepare a biological opinion within 135 days. Requirements included in the biological opinion would likely be incorporated into the modified permit.
Iannucci said the county plans to contract management duties to an outside organization again after the new responsibilities are established.
“We’ve had some discussions with the Mason Inlet Preservation Group … and they may want to have some volunteer effort,” Iannuuci said.