Nesting season opens for feathers and flippers

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A few American oystercatchers were first to land on Wrightsville’s beach strand, kicking off the 2015 nesting season late in March.

The oystercatchers are typically the first shorebirds to nest after pairing off and establishing nesting territory, said Audubon North Carolina Coastal Biologist Lindsay Addison. She expects black skimmers, least terns and common terns to arrive and nest later in April.

“We hope to have the entire cast of characters back this year,” Addison said.

The south end bird habitat, enclosed March 30 to keep nests safe from human disturbance, was home to hundreds of nesting least tern pairs in previous years, but hosted no successful nests in 2014. Six pairs attempted to nest, but Addison attributed the failure to disturbance from marine construction crews dredging sand from Masonboro Inlet to pump on the beach for Wrightsville’s coastal storm damage reduction project.

“We basically lost the entire least tern colony,” Addison said. Because the south end has accreted sand over the past year, providing more open sandy habitat preferred by the birds, Addison said some of the lost least terns should return for the 2015 season.

The chicks will fledge, or begin to fly, in June and July, a metric Audubon uses to determine the success of each species’ nesting efforts.

Information about nesting birds inside the south end enclosure is available via Audubon volunteers, typically staffed around the enclosure perimeter. Beginning April 27, Audubon will also offer educational bird walks around the nesting habitat every Monday at 9 a.m., with groups meeting at the gazebo near Public Beach Access No. 43.

Addison said beach visitors are often excited to observe the nesting birds and baby chicks.

“Most of the time, especially people who don’t live around here don’t know birds nest on the beach,” Addison said. “They didn’t know when they came to the south end they would get to see an egg or a chick, or adult birds courting and fishing. They’re doing all these different behaviors that are fun to watch, and it adds a different dimension to the beach.”

Sea turtles are next to nest, bringing Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project volunteers to the beach strand at dawn each day from May through August to look for tracks in the sand. Loggerhead females crawl onto the beach at night to deposit a clutch of about 100 leathery eggs into a hole in the sand before returning to the ocean. Volunteers mark each nest site to keep the eggs safe until they hatch about 60 days later.

Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project Coordinator Nancy Fahey said the group’s efforts, which also include rescuing stranded turtles and raising money for The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, are intended to offset the challenges a developed coastline pose for the endangered species.

“We’ve thrown up a lot of obstacles as far as their ability to survive in the manner they used to, when they were relatively undisturbed. We definitely have, I think, put the turtles in a position that the odds are no longer in their favor,” Fahey said. “I feel like it’s important for us to give back, to increase those odds.”

Volunteers trek across miles of the undeveloped Masonboro Island Reserve coastline at dawn with eyes peeled for sea turtle tracks beginning in May. The Masonboro beach strand also hosts shorebird nests, primarily laid by oystercatchers outside a nesting enclosure near the Big Bay area of the island. Reserve staff tries to alert island visitors to the nests, called scrapes, which are barely visible in the dry, open sand, said N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Reserve Stewardship Coordinator and Southern Sites Manager Hope Sutton.

“We put out temporary signs about bird nesting on the island to provide some information to key people into the fact that these nests are just eggs in a little indentation in the ground,” Sutton said.

To get involved with Audubon’s efforts on the south end of Wrightsville Beach, email Marlene Eader at marlene.eader@gmail.com.

Newcomers to the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project are required to join veteran volunteers for an April 2 meeting in the Fran Russ Recreation Center at 7 p.m.

Masonboro will also hold informational meetings at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Center for Marine Science for interested volunteers, including an April 23 meeting for turtle nest monitoring and an April 30 meeting for bird volunteers, both at 6 p.m.

email miriah@luminanews.com

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