Each month we feature one of the 95 IBA's (Important Bird Area) in North Carolina. This month our team from Wilmington is showcasing the Bald Head-Smith Island IBA's rich coastal habitat. This post is written by Audubon North Carolina's Brianna Elliott.
Bald Head-Smith Island IBA consists of a chain of barrier islands located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Brunswick County. It faces Battery Island and Oak Island to its west, connects with Fort Fisher to north, and connects with the Frying Pan Shoals at its southeast corner, an area of rocky shoals that extend 20 miles offshore. This chain of small barrier islands are better known as the Smith Island Complex, and consists of Zeke’s Island, Shellbed Island, Bald Head Island, Middle Island and Bluff Islands. A winding marsh and creeks separate the islands, including Bald Head Creek and Cape Creek, but all islands but Zeke’s and Shellbed remain connected today by one strip of beach along their eastern side, simply known as East Beach.
Compared with other southeastern NC barrier islands, Bald Head has minimal development. There are no chain businesses and commercial development is minimal; most of the developed land is for residential purposes. Bald Head is only accessible by passenger ferry or private boat, and visitors must leave their cars on the mainland. Golf carts serve as the only form of transportation on Bald Head and Middle Islands, and Bluff Island remains undeveloped.
Of the 12,400 acres that compose Bald Head-Smith Island IBA, 10,000 are protected. The Smith Island Complex consists of quite diverse habitat, including 10,000 acres of marshland, 15.3 kilometers of beach, and 191 acres of maritime forest preserve. The islands are constantly reshaping due to storms, erosion, and natural barrier island migration. Large tidal pools are often forming and retracting on Bald Head’s extensive South and East Beach shoals area, and in fact, Bald Head and Middle Islands were disconnected from Bluff Island until 2004 when a hurricane closed New Inlet on East Beach. Unlike many barrier islands in Southeast North Carolina that are shaped as lateral lengths of sand, Bald Head is shaped as a large spit and is therefore able to house a maritime forest behind its dune line, which helps to stabilize the shoreline, provide a hurricane buffer, and provide extensive habitat for animals. The forest, marsh, and beach areas all provide extensive habitat for colonial nesting birds, wading birds, sea turtles, alligators, oyster reefs, and diamondback terrapins.
Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, and American Oystercatchers roosting on a shell rake on Shellbed Island. Photo by Lindsay Addison.
Specifically, these habitats provide excellent nesting, wading, and migrating grounds for birds. Bald Head-Smith Island has been visited by 210 species of birds to date and is a part of the Southport Christmas Bird Count. The marshes provide feeding and wading grounds for Saltmarsh Sparrows, Nelson’s Sparrows, Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rails, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and White Ibis. Raptors, especially Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, American Kestrels, and Sharp-shinned Hawks are regular visitors during migration. Wilson’s Plovers, Least Terns, Black Skimmers, and Willets nest on Bald Head’s South and East Beaches. At the “Point,” where South and East Beach meet, a small area of beach face that reaches the dune line is roped off from public access from April to September to allow for nesting. Additionally, Bald Head- Smith Island IBA has also been designated a globally significant population for Painted Buntings, which can be heard chirping during the summer season in the maritime forest on Middle Island. Additionally, this IBA supports the largest population of wintering American Oystercatchers in the state, at around 400. In the summer months, over 20 pairs nest on Shellbed Island’s shell rakes.
Audubon North Carolina monitors and manages Shellbed Island, while wildlife management on Bald Head-Smith Island is primarily done by the Bald Head Island Conservancy (BHIC), a non-profit group that formed in 1983. BHIC has an extensive sea turtle monitoring program where the beaches are patrolled from dusk to dawn via UTV during the nesting season. BHIC also monitors other wildlife populations, including deer, raccoon, fox, and alligators, as well as managing and monitoring nesting in the bird colony at the Point. The Conservancy also offers a birding tour every Monday, year-round, at 8 AM. In addition to the Conservancy, the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and North Carolina Park Services manage parts of the IBA and play a role in conservation and management. In addition to those groups, small segments of Bald Head-Smith Island are under private ownership.
To help sustain bird and sea turtle populations on Bald Head-Smith Island, residents and visitors can take the following steps:
- Do not enter the bird nesting colony when the signs are posted. To report any downed signs or violations, call the Bald Head Island Conservancy at 910-457-0089.
- Keep you dogs off the beach during the late spring to early fall months! Dogs are seen as predators by nesting birds and cause the birds to fly off their nests, leaving eggs and chicks exposed to extreme temperatures and predators.
- Take your trash off the beach with you. Trash can be pulled into the ocean, blown into the nesting colony, and plastic bags are often mistaken for jellyfish, which are a delicious meal for a sea turtle.
- Report any sea turtle tracks to the Bald Head Island Conservancy so that they can cage and protect the nest before it is visited by predators.