The Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area (WMA) is a 300-acre sanctuary for birds, wildlife and people. Mason Inlet offers a variety of barrier island habitats, including open beaches, dunes and marsh. As you follow this trail around the sanctuary, keep an eye out for wildlife, and please help the birds by staying out of areas marked off by posts and ropes. Most importantly, enjoy your visit!

Here, birdlife changes with the seasons: in winter, flocks of small shorebirds feed on sandy inlet shoals, while during summer large groups (colonies) of Least Terns raise their chicks on hot sand.

North Carolina's barrier islands separate the mainland from the ocean, and are constantly changing because of wind and ocean currents. Inlets are dynamic waterways on the ends of barrier islands that can close with a single storm, or slowly migrate from one location to another.

Located between Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island, Mason Inlet migrated over half a mile south during the 1980's and 90's. Its movement created large expanses of open sand flats that became perfect breeding and feeding habitat for birds such as Black Skimmers, Least Terns and endangered Piping Plovers.

In the winter of 2001-2002, dredges and other heavy equipment moved Mason Inlet 3,000 feet north in an effort to prevent damage to nearby buildings. To offset the resulting loss of bird habitat, New Hanover County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created this sanctuary. The area's mix of low dunes and exposed sand flats provide perfect habitat for beach-nesting birds.

Who manages Mason Inlet?

Audubon North Carolina, a nonprofit conservation organization, manages Mason Inlet WMA with support from New Hanover County and Wrightsville Beach. Audubon staff protects the nesting areas with signs and rope, monitors the site and its wildlife, and engages and educates beachgoers through field trips. County ordinances prohibit people and dogs from trespassing inside the Mason Inlet WMA.

Do you offer tours of Mason Inlet?

Audubon North Carolina offers guided tours of Mason Inlet during the nesting season between April and August. Check this kiosk[MH1]  for more information, visit our website or call 910.686.7527910.686.7527.

Beach-nesting birds

It's hard to imagine that some birds nest on the hot sand on a barrier island, but they do! From April through August, terns, skimmers, oystercatchers and other beach-nesting birds find plant-free sandy areas where they build their nests, which are bowl-shaped depressions called scrapes. Nests are sometimes lined with bits of shell and debris to help hide the eggs.

One or both parents incubate the eggs and shelter the young from sun and rain. The eggs are colored to blend in with sand and shells, making them difficult to see. Downy chicks that look like tiny fluff balls leave their nests soon after hatching, but stay on the beach for several weeks with their parents until they are old enough to fly and fend for themselves.

Share the beach with birds

Nesting on the beach is a challenge. Storms and extreme tides can wash away entire nesting colonies, and predators including foxes, raccoons and gulls eat eggs and young. Coastal development and beach stabilization threaten the birds' nesting habitat as well.

People and their pets also pose a threat: when people or dogs enter nesting areas, adult birds become alarmed and fly off their nests, leaving the eggs or chicks exposed to the elements and predators. Just a few minutes of exposure to the sun or severe weather can kill an egg or young bird.

We can all take a few steps to help the birds have a successful nesting season.

  • Stay out of nesting areas and enjoy the birds from a distance.
  • Avoid flying kites, throwing balls and exploding fireworks near nesting and feeding areas. These activities can cause birds to leave their nest leaving chicks unprotected.
  • Do not feed gulls. This seemingly harmless activity can attract gulls to nesting areas where they prey on eggs and baby birds.
  • Take trash with you when you leave the beach. Garbage, including bait and scraps from cleaned fish, attracts predators to nesting areas. Discarded fishing line can entangle and kill birds.
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