Independence Day on Wrightsville Beach

Another entry in Abby’s Birdbrained Summer.  Abby, the summer communication intern for the Coast Office of Audubon North Carolina, is visiting sites with Audubon’s field staff and our community of volunteers. After she goes into the field, she’ll post blogs detailing her experiences.

The Independence Day rush had already begun when I arrived at the south end of Wrightsville beach at 9 a.m. Parking spaces were depleted, and vehicles were pulling vicious maneuvers to obtain the remaining spots. Large groups of young people clad in red-white-and-blue swimwear toted coolers toward Masonboro Inlet and waited for boats to pick them up and ferry them over to the party on Masonboro Island, which lies just south of Wrightsville Beach and one of the largest and most productive tern and skimmer colonies in the state. The birds in the nesting colony did not seem particularly perturbed by the hubbub, which stayed on the correct side of the posting. However, some of the birds took an early morning visit outside the string.

A pair of Willets and their four chicks formed a line and marched to the water, oblivious to the choppy wakes resulting from high-volume boat traffic. Freshly banded Black Skimmer chicks ran safely within the posting with the frenzied energy of the Three Stooges.

A number of Wrightsville Beach Bird Stewards were present to facilitate communication with the public and minimize disturbance to the birds. Steward Kathy Hannah aimed a scope at an adult Least Tern feeding its fledgling. The bird dangled a fish toward its young, but flew a few feet away right as the fledgling lunged for the food. The young bird flapped its wings and took flight in pursuit of the fish. “I think that’s how they teach their young to fly,” Kathy told a couple tourists. “They only have their learner’s permits right now.” The fledgling Least Terns were already the same size as their parents, just lacking the distinctive black cap and yellow beak.

This Least Tern was tending a just-hatched chick and an egg on the Fourth while many of its peers were feeding fledged chicks. By Lindsay Addison

A Common Tern fledgling takes to the skies on July Fourth. By Lindsay Addison

“A lot of people from out of the area come to town just for July Fourth and might want to know about the colony,” said Michelle Frazier, one of the Wrightsville Beach Bird Stewards. There was a notably higher interest in the colony by families of tourists than locals or party-goers. A man from New York watched as his two young daughters gazed through a scope at a freshly hatched Least Tern “baby.” On the other hand, groups intent on going to Masonboro Island seemed uninterested in the colony, and devised plans to cross the inlet. Many entrepreneurs planned to turn a profit ferrying party-goers to and from Masonboro, but law enforcement from Wrightsville Beach was ready.

According to Shannon Slocum, the Wrightsville Beach Park Ranger, it is illegal for a boater to accept money for a ride unless he has a captain’s license. Even if the boater in question has a captain’s license, it is always illegal for commercial boats to land on Wrightsville Beach. When the main transport to Masonboro Island was derailed, people got creative, if unintelligent, in crossing. A Sea Tow boat and a lifeguard apprehended six people trying to swim to Masonboro Island. Boats driving quickly with their bows up might have been unable to see swimmers’ heads protruding from the water. Another group bought bright orange inflatable inner tubes and attempted to row across. The current was so strong that the tubes were immediately sucked away from Masonboro Island and directly into the line of oncoming boat traffic. Luckily, a boater stopped to pick up the people on the inner tubes. Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue watched the inlet all day and swooped in to help many others. Town alderman Bill Sisson rode along with law enforcement all day to learn about the effort firsthand while Shannon and other officers stopped boats from landing or wrote tickets to those that did.

The annual Fourth of July party on Masonboro Island brings rowdy revelers to Wrightsville Beach. This year, additional police presence diminished their impact to the south end of Wrightsville Beach. By Lindsay Addison

Last year, partiers returning from Masonboro Island were a terrible threat to the birds. Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project coordinator Nancy Fahey, who also volunteers to help the birds, said that many people were so drunk when they got dropped off on the south end of Wrightsville that they didn’t know where they were or how to get home. In that state, people could easily stumble through the posting and trample eggs or chicks. Many had to be diverted from the posting by staff and volunteers, but some entered the posting before they could be re-routed. “This year was much better than last year,” said Audubon’s coastal biologist, Lindsay Addison. "No one went in the posting. There weren't as many people coming back from Masonboro. It was a nicer place to be for everyone." Doubtless this was due to law enforcement's efforts which drastically reduced the number of drunken revelers being landing at the south end.

A beach-goer and his daughters learn about Least Terns and Black Skimmers from bird stewards. By Lindsay Addison

Marlene Eader, the volunteer coordinator for the Wrightsville Beach Bird Stewards, promoted friendly interactions with partiers. We handed out trash bags to reduce litter, and warned lawbreakers about fines for having dogs or alcohol on the beach. Interested people were educated about birds. When a group of stewards and interested beachgoers had gathered, Lindsay banded two Black Skimmer chicks. “We normally try to divert people away from the chicks if they leave the posting,” said Lindsay, “but on the Fourth of July, we pick them up and put them back in the posting because of increased traffic. If I’ve already picked them up, I might as well band them.” Overall, the holiday was successful; no people or birds were harmed on the south end of Wrightsville Beach.

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