Nesting Update: Lea- Hutaff Island

For more than 25 years, Audubon North Carolina has managed a network of coastal sites along our state’s coast offering a haven for beach-nesting birds. By protecting the specialized habitats that birds need, coastal birds have a chance to thrive. Read on to learn more about nesting updates at one of our important birding areas, Lea-Hutaff Island, and the coastal team who protects them. 

Please welcome Audubon North Carolina Biological Technician Sharna Tolfree.

Between Topsail Island to the north and Figure 8 Island to the south, there lies a haven for wildlife: Lea-Hutaff Island. One of the few unbridged and undeveloped barrier islands in the state, it provides excellent habitat for nesting birds and sea turtles, as well as opportunities for fishing and recreation for people.

Audubon North Carolina works with the Hutaff family and partners with the State of North Carolina, the Carolina Coastal Land Trust and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase most of Lea Island and turn it over to the state’s Natural Heritage Program for permanent protection.

Lea-Hutaff has seen a flurry of activity this spring. American Oystercatchers, Willets, Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns have all nested on the island since the island has been monitored, and are back again this year.

Conquering Tropical Storm Ana

Early in May, Tropical Storm Ana caused some minor setbacks for the nesting birds. High tides crashed on the shore, and a storm surge washed away most of the Least Tern nests (we had one survivor!) at the north and south ends of the island. The oystercatcher nests at the ends of the islands were also lost. But since the losses came early enough in the season, the birds bounced back and began re-nesting quickly.

The Least Tern colony on Hutaff set to work, growing their numbers, while both the Common Terns and Black Skimmers scraped the sand and nested following the storm. We were especially excited to see the Black Skimmers, who haven’t nested on Lea-Hutaff in more than 10 years! Their return is quite the exciting development.

Photo: Sharna Tolfree

New Life Comes to Lea-Hutaff

Now hatching is underway! The second round of Least Tern nests started hatching, as have the earlier Wilson’s Plover and Willet nests. We now have a flurry of baby birds chirping along our shores. The Oystercatchers aren’t far behind, with four pairs incubating nests on the south end of Hutaff Island. Meanwhile, about 20 pairs of oystercatchers nest along the middle of the island, with another two at the north end of Lea Island.

Sea turtle activity on the island is also picking up. We’ve found multiple false crawls, where a turtle crawls up the shore but fails to nest, but no actual nests yet. The topography of the island doesn’t support turtle habitats above high tide, unfortunately, and the dunes have eroded, leaving a tall, steep scarp. As a result, it could be a slow turtle season. We hope, though, that a female gets lucky and finds a good spot to deposit her eggs.

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