Nesting Update: The South End of Wrightsville Beach, April - May

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 the south end of Wrightsville Beach and the coastal team who protects them.

Please welcome guest-writer from Audubon’s Coastal Team Katharine Frazier.

The south end of Wrightsville Beach is an important site for five species of beach-nesting birds. This year marks the sixth year that birds have used the site and the sixth year that Audubon has managed it with the partnership of the Town of Wrightsville Beach and Wrightsville Beach Elementary School.

First Arrivals

As usual, American Oystercatchers and Willets were the first to arrive on the scene in late March. The oystercatchers performed the usual acts of finding a mate and establishing patches of territory. The ever-secretive willets disappeared into the thick dune grasses to begin nesting.

So far, 2015 has seen four pairs of American Oystercatchers and three—perhaps even four—pairs of Willets settle down on the south end for the season. Both species are solitary nesters, meaning each pair defends its own territory.

Soon after the arrival of oystercatchers and Willets, the Common Terns and Black Skimmers returned to the south end and spent a few days recovering from their long migration, before turning to the task of courtship. Unlike oystercatchers and Willets, these species are colonial, meaning they nest in groups. Around ten pairs of Common Terns have decided to carve out their territories on the south end. Large numbers of Black Skimmers, meanwhile, dotted the sand and glided gracefully over the inlet throughout April as they prepared for the nesting season ahead.

Photo: Lindsay Addison

Last to arrive at the south end were the Least Terns, who descended upon the nesting grounds with a chorus of their squeaky, playful calls in late April. In previous years at Wrightsville Beach, Least Terns have been the most numerous species.

Audubon At Work in the Field

In an effort to lure more terns back, coastal biologist Lindsay Addison crafted about 40 wooden Least Tern decoys. When placed within the appropriate habitat, these simple cutouts looked like the beginnings of a colony, just what social birds like Least Terns needed to see to regain confidence in the nesting site. Drawn in by the sight of the decoys, more and more Least Terns decided to settle down on the south end of Wrightsville Beach. By early May, the nesting season was underway.

During the first week of May, Least Terns presented potential mates with freshly-caught silverside minnows, Black Skimmers filled the air with their bark-like calls and the Common Terns incubated newly laid eggs. The oystercatchers and Willets, already well on their way to hatching eggs deep in the dunes, appeared periodically by the water’s edge to forage with their dagger-like bills.

Natural Set Backs

All was well until, on Mother’s Day weekend, nature presented a setback: Tropical Storm Ana.

Ana began as an area of low pressure over the Atlantic and proceeded to crawl sluggishly up the coast. The storm moved slowly, held back by cool ocean temperatures, until finally making landfall in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

When the storm hit Wrightsville Beach, it brought a day of heavy rain, but none of the destructive winds of a stronger storm. The town escaped the storm wet and covered in puddles, but safe from harm.

Ana’s rain brought an unusually high tide to the south end, a tide that at its highest covered the sandy spit up to the foot of the dunes. The nests of the Common Terns, Willets and American Oystercatchers were untouched, but the high tide had swept over the area of open sand where the Least Terns made their nests. About 20 nests—as well as the decoys—were washed away with the tide, bringing the Least Terns right back to square one.

But Least Terns, along with many other species of birds, will often re-nest if their first nest fails and there is enough time left in the season before they must migrate to their wintering grounds. Because Tropical Storm Ana was such an early storm, the Least Terns who were unfortunate enough to lose their nests had plenty of time to begin again—and begin again they did!

Since Tropical Storm Ana, events at the south end have moved forward quickly. Over 200 Least Terns are once again sitting on eggs. Black Skimmers—always the last to start nesting—continue to court potential mates and make scrapes. The Common Terns that aren’t busy sitting on nests resumed their annual duties of serving as the colony’s guards. They can be seen sitting atop signposts, on the lookout for possible threats to their nests.

Welcoming a New Generation of Chicks

Meanwhile, on May 21st, just days before the Memorial Day weekend, the first of the colony’s chicks—three tiny Willets—were spotted emerging from the dunes and venturing to the water’s edge. Looking like little ostriches, they walked in an orderly row along the shoreline under the watchful eyes of their parents until disappearing back into the grasses.

The sighting of the Willet chicks was a huge moment for this year’s nesting colony. After a month and a half of courtship, nesting and enduring bad weather, the colony finally had chicks!

Shortly after the inaugural appearance of the Willet chicks, the first oystercatcher chicks were seen sitting with their parents near the dunes. With each passing day, more chicks are bound to be discovered.

The colony survived the busy Memorial Day weekend, and the nesting season at the south end of Wrightsville Beach is now in full swing. Every day there’s something new to see.

With the Least Tern, Common Tern and Black Skimmer eggs poised to hatch in June, the beach will soon be overrun with chicks. We’ll watch as the chicks grow from adorable fuzzballs to sleek juveniles. We will see them take their first wobbly flights, learn to hunt for fish and finally undertake the migration to their wintering grounds.

It’s guaranteed to be a summer full of amazing sights and hopefully lots of chicks—keep checking Audubon’s blog to see how the 2015 nesting season unfolds on Wrightsville Beach!

Join the Wrightsville Beach bird stewards at the south end this summer on Monday mornings at 9 a.m. for a free guided tour of the nesting colony.

Get to know our Beach Bird Stewards in this short video. And learn more about Audubon North Carolina’s conservation efforts to protect the seas and shores our birds need to thrive. 

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