Ocracoke Inlet Islands Update

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, shorebirds have a chance to thrive. Read on to learn more about nesting updates from islands inside the Ocracoke Inlet and the coastal team who protects them.

Please welcome staff member Lindsay Addison.

Ocracoke Inlet lies between Ocracoke Island, part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, to the north and North Core Banks, part of Cape Lookout National Seashore, to the south. The inlet connects the vast Pamlico Sound with the Atlantic Ocean. Near this sometimes rough and choppy inlet are several tiny islands rising out of oysterbeds and sand flats. Years ago, the islands were large enough to hold a lighthouse that predated Ocracoke Light, other buildings and wharves.

Over the years, they’ve since eroded. Though they are now reduced in size, they still provide nesting habitat for many birds.

Beacon Island

The marshy Beacon Island, is the largest of these. It plays host to nesting Brown Pelicans —sometimes more than 500 pairs—along with oystercatchers and Laughing Gulls. This year, the pelicans chose a nearby island built of dredged sand. Two pairs of American Oystercatchers and Black-crowned Night Herons, along with 30 pairs of Forster’s Terns, have chosen the island for their nests.

Forster’s Terns are small, orange-billed terns that resemble Common Terns at first glance. They nest on wrack (dead vegetation) that forms mats in the marsh grass. Most were incubating on our last visit to the island. Meanwhile, the oystercatcher pairs each have chicks. One of them has fledged two chicks, while the other pair’s chick is still growing.

Volunteer Maria Logan putting up a sign on Beacon Island. Photo by Lindsay Addison. Volunteer Maria Logan putting up a sign on Beacon Island. Photo by Lindsay Addison.

Shell Castle Island

To the east of Beacon lies Shell Castle Island. Shell Castle is a long, narrow finger of oyster shell, backed by extensive oysterbeds. In years when no storms rake its precarious high ground, the Oystercatchers that nest there do well. Their chicks can walk with the parents a few feet to an oyster buffet and eat their fill, while other pairs must commute back and forth to bring in shellfish food.

This year, three oystercatcher pairs hold territories on the eastern portion of Shell Castle, and two have broods of chicks, hatched from re-nesting that followed the passage of Tropical Storm Ana.

The western portion of Shell Castle is where ships used to offload their ballast stones before making their way across Pamlico Sound. The long, narrow island is home to nesting Common Terns and Black Skimmers. A recent visit found about 15 pairs of each hatching chicks!

Common Tern with chick. Photo by Lindsay Addison. Common Tern with chick. Photo by Lindsay Addison.

North Rock Island:

The third of the Audubon Sanctuaries is North Rock Island, a grouping of several small marsh and shell islands. North Rock is home to a Great Egret colony that produced over 15 fledglings this year, along with several more pairs of oystercatchers. There’s even a colony of about 50 pairs of Royal Terns! The terns rode out Ana and about 25 chicks are now scurrying around the island, tended to by parents who are working hard to feed the hungry youngsters.

The oystercatchers are doing great and all are working on raising chicks. Some even wear bands. One, Dark Green EM, hatched from North Rock in 2010. It wintered around Beaufort Inlet about 40 miles south and returned to the tiny islands in Ocracoke Inlet to nest for the first time in 2014. There, it successfully fledged a chick! This year, it’s tending to its chicks with an unbanded mate. With a little luck and some calm weather, it may succeed again.

Learn more about Audubon North Carolina’s conservation efforts to protect the seas and shores our birds need to thrive. 

How you can help, right now