Reflections on a Summer as a Bird Steward

Please welcome guest blogger Katharine Frazier. Katharine is a high school senior in Wilmington, NC. She served as a Wrightsville Beach bird steward for the 2013 nesting season and has a strong interest in birding and bird conservation.

When I signed up to be a beach steward for Audubon, I didn't know what to expect. Initially, I was worried—would I be good at it? As a beach steward, it would be my responsibility to monitor the nesting colony for disturbances, educate visitors, and to promote positive interactions between the tourists and the birds.

Now, at the end of the season, I honestly don’t know what I was so nervous about. I can definitely say that stewarding at the Wrightsville Beach colony has been one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. As a steward, I had the opportunity to watch the entire nesting process unfold before me in a way that I'd never seen before. Every day at the beach was different, and it was thrilling to watch the colony evolve as the summer progressed. The squeaks of Least Terns and the barking of Black Skimmers truly became the soundtrack to my summer.

A juvenile Black Skimmer tests its wings. By Michelle and Katharine Frazier

One thing in particular that made stewarding such a great experience for me was having the opportunity to learn about the birds in such an in-depth manner. Sure, I knew how to identify the birds, but my time at the colony gave me the chance to learn a lot more. One of the most amazing things I learned was the difference in the birds' behaviors. I had no idea that there was such a stark difference between the personalities of different species. After just a few weeks on the beach, though, it was obvious.

I'll never forget the time when the Willet chicks ran out onto the beach in a perfect row like little soldiers.  With their huge feet and tiny bodies, they looked more like miniaturized ostriches than shorebirds. The chicks were incredibly obedient, always running in an organized line between the two parents. We only got to see them for a few minutes before they dissolved back into the dunes, but it was more than enough time for me to realize how different they were when compared to the other species in the colony. While the Willet chicks ran in a row, Least Tern chicks ran wildly around the beach as if it were their own private kingdom. The Black Skimmer chicks, on the other hand, either dug themselves into the sand or simply flattened themselves out in a way that makes them look dead. I can't even count the number of times I panicked because I thought a chick was dead, when in reality it was just taking a nap.

Four willet chicks make a guest appearance on the beach. By Michelle and Katharine Frazier

Of course, the American Oystercatchers were also a highlight of the summer. Between their flyovers of the colony in the mornings (which usually involved a lot of dramatic screeching and whistling) and their territorial displays (which also involved a lot of dramatic screeching and whistling), the oystercatchers were a must-see during any visit to the colony. One of the oystercatchers, Oreo, became a local celebrity among tourists and stewards alike with her very own website and satellite transmitter.

Oreo models the latest in geolocator fashion. By Michelle and Katharine Frazier

The American Oystercatchers always elicited gasps from tourists; even stewards got excited when the oystercatchers showed up with their beautiful red bills, long pink legs, and tuxedo-like plumage. Some of my favorite moments from this summer were when the parent oystercatchers would make an appearance with their chicks. The parents would always precede the chicks, whistling and announcing their arrival, while the chicks would quietly hang back.  It was easy to imagine the chicks being embarrassed by their parents’ frantic behavior!

While monitoring the colony this summer, the other stewards and I had the chance to talk to hundreds of beach-goers. When I pointed out the nesting colony to a curious visitor, I found that one of the most common responses was "I didn't even know there were birds nesting here!" It was amazing to see the change in this type of visitor over the course of a single conversation - they seemed to walk away a slightly a different person: more knowledgeable, aware, and excited about the birds in the colony.

For me, the best part of helping people learn about the colony was letting them look through the scope. I could tell the exact moment when the person spotted a bird, usually a fluffy Least Tern chick: they'd suddenly gasp and say something along the lines of "aww!" People just couldn’t believe how cute the chicks were. Even after being on the beach all summer, I still can’t get over the cuteness of the chicks either.

As intriguing as the birds of the colony were, I also enjoyed the “people” aspect of stewarding. There was such a variety of visitors to the colony this summer - in fact, some of the people were just as interesting as the birds! There were locals, summer tourists, international visitors, and even a couple from Illinois who got engaged right there at the colony. On one of the weekly bird walks, there was a man from South Africa who was visiting North America for the first time - he was travelling around the world to see birds, and was visiting Wrightsville Beach along the way. I had a great time showing him the nesting colony - many of the birds we saw that morning were life birds for him!

A group of stewards and birdwatchers sets off for the nesting colony. By Michelle and Katharine Frazier

As the nesting season progressed, people started to recognize the official blue steward shirt outside of the colony setting. More than once, complete strangers around town started talking to me about the colony when they noticed my shirt.  I'd be buying a coffee, and somebody behind me in line would start asking questions or telling me about the birds they've been seeing on the beach. As this became a regular occurrence, I started to feel proud and honored to wear my Audubon steward shirt. Even now, when I walk around campus with my Audubon shirt on, I feel super cool.

At the end of such an amazing season, I truly can't decide what my favorite part of stewarding was. It started out with my love for birds, but it grew into so much more: not only did I have an incredible time on the beach this summer, but I've forged some wonderful friendships with other stewards. I enjoyed learning about the birds this summer, and I loved being able to teach so many others about the colony. It was a privilege to watch the lives of these birds unfold. Now, whenever I hear the call of a Least Tern or Black Skimmer I'll always feel like I'm right back at the colony. I can’t wait for next year!

A bird’s-eye view of Katharine, as she watches the birds. By Michelle and Katharine Frazier

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