Cape Fear River Islands Receive Makeover

This spring we will be joined by communications intern Megan Beausoleil, a UNCW creative writing student. She will be joining us in the field and reporting on her experiences and observations.

It’s nesting season again in coastal North Carolina, and the shorebirds are coming back in droves to begin courtship, pairing up and most importantly, constructing their nests. As an inlander, I grew up watching songbirds making nests in trees and shrubs, using everything from twigs to string to hair and spider webs. The results were always wonderful to behold. But while songbirds choose to build their nests up high, their water-wading cousins prefer to take the low road.

Many shorebirds build their nests directly on the ground, close to the water where they are more likely to find steady food. Pairs will scrape the ground with their feet to create a divot in the sand or dirt, deep enough to keep eggs from rolling away. Some species will line their scrapes with feathers or shells. While the result often isn’t quite as pretty as a bluebird’s elaborate construction, nest scrapes get the job done.

Nest of Willet eggs. Photo by Lindsay Addison.

Many of North Carolina’s returning shorebirds will seek out their nesting spots from last year. This will bring flocks of terns, oystercatchers and gulls to the islands of the Cape Fear River. However, many of the islands aren’t quite ready yet: just as the birds must scrape the ground to create their nests, the overgrown islands must be scraped of vegetation to allow a smooth, flat surface for nesting.

Audubon North Carolina called in Maritech Dredging to take up the challenge. Headed by Adam Knierim, the company specializes in dredging, marine construction, and geotechnical sampling and analysis. This was the company’s first foray into scraping vegetation for nesting birds.

Last month, Audubon coastal biologist Lindsay Addison was kind enough to take me along on one such scraping adventure. Against wind and rain, we zipped up the Cape Fear River beside Maritech’s barge and tug. Along the way, we spotted several sets of returning American Oystercatchers and gulls galore. Two pairs of Great Egrets also graced us with their presence, roosting in a dead tree on one of the Cape Fear’s many islands. Maritech was only hired to scrape two islands, and Lindsay informs me that it has been years since any of the others have been repacked with fresh sand from dredge projects, leading to low, fully vegetated islands that egrets and pelicans use.

A pair of oystercatchers watches as the boat goes by. By Lindsay Addison

All the activity had us excited to get scraping. When we reached the island in question, rather than finding terns or oystercatchers waiting patiently for a flat, fresh surface for their nests, we were greeted by innumerable amounts of Laughing Gulls. They didn’t seem too afraid of the powerful track loader Maritech used to clear out the dead foliage, and even nestled into the fresh dirt that slowly tilled up behind it.

Amidst the gull calls, Lindsay spots Arnie, one of Audubon NC’s satellite-tracked oystercatchers. We are pleased to see him back on his home turf!

Despite the cold, rainy weather and fearless gulls, the vegetation scraping eventually turned out to be a success. The Cape Fear River now has two foliage-free islands for returning birds to make their nests. Audubon is hopeful they will attract many terns and oystercatchers, among other species, but they’d better hurry—spots will be first come, first serve.

Vegetation clearing being done on Ferry Slip Island. By Lindsay Addison

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