Winter Coastal Surveys Reveal New Shorebird Hotspot and Long-distance Visitors

Natural inlets and barrier islands provide critical stopover and wintering habitat for shorebirds, gulls, and more.

North Carolina’s natural inlets and barrier islands serve as baby bird nurseries during the spring and summer, when terns, skimmers, and pelicans return to nest on our shores. But these coastal habitats are just as important during the cold months, when birds need places to refuel for migration and rest for the winter.  

As Audubon’s coastal biologist, I spent the fall and winter patrolling our coast’s open beaches, mudflats, and marshes, counting thousands of birds and searching for banded individuals that give us important data on when and where birds move. Read on for a recap of our most interesting and important findings. 

Shorebird Haven at Tubbs Inlet 

This fall, Audubon began collecting data for the International Shorebird Survey at Tubbs Inlet, North Carolina’s second-most southern inlet, located at the eastern end of Sunset Beach. We’d seen large flocks of shorebirds when visiting the area for other purposes, and since no one else was collecting data, we started counting during our monthly oystercatcher roost surveys.  

We were there every month from September through December and tallied big shorebird numbers, including more than 1,000 Short-billed Dowitchers on each visit, a high count of 852 Western Sandpipers, and a high count of 691 Semipalmated Plovers. These are all species that arrive from the Artic to stopover and winter on our coast.  

If we can keep this effort up, we’ll be able to put Tubbs Inlet on the map as one of the state’s most important sites for non-breeding shorebirds. 

Huge Pulse of Gulls 

Gulls migrate too! Laughing Gull numbers in southeast North Carolina tend to peak in late November or early December, as flocks arrive from the north. This sleek, black-capped gull is ubiquitous on North Carolina’s beaches in the summer, but it’s actually declining in some northern states, which is where the migrants come from. 

So it was encouraging to see an incredible pulse of Laughing Gulls at Mason Inlet at the north end of Wrightsville Beach in December. I counted more than 2,300 individuals—three times as many as the previous high count for this location. 

It’s often difficult to actually witness the phenomenon of bird migration, since many species migrate at night and others do so individually or in small groups. Seeing a huge flock of gulls over the ocean was a spectacular reminder that migration can also be an awesome visual experience. 

Banded Black Skimmers 

Over the past three years, we’ve banded more than 350 Black Skimmers in North Carolina, affixing plastic rings to the legs of chicks so we can track where they move throughout their lives. Finding these birds again requires many days out in the field scanning flocks for banded skimmers, and we had success re-finding birds over the fall and winter. 

From September through December of 2021, we surveyed southeast North Carolina and found 99 banded skimmers from other states and 98 skimmers that were banded right here in our state. Most of these birds end up leaving North Carolina as the weather gets cold, although a few will linger for the entire winter. I’m excited to be presenting early results from this work at the upcoming state Waterbird Management Committee Meeting! 

Oystercatcher Visitors from Near and Far 

Since 2009, Audubon has been conducting oystercatcher roost surveys at important migrating and wintering sites on the North Carolina coast, to monitor where the birds spend their time when they’re not breeding and nesting.  

Starting last year, Audubon teamed up with Cape Lookout National Seashore to start surveying the Back Sound and Beaufort Inlet area in Carteret County. These surveys hadn’t been done for some years, and so far, staff from both organizations have found as many as 300 oystercatchers using the area, representing states from Massachusetts to North Carolina. One of the most unusual birds we found this year is an individual that nests on Lea-Hutaff Island, and unlike most of its species, shifts north to winter on the Rachel Carson Reserve. 

How You Can Help

The next time you're on the North Carolina coast, you can contribute to this work by recording your bird sightings on eBird and checking the legs of birds for bands, especially skimmers and oystercatchers.

How you can help, right now