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RALEIGH, N.C. (Feb. 4) – It’s no day at the beach for several species of colonial waterbirds that nest along North Carolina’s coastline, according to a recent survey coordinated by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Black skimmers, gull-billed terns and common terns continue to show dramatic declines in population numbers mostly due to habitat loss and degradation from coastal development and associated human activities.

Because these three species require the same habitat for nesting that humans prefer for living and playing — the bare sand and shell found on the barrier islands, they are quickly losing the turf war as more people flock to the coast and more habitat disappears.

“Black skimmers, gull-billed and common terns are beach nesters, which means they lay their eggs directly on the sand on the barrier beaches and estuarine islands,” said Sue Cameron, waterbird biologist for the Commission. “Much of this habitat has been lost to development and beach stabilization projects.”

The birds’ reproductive odds are reduced even further by other human disturbances, although most of them are unintentional.

“Beach nesters are extremely sensitive to humans and their pets, perceiving them as predators,” Cameron explained. “When people wander too close to nesting areas, adults will leave the nests, exposing the chicks and eggs to extreme temperatures and to predators, such as foxes, raccoons and feral cats.

“And because eggs and chicks, which are camouflaged to resemble sand, are extremely difficult to see, they can be accidentally stepped on and crushed.”

Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad. While these species continue to do poorly, other species of terns that use similar habitat for nesting are doing better. Royal terns and sandwich terns nest almost exclusively on the bare sand and shell habitat of dredged material islands. Because these islands are remote, they provide alternative nesting sites for waterbirds that are relatively free of disturbances by people and their pets and by predators.

Populations of wading birds and pelicans, which also nest primarily on estuarine islands, appear relatively stable as well.

“Some species prefer to nest on barrier beaches, so it’s extremely important to protect remaining habitat at these sites,” Cameron said. “At the same time, coastal birds can benefit greatly from habitat creation and restoration on dredged material islands.”

An outstanding success story can be found on Cora June Island, located near Hatteras Inlet. This island disappeared during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 but was rebuilt in spring 2007 during a dredging project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Only months after rising from the sea, the island was home to one of the largest mixed tern/black skimmer colonies in the state with good numbers of nesting adults that successfully fledged hundreds of chicks.

The recent survey, which was conducted in spring 2007, is one of 10 complete coast-wide surveys conducted since the late 1970s to monitor population trends, distribution of colony sites and nesting habitat conditions. Data gleaned from the surveys help biologists make management and conservation decisions and prioritize research. The next waterbird survey is scheduled for 2010.

Cameron said that she and fellow biologists hope to reverse the dismal population trends of beach nesters by working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide birds with alternative nesting sites, such as dredged material islands, and by working to protect nesting sites on barrier beaches. They also plan to incorporate a comprehensive communications plan to make people who visit and live on the state’s sandy shores aware of colonial nesting waterbirds and their habitat requirements.

“Public education is a vital element to conserving coastal birds,” Cameron said. “There is plenty of room on the beach for birds and people, and with a little help, our coastal birds will be here for future generations to enjoy.”

Funding for the colonial nesting waterbird survey comes from several sources. The two most important sources are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which carries out a wide array of projects that provide coastal protection, flood protection, hydropower, navigable waters and ports, and recreational opportunities, and the Commission’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, the primary source of state funds for the Commission’s Wildlife Diversity and Aquatic Nongame programs.

The agency uses this fund to support nongame wildlife research, conservation and management, as well as to provide mandatory matching funds for federal and other grants. Nongame wildlife includes all the birds, mammals, fish, mollusks, reptiles, amphibians, and crayfish that do not have a designated hunting or fishing season.

North Carolinians can support this effort as well as other nongame species research and management projects in North Carolina through the Tax Check-off for Nongame and Endangered Wildlife. Checking line 26 lets taxpayers designate part or all of their state tax refunds to this fund. Since 1984, taxpayers have given more than $8 million for wildlife conservation through this funding mechanism.

Tax season isn’t the only time to give to wildlife. Other ways to help North Carolina’s wildlife and their habitats year-round are:
Donating online at;
Rounding up purchases at any of three N.C. Wild Stores;
Registering a vehicle with a N.C. Wildlife Conservation license plate;
Volunteering to help Commission staff with nongame-related projects.
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