Cape Hatteras National Seashore Birdwatching Overview

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Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Weststock)

People are not the only visitors to Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Over 400 species of birds have been sighted in the park. Some of these birds can be seen year-round. Many spend only summer or winter seasons here. Thousands of shorebirds pass by during spring and fall migrations between North and South America. Terns and herons are best seen in the summer. Spring and fall are excellent times to view shorebirds, hawks, and songbirds. Ducks and geese are common during winter months.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore plays a vital role in the survival of many birds. Rich, varied habitats and location along the Atlantic Flyway contribute to attracting birds to its shores.

Ground Nesting Birds are Vulnerable

Each spring, the beaches are alive with thousands of courting birds returning from their wintering grounds. Least, common and gull-billed terns along with black skimmers are colonial nesting waterbirds. After claiming territories, large flocks nest on the open sand. Mere depressions in the sand, the simple nests are well camouflaged. In 20 days or so, the two or three speckled eggs hatch. Dependent on their parents, pale downy chicks feed on small fish brought back to the nesting grounds. Within a month's time, young that have grown strong, survived storms, and escaped predators will fly over the waters on their own in search of food.

Much of the nesting season's success relies on people. Park visitors and birds use the same beach. When people or their pets wander through nesting colonies, eggs and chicks can be scattered or crushed. Adult terns and skimmers chase intruders, leaving nests unguarded. Watchful crows and gulls can then easily raid nests. Unattended eggs and chicks often succumb to heat or cold.

Many waterbirds fled the beaches to escape increased human disturbance. They retreated to small soundside islands created from dredge material excavated while maintaining navigational channels. By the late 1970's, erosional forces and changes in dredging practices had whittled away much of these refuges, leaving no choice for the birds but to return to ocean beaches.

To minimize human disturbance, park rangers seasonally protect sections of beach used by colonial nesting birds. Signs are posted around all colonies. These remind human beachgoers that they share the shore with native wildlife and should not venture inside posted areas.

The National Park Service also posts areas around individual nests. Some beach birds are more solitary, preferring not to nest near others of their own species. One such species of special concern is the small piping plover. Due to human disturbance and habitat loss, populations have decreased dramatically throughout their range, necessitating protection under the Endangered Species Act. Eggs, speckled like sand, laid directly on the ground and tended by pale, buff-colored adult plovers make for excellent concealment. After hatching, the chicks leave the nest following parents to forage for worms, insects, and crustaceans plucked from the sand.

Research Is Needed to Safeguard Wildlife

Biologists have found that populations of many species of shorebirds are declining sharply throughout the animals' natural range. Loss of habitat and human disturbance are usually cited as causes of the decline. Populations of predators such as crows, gulls, and feral cats have increased due to human activities. Ground nesting birds make easy prey for these animals. A better understanding of these complex and often interrelated pressures is needed to successfully protect and rebuild bird populations.

Since 1989, piping plovers have been monitored at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Researchers have spent long hours locating breeding pairs, observing nesting activities, and tracking young. An average of 12 to 15 nests are found annually. Few of the chicks survive to fledgling age of four to five weeks.

A three-year study concentrating on shorebird populations is also underway at Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Research Unit at North Carolina State University is investigating several aspects related to shorebird populations.

The major objectives are to determine quantity and quality of various bird habitats and how birds use these habitats. The effects of disturbance by both pedestrian and vehicular traffic are being studied. Lastly, the nesting and feeding activities of the piping plover are being examined.

In order to objectively study the effects of human disturbance, the researchers are comparing small closed plots with open plots in five beach areas. Each plot measures 0.3 miles. Four of the five plots are located within areas already permanently closed to vehicle traffic. Since these closures affect a small fraction of the seashore's 70-mile beach front, impact on visitor activities is minimal.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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