Birds

Islands off Portsmouth: Shadows of their former selves

Beacon Island, or North Rock.

Beacon Island, or North Rock.

Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

Three of the islands off Portsmouth Island have seen better days.

Once large enough to support human presence, these days they are barely noticeable as you pass by in a boat. These are Beacon, Shell Castle and North Rock islands.

They are now owned by Audubon North Carolina, which manages them for bird nesting.

It’s hard to imagine that Shell Castle Island, formerly called Shell Castle Rock, was once about 25-acres on which stood a lighthouse, windmill, gristmill, store, lumber yard, a tavern and 300-foot main building, all packed onto its tiny area.

The complex was badly damaged in a hurricane in 1806, but the fatal blow was the gradual shoaling of the channels leading to the port around the time of the War of 1812.

When ships could no longer get near the port, they took their business to nearby Portsmouth and Ocracoke.

An oyster catcher on North Rock Island near Portsmouth. Oyster catchers have powerful beaks with which to rip open oysters, their chief food. Photo: P. Vankevich

An oyster catcher on North Rock Island near Portsmouth. Oyster catchers have powerful beaks with which to rip open oysters, their chief food. Photo: P. Vankevich

Beacon Island had been one of the important nesting sites for brown pelicans in North Carolina. In 2014, the then 7.5-acre island supported 558 nesting pairs of pelicans, about 12 percent of the N.C. population.

In 2014, Hurricane Arthur, a category 3 storm, struck the region on July 4, the earliest hurricane to strike North Carolina since official records began in 1853. The storm caused major damage to the pelicans, and last year they completely abandoned nesting there.

Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist for Audubon North Carolina, visited the islands in late April and estimated 15 pairs each of black-crowned night herons, great egrets, and tricolored herons on the island, plus some oyster catchers.

Also present on the islands were great black-backed, herring and laughing gulls, and common and Forsters terns. 

This may help explain the depreciation of pelicans since gulls and black-crowned night herons will eat chicks if the opportunity arises.

North Rock Island has become not much more than a sliver, and the nearby smaller island, called South Rock, has been totally submerged.

The islands are losing both land mass and elevation, primarily due to the strong storms in recent years.

The good news is that Big Foot–the island one sees leaving Ocracoke on the Swan Quarter ferry–is thriving with nesting birds. This larger island has not sustained the damage evident on the others.

Brown pelicans are now nesting there in good numbers, joining the royal and sandwich terns and several other species.

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Big Foot Island, seen on the way to Swan Quarter, is where nesting pelicans have relocated since their prior spot on Beacon Island near Portsmouth was all but demolished by Hurricane Arthur in 2014.

Big Foot Island, seen on the way to Swan Quarter, is where nesting pelicans have relocated since their prior spot on Beacon Island near Portsmouth was all but demolished by Hurricane Arthur in 2014.