Royal Terns nest in large numbers near Ocracoke. Photo: P. Vankevich

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By Peter Vankevich

Well-conducted bird surveys help scientists learn if bird species in an area are increasing or decreasing.

According to Carmen Johnson, wildlife diversity biologist with NC Wildlife Resource Commission (NCWRC), this summer was the 14th coastwide Colonial Waterbird Survey in North Carolina. The first was in 1977, organized by Dr. James Parnell, from UNCW.

“Since that time, we’ve surveyed roughly every three years,” Johnson said.

The survey is now coordinated by the NCWRC and is in partnership with other state and federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations that have an interest in waterbirds in the state.

“This was a challenging year,” Johnson said, noting there were “two early tropical storms canceled some critical survey days, a chilly spring that delayed nesting for some species, and a disregard for posted areas by some members of the public.”

Carmen Johnson on Big Foot Island. Photo: P. Vankevich

But the biggest impediment was COVID-19.

Owing to the pandemic, they could not recruit volunteers from places like Ocracoke to help with the counts and had to rely on staff from other departments to have large enough groups to count colonies like the Royal and Sandwich Terns on Big Foot Island.

“To keep staff safe we limited the number of people on a boat to no more than two, and staff were required to remain six feet apart and wear a mask/buff and glasses/sunglasses while riding on the boats,” she said.

Although doing the surveys was challenging, the annual bird banding on Big Foot Island was canceled. The Royal Tern nest numbers on Big Foot are the highest in the state.

Two islands near Ocracoke had nesting waterbirds: Big Foot and Outer Green islands. Here are the combined nesting numbers:

Least Tern: 9 nests
Forster’s Tern: 76 nests
Royal Tern: 5,238 nests
Sandwich Tern: 1,053 nests
Laughing Gull: 432 nests
Herring Gull: 12 nests
Black-crowned Night-Heron: 4 nests
Tricolored Heron: 104 nests
Great Egret: 111 nests
White Ibis: 116 nests
Glossy Ibis: 34 nests

Least Terns nest on Ocracoke Island. Photo: P. Vankevich

Off Portsmouth Island are Beacon, North Rock and Shell Castle islands which are now owned by NC Audubon. 

Lindsay Addison, their coastal biologist, was only able to make one surveying visit in June.

On Beacon, she counted 251 pelican nests.

“The first nests were just starting to hatch, so I imagine there are some fluffy white chicks,” she said. There were also 57 Great Egret nests, about half with chicks and half with eggs.

She was optimistic that most had fledged before the arrival of Tropical Storm Isaias on Aug. 3.

The greatly diminished other two islands have not fared well for many years.

“North Rock had been scoured of vegetation in Dorian and no longer has the lovely little wading bird colony that had been on it before,” she wrote in a June email. “There were two oystercatcher pairs (no nests found) and two Great Black-backed Gull pairs. Shell Castle didn’t have any nesting birds on it, but there was one nesting diamondback terrapin laying some eggs.”

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore reported on Aug. 20 that there were 76 colonial waterbird nests on Ocracoke with 37 fledges and 4 chicks—all Least Terns. 

For Ocracoke, colonial waterbirds are Least, Common, Gull-billed terns and Black Skimmers. Only one American Oystercatcher fledged.

Big Foot Island seen from the Swan Quarter ferry. Photo: C. Leinbach
Banded Brown Pelican on watch in Silver Lake Harbor, Ocracoke. Photo: P. Vankevich