Staff photos by Allison Potter
Abby Chiaramonte, University of North Carolina Wilmington student and Audubon North Carolina intern, views the black skimmers at the south end bird sanctuary through a spotting scope.
The first thing visiting Wisconsin natives Marti and Chuck Coan saw when they walked up to Wrightsville Beach Public Beach Access No. 43 was a sign warning them to stay off of the dunes. After the couple began walking around the roped-off perimeter, they noticed what two women were admiring from afar.
“We saw the two people in blue shirts looking around over there and we thought, ‘well, what are they looking at?’” Chuck said before he and his wife decided to investigate.
The two women were local Audubon North Carolina volunteers, ready to greet the Coans with picture charts and binoculars in tow. These stewards offer to help folks around the perimeter of the south end bird sanctuary to admire the nesting least terns, black skimmers and oystercatchers.
“There’s only so much you can do in the water and the educational opportunity with this is just thrilling,” Marti Coan said.
“To have people talk to us about birds in an area we’re not familiar with is very nice,” Chuck Coan added.
Led by volunteer coordinator Marlene Eader, residents and visitors alike have an opportunity to take part in free bird walks every Friday morning at 9 a.m. starting at access No. 43.
“When we’re talking to beachgoers we invite them up to come see them through the scope, because it really makes an impact. … They’ve never seen these birds and they’re very tropical looking,” Eader said.
Once inspired by the tour herself, Eader said she and the other volunteers are acting as ambassadors for these visiting birds. “We want people to just have awareness of how unique they are and to treasure them, because we don’t know how long they’ll keep coming here,” she said.
As of last Friday, May 24 the nest count for black skimmers was 31, and 82 for least terns. There are only three oystercatchers with two chicks in one nest so far, a count that Eader and volunteers keep up with weekly.
Abby Chiaramonte, a junior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, is interning this summer with Audubon, where she has started tagging along with nest monitoring and bird walking with guides like Eader.
“I’m really interested in outreach, how people like Marlene reach people in the community and how the community protects the birds,” she said. “I’ve always been involved in conservation efforts, but I’ve never been close to the birds and I wanted to know more about what was going on in my own coastline, since I grew up in Wilmington.”
Though Chiaramonte said that the black skimmers, with their large black and orange beaks, make them stand out in beauty, her favorite to observe are the oystercatchers.
“They have so much personality, they’re like people, if you get too close to their nest they’ll start yelling at you,” she joked.
Eader said that the personality and community the birds demonstrate on a daily basis, whether when they are trying to impress a potential mate or defend their nests from predators, often remind her of human-like behavior.
Without the threat of raccoons or foxes, natural predators at the south end include gulls and crows nesting by nearby houses, which swoop in to steal any eggs left unattended while hunting for food or cooling themselves in the water.
“There are very few predators down here and that’s why they like it so much, and we have stewards here to keep people from walking in there and reduce disturbances,” Eader said.
Among the species sharing the dunes are the least terns, the smallest of terns, which can live up to 20 to 25 years and come back each season from Central and South America. Eader said that even though the least terns are the smallest among their neighbors of common terns and black skimmers, they are the first to fiercely attack any intruding bird.
“You see all the birds that have taken to the air,” she pointed to fluttering specks of white in the sky. “That is a ‘mob’ behavior. That crow is being attacked by a tern and all of these terns are willing to sacrifice their nest for the good of the colony,” she said.
For weeks to come, this bustling community of birds will nest and rear its young until August, when the birds will leave again. Eader said it’s worth stopping by to take it in.
For more information about the Friday morning bird walk or to meet at another day and time, email Marlene Eader at firstname.lastname@example.org