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An increase in vegetation in the Masons Inlet Waterbird Habitat Management Area has decreased the amount of suitable nesting habitat available to species like the least tern.
The Mason Inlet Waterbird Habitat Management Area 2012 Nesting Season Project Report showed a sharp drop in the number of least tern nests and little suitable nesting habitat available due to increased vegetation, with the amount decreasing steadily since 2008.
The report, prepared by Brianna Elliot, Lindsay Addison and Walker Golder of Audubon North Carolina, was completed in February 2013.
The number of least tern nests showed the largest drop from 55 active nests in 2012 to only seven at peak incubation on May 11, 2012. A total of 13 least tern nests were found in the area throughout the season. From 2009 to 2010, a similar decrease occurred in least tern nests.
“The vegetation has been growing in since 2007, 2008,” said Addison, coastal biologist. “… This is not unexpected.”
The hatching success, which is defined as the number of nests that hatched at least one chick, and productivity, fledglings per pair, were extremely low for the American oystercatchers and least terns, with 0 percent success for one oystercatcher nest and 30.8 percent success for the seven least tern nests producing two fledglings.
“There’s no black skimmers now,” Addison said. “The oystercatchers were completely unsuccessful as were the Wilson’s plovers. … If the vegetation isn’t managed and if new suitable habitat doesn’t form on the end of Wrightsville Beach, if it doesn’t develop, then without good habitat there won’t be nesting birds.”
The lack of suitable habitat as a threat has replaced human disturbance, in the early and mid-2000s, as the most significant threat to waterbirds nesting in the area.
“What happens in a natural -setting if you didn’t have any coastal development or any inlet stabilization or any other projects, is you would have habitats being created and destroyed over the years,” Addison said. “When one island was built up and had good, open sandy habitat for them to nest, they would use that. And when that went away, the next island down or the other end of the island might have built up and they would have that to choose from.”
In 2012 and years prior, the birds nested at the south end of Wrightsville Beach, which Addison said is successful because there is a good habitat.
“I can’t say exactly what will happen,” Addison said about the long run. “In terms of habitat availability, that’s one of the major drivers of the success or failure of their populations. A hundred years ago they were being shot for the market trade as decorative items, but now they face a completely different challenge. … If you want to go to the beach and see something other than other human beings, then they matter. They’re part of a natural functioning ecosystem. If you don’t have them, then you’re missing a key component of what a North Carolina beach should naturally be.”
Audubon North Carolina is the contractor on the project for New Hanover County.
“The south end, we don’t do a report because it’s not part of the NHC project, but … we have what we would call a successful colony at the south end in terms of the percentage of nests that hatch at least one egg and in terms of the numbers of fledglings that we see,” Addison said.
Once the north end findings are complete, the county is in charge of management activities. In previous reports, Addison said Audubon has made recommendations for management, but the 2012 report is brief. Audubon posts and patrols nesting areas, monitors productivity and educates the public.
Jim Iannucci, NHC engineer, said he does not believe there are plans for a presentation to the board of commissioners about the project this year. As far as the county is concerned, Iannucci said the plan is to look at long-term trends.
He said Golder was looking into bringing a plan forward to address the vegetation.
“It looked like it would be something that would be beyond just having volunteers to hand remove,” Iannucci said. “As far as mechanically removing vegetation, I don’t know of any plan in place to do that right now.”
The county is also keeping its eye on negative impacts during Masons Inlet maintenance years.
“There haven’t been any significant negative impacts during a year of maintenance,” Iannucci said. “Like this current year, we’ve got maintenance going on, we want to make sure we’re not causing impact to the area, that we’re placing sand back onto the beach properly and removing sand from the inlet.”