Volunteers for the birds

by Sam Wilson
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

With spring beginning to break through an unusually icy winter, the North Carolina Coastal Reserve is inviting volunteers to enjoy the outdoors while helping protect coastal shorebird populations.

Reserve staff will hold a day of service event March 8, from noon to 2 p.m., when volunteers will learn about beach-nesting birds on Masonboro Island and how to protect them using temporary structures similar to those at the north and south ends of Wrightsville Beach.

Volunteers are asked to provide their own transportation and meet at the Big Bay area of Masonboro Island at noon.

“This particular opportunity is really trying to develop a core group of people who are interested in birds and already go to the island,” said Hope Sutton, a site manager and stewardship coordinator with the reserve. “Our hope is that some of these people will actually adopt the closure areas and keep an eye on them during the nesting season.”

For American oystercatchers and least terns, protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, respectively, the continued propagation of their species requires they be left alone during their critical nesting seasons. When disturbed and forced to fly away from its sandy nest, a bird can leave eggs or chicks exposed to lethal heat, cold or predators.

“As the coastal areas and particularly the barrier islands have been developed, there has been less and less habitat available for these birds, which have very specific requirements for finding nesting sites,” Sutton said.

However, the American oystercatcher is one species that has seen some success under management efforts, and Sutton added the 8 miles of coast on Masonboro now provide 10 percent of the birds’ statewide population with nesting sites.

Management is not easy, though. Sutton said the oystercatchers pose a particular challenge for conservation efforts, as their territorial, rather than colonial, nature means they nest far apart, unlike terns and black skimmers.

“Oystercatchers have an area they defend as theirs, so they basically just line up all the way down the beach,” she said. “They like to have open beach, but also access to the sound side [of the island] for their babies to feed, which are also the best places for people to land their boats.”

Maggie Geck, an AmeriCorps volunteer serving as the reserve’s volunteer coordinator, said the isolated location and lack of transportation for volunteers poses specific challenges.

“I have had a lot of people say they would love to be there, but can’t without a boat,” Geck said. “They typically ask if there is anything they can be involved in and I try to tell them about onshore volunteer opportunities, or direct them to other organizations like Cape Fear River Watch or the Fort Fisher aquarium.”

She added part of her job is to centralize a more organized, user-friendly volunteer system, but the lack of boat space for volunteers on the reserve’s vessels is a difficult obstacle to overcome.

“That’s the challenge with Masonboro events; we don’t have a passenger vessel to get volunteers out there,” Sutton said. “But I still tell people, if you have your own boat, we would love you to come meet us out there.”

email sam@luminanews.com

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