Popular Hatteras beach access delayed by two birds and a cold spring

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comAugust 8, 2013 

Park rangers are keeping throngs of shell collectors and surf fishers away from Cape Point, the most popular spot along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, so a pair of fledgling shorebirds can learn to fly.

A barrier island elbow that wraps around the spiral-striped Hatteras lighthouse, Cape Point usually opens for public access by the end of July. Last summer, Outer Banks visitors in four-wheel drive vehicles were allowed back on Aug. 3 – the latest opening date on record since 2007, when the National Park Service first restricted beach driving along the 65-mile national seashore.

Rangers now expect to open Cape Point for folks on foot next week, with vehicle access to follow two weeks later.

“We have American oystercatcher chicks still in the area, a brood of two, that are beginning to fly this week,” said Cyndy Holda, a park service spokeswoman. “They are not quite strong enough yet. An American oystercatcher is rather large and clumsy. As soon as they can fly 30 feet, and not crash and fall, we can reopen it to pedestrians.”

Much of the Cape Hatteras seashore is inaccessible except by vehicle, and beach driving has always been part of a tourism economy worth $200 million a year on Hatteras Island. The delayed opening at Cape Point doesn’t sit well with Frank Folb, who caters to fishermen at his Avon tackle shop.

“The people who have come here the last few years have seen it open by now,” Folb said. “They’re going to see it not open, and get disgruntled. The experienced fisherman who brought his four-wheel-drive down here and went to the beach – they’re not here. You’re not seeing them.”

Holda blamed the delayed reopening of Cape Point and other areas on a cold, rainy spring that slowed this year’s nesting season.

“This year was a late year,” Holda said. “Everything is a little delayed in hatching and fledging this year. There’s a lot of folks that are very interested in getting to Cape Point.

“Turtles didn’t start coming ashore (to lay eggs) until June. We had southwesterly winds a lot this spring, that kept the Gulf Stream offshore. That makes for a cold, steely gray ocean that’s not conducive for turtles to come ashore. They’ll stay out in the warmer water,” Holda said.

The American oystercatcher – distinctive with its black head, red-ringed eyes and long, red bill – is among a handful of rare or threatened birds and sea turtles that are the focus of extensive curbs on beach access at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It is classified as “significantly rare” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This oystercatcher nest is on the beach south of access Ramp 44, closing access for more than a half mile north of Cape Point. Beachgoers now are allowed to walk to Cape Point, but only in the wet zone along the ocean’s edge.

Last year, Hatteras park rangers counted 22 nesting pairs of oystercatchers. Eleven pairs succeeded in producing a combined 15 fledged chicks.

This is the second year that visitors have had to buy permits to take four-wheel drive vehicles on the beach. All beach driving is banned at night, and some areas of the beach are permanently off-limits. Other areas are closed part of the year – or temporarily, when there are active nests – to people on foot or in vehicles.

Beach-driving permit sales are up 20 percent this year, Holda said. As of Sunday, park rangers have sold 7,208 annual permits at $120 apiece, and 16,038 one-week permits ($50). The park service says it will use fee revenue to build parking lots, boardwalks and other beach access improvements.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier

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