Don’t step on that chick: Help protect birds nesting on NC beaches

Waterbirds eggs and chicks, like these tern chicks, are very well camouflaged and hard to see.
Waterbirds eggs and chicks, like these tern chicks, are very well camouflaged and hard to see. N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

If you’re planning a trip to the North Carolina coast, beware the cute baby birds that might be beneath your feet.

Waterbirds now are nesting along North Carolina’s coast and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is asking beach visitors to “share the shore” to protect them and their chicks.

Beach-goers should give birds nesting on the coast a wide berth. The birds use North Carolina’s barrier islands to breed, nest and raise their chicks.

“Beach nesting birds are a vital component of our barrier-island ecosystem and a sign of a healthy beach,” said Sara Schweitzer, the commission’s waterbird biologist. “It’s very important that people who visit the coast remember to watch out for beach-nesting birds and to give them a wide berth,” Schweitzer said, adding that these birds are very sensitive to human disturbance.

Eggs and chicks are well camouflaged to protect them from predators, so they can easily be stepped on and crushed. Humans and their pets can upset nesting birds by wandering too close to nesting areas, which may cause the adult birds to fly off, leaving the eggs or chicks vulnerable.

Beach-goers should avoid areas that birds prefer for nesting and raising chicks, such as the upper portion of the beach around inlets and remote and/or undeveloped beaches, Schweitzer said.

Visitors also should walk below the high tide line on bare sand with little to no vegetation, and leave the area immediately if they come across a nest or suspect one is nearby.

“Birds have their ways of letting you know when you’re too close,” Schweitzer said. “They’ll do things like dive bombing you, or calling loudly. Some species, such as killdeer, will pretend to have a broken wing to lure you or other perceived predators away from the nest and chicks.”

Skimmers, terns, oystercatchers and plovers are some of bird species that nest on the beach. Populations of several of these species, such as the common tern, Wilson’s plover and American oystercatcher, have plummeted in recent years — mainly due to human disturbance.

“The common tern was, at one time, a common sight along North Carolina’s beaches,” Schweitzer said. “However, their populations have declined by nearly 80 percent since biologists began conducting coast-wide surveys in the late 1970s.”

Because many visitors may not recognize fragile bird nesting habitat, the commission posts signs around important beach-nesting areas. The black-and-white signs help visitors avoid nesting grounds from April 1 through Aug. 31 — the sensitive nesting and brood-rearing season — and advise that entering an area can result in the loss of eggs or chicks.

Not all beach nesting areas are posted, though, so beach visitors, as well as residents, should be aware of their surroundings whenever they are in areas that birds prefer for nesting and raising chicks. Other ways they can help protect nesting shorebirds are by:

▪ Keeping dogs on a leash at all times. Dogs may chase and harass birds, as well as trample nests, killing chicks or crushing eggs.

▪ Driving only on the lower beach and driving slowly enough to avoid running over chicks.

▪ Taking trash with them when leaving the beach, including bait and scraps from cleaned fish — all of which can attract predators, such as gulls, raccoons, feral cats and foxes.

▪ Discarding fishing line or kite string in an appropriate receptacle. When left on the beach, these can entangle and kill birds and other wildlife.

▪ Not feeding gulls on the beach. Gulls are a major predator of young chicks and eggs.

For more information about beach nesting waterbirds and how to protect them, read “Sharing the Shore with North Carolina’s Beach-Nesting Birds” or go to the Wildlife Commission’s Conserving page, www.ncwildlife.org/conserving.

Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett