Protecting Nesting Birds at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Park visitors are not the only summer beach-goers. Each summer, scores of coastal birds find the beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore the ideal place to find mates, nest, and raise their young. As you spend your day at the beach, keep an eye and ear open for these beach-nesting birds!
Some coastal birds nest in colonies on the open beach. Safety comes in numbers, providing protection from potential predators. Colonial nesting waterbirds at Cape Hatteras include the least tern, common tern, gull-billed tern, and black skimmer. Terns can be identified by pale gray or white feathering, forked tails and black caps. Black skimmers stand out with black plumage and large orange and black beaks.
Terns and skimmers nest on the upper beach, out of reach of most tidal waters. Their nests are merely scrapes in the sand where two or three pale speckled eggs are laid, blending perfectly with the surroundings. Chicks are born fully feathered and begin walking after two days. Parents bring meals of small fish to their chicks. After three to four weeks the young begin to fly.
Terns are extremely agile flyers with keen sight, catching fish near the water's surface. Black Skimmers fly low over the water, day or night, and catch fish by skimming their long narrow lower bill just below the water surface.
Many shorebirds, such as the American oystercatcher and the threatened piping plover, are solitary nesters. These birds will actively chase away any other birds of their own species that enter their breeding territories. The American oystercatcher is a large, prominent shorebird with dark brown and white plumage, orange chisel-like bill, and loud call. The small, pale, buff-colored piping plover is more inconspicuous, blending with the sandy habitat. Its soft, plaintive "peep-lo" call is often heard before the bird is seen.
Both species need large undisturbed beaches to breed successfully. They lay a clutch of well-camouflaged eggs in the sand. The chicks are born fully feathered and can run short distances within hours of hatching. Parents may move the young over long distances for food and protection. Plover chicks feed on insects and small marine invertebrates. They can fly at four to five weeks. Oystercatcher chicks usually begin to fly at five weeks but remain dependent on adults for their shellfish diet during their first two months.
In the 1800's populations of beach-nesting birds declined due to unregulated market hunting. These birds were prized for their eggs, meat, or ornamental feathers to adorn women's hats.
Today, these birds are protected by state and federal laws. They face many threats on their nesting, migrating, and wintering grounds such as habitat loss, human disturbance, predation, and storms. At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, beach closures are established to provide undisturbed habitat needed by breeding birds to successfully nest and raise their young.