American oystercatcher adult with two chicks
American oystercatcher with two chicks

National Park Service


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!

Black skimmer flying in the air
Black skimmer flying through the air

National Park Service


Colonial Nesters
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.

Piping plover standing on the shore
Piping plover

National Park Service


Solitary Nesters
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.

Two least tern chicks
Least tern chicks still in their nest

National Park Service


Population Threats
In the 1800s 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.

Last updated: August 30, 2023

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Mailing Address:

Cape Hatteras National Seashore
1401 National Park Drive

Manteo, NC 27954


252 473-2111

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