Thursday, May 13, 2021

First Least Tern Chick Makes An Appearance

Lindsay Addison, our NC Audubon Biologist, counted 259 Least Tern nests in the colony on Tuesday, 5/11.  And we have chicks! The chicks blend into their surroundings and spend a lot of time safely under a parent. But with some luck and patience you will see them.  And soon they will be running all over the beach.

There is lots of activity underway on the south end…including courtship, mating, nesting and incubating eggs! 

It is a challenge counting the Black Skimmers and Common Terns because of all of the vegetation but when the colony “flushes” we can easily see over 500 birds! 


Some of you may be wondering what causes the birds to all fly up.  First look for the obvious .... a person that is too close to the posting or a Gull or Crow(s).  Then look on the ground for a potential disturbance. We  have seen a Ruddy Turnstone walking around the colony and Ruddy Turnstones are known to predate eggs.  Tuesday morning some Wrightsville Beach Bird Stewards saw a beautiful Corn Snake at Beach Access 43 going into the dunes.  Often, especially in the early part of the breeding season, for no known reason, most or all of the terns will fly in silence low and fast over the colony or out to the water. This phenomenon is called a "dread flight".


Least Terns

Look closely at the Least Tern nests for evidence of hatching which is just beginning.  Parents sitting on nests will have their wings lightly extended to shade chicks as they hatch.  


Black Skimmers

Black Skimmers continue with fish presentations, scrape making and mating.  Nesting and incubating will begin shortly.


Gull-Billed Terns

The Gull-Billed Terns have a unique courtship behavior and several of us were able to witness what appears to be a little dance.  The couple lightly extend their wings and walk in a circle around each other before mating.


Other birds…Spring Migration is still underway and you may see other birds on the beach.  Look for other shorebirds including Red Knots and Semi-palmated Sandpipers who are in the area now. A group of Short-billed Dowitchers made an appearance today.  And a large group of Royal Terns gathered on the east side of the colony for awhile.

Short-billed Dowitchers

Royal Terns made a brief stop in the middle of the Least Tern nesting area and were quickly made to feel unwelcomed!

Activity in the colony is just starting to get busy!  

Friday, April 30, 2021

Gull-Billed Terns Have Returned

Gull-billed terns had not been seen nesting in the colony at the south end of Wrightsville Beach for ten years.  Then last year there were 8 nesting pairs! We are excited to announce that they are back!  Three pairs were seen this week. The Gull-billed tern is stockier and larger than the Common Tern.  It stands pretty even with the Black Skimmer.  The key identifying characteristic is the short thick black bill and black legs.  Have fun looking for it!  The Gull-billed Terns have been seen with the Black Skimmers. 

Meanwhile over 300 Black Skimmers and over 200 Least Terns have been seen in "couples"  The courtship fish presentations and mating is in full swing at the south end. Least Terns have begun sitting on nests.  Common Terns are in the vegetation.  

Black Skimmers are protective of their nests and will
utilize group mobbing to protect the nests.

Common Terns nesting in the dunes.

Common Tern's courtship fish presentation

Least Tern sitting on a nest

American Oystercatchers are nesting in the dunes.
The pair take turns sitting on the eggs.
The other will feed alone once the tide drops enough for it to find food.

Besides our nesting Black Skimmers, Least and Common Terns, American Oystercatchers and Gull-billed Terns other birds can often be seen on the beach.
The Royal Terns have a black crest and a bright orange bills.
Sandwich Terns have a ragged black crest and
a gleaming black bill with a sharp yellow tip.


Ring-billed gull

a pair of Herring Gulls

This photo of the full moon was taken on Monday, 4/26. The full moon in April is called the Pink Moon and is named after the herb moss pink also known as creeping phlox. This plant is native to the eastern United States and is one of the earliest widespread flowers of spring.

photo by Marlene Eader

The next full moon can be seen May 26th.  May is most notable for being the turning point in the year where temperatures rise and vast variety of flowers come into full bloom, letting the world break out into a riot of color.  As such, May's full moon has come to be know as the Full Flower Moon. 

Hope you find a chance to get to the beach and see all of this!

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Gangs All Here!

Black Skimmers, Common Terns, Least Terns and American Oystercatchers have arrived at the south end of Wrightsville Beach!  The Skimmers seemed to be coming in groups of 50.    There were 281 Black Skimmers and 128 Least Terns counted last week.


The birds have rested and now courtship and mating is underway.  The beach is filled with nesting birds. 


We have two Oystercatcher pairs and it was confirmed that the Oystercatcher banded as CT4 is sitting on a nest in the dunes.  You may see her mate out on the beach by himself. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

One of North Carolina’s Last Unprotected Barrier Islands to be Conserved

Hutaff Island, one of North Carolina’s last privately owned undeveloped barrier islands, will be conserved forever thanks to a partnership between Audubon North Carolina, NC Coastal Land Trust, and the Hutaff/McEachern family, funded by conservation philanthropist Tim Sweeney. 

 Hutaff is a 2-mile long ribbon of pristine beach and saltmarsh located between Lea Island and Topsail Beach to the north and Figure 8 Island to the south. Conserving this wild and uninhabited place in perpetuity will keep the island’s natural inlets and dynamic ecosystems intact, providing critical habitat for sea turtles, vulnerable beach-nesting birds like Black Skimmers, and a host of other rare and threatened wildlife. 

"Hutaff Island is a rare gem on the North Carolina coast. It’s one of the last, best examples of a natural barrier island with dynamic dunes and productive saltmarsh," said Walker Golder, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. "We are so very grateful to the Hutaff/McEachern family for their commitment to conserving the island forever and to the partnership that brought us to this important day." 

 “For so many of our most beloved coastal birds and sea turtles, Hutaff is one of the last remnants of habitat they have left. That’s why the island's conservation is so important—it ensures birds like Least Terns and marine animals like Loggerhead sea turtles will continue to have a home on our coast. We’re grateful to all our partners for making it possible,” said Andrew Hutson, Audubon North Carolina Executive Director and National Audubon Society Vice President. 

 The conservation partnership will protect all of Hutaff Island, about 1,300 acres. An agreement has been signed and the Coastal Land Trust will complete the process within 60 days. 

 Ecological highlights of Hutaff Island:  
  • Provides critical stopover habitat for thousands of migrating birds, including federally threatened Piping Plovers and Red Knots. 
  • Serves as an important migratory stopover and overwintering area for the imperiled Saltmarsh Sparrow, a species that could be extinct by 2060 if current trends continue. 
  • Encompasses more than 1,000 acres of tidal marsh and creeks that serve as primary nursery areas for fish, shrimp and crabs. 
  • Serves as a launch pad for baby Loggerhead sea turtles, which fare well because there are no lights to distract the hatchlings when they head toward sea. 
  • Protects Outstanding Resource Waters, a rarely-assigned designation by the NC Division of Water Quality for exceptionally high water quality.


According to Dr. Stan Riggs, coastal geologist, “The conservation of Hutaff Island is critical. Hutaff Island not only serves as important habitat for coastal wildlife, but, like other barrier islands, it also serves as nature’s speed bump slowing down the force of storms before they reach the mainland. Even with sea level rise, Hutaff Island will still be around and will continue to roll back like these undeveloped islands do.” A recent study by Earth Economics estimated the total economic benefits of conserving the Lea-Hutaff Island complex at more than $12 million annually.


Audubon North Carolina and NC Coastal Land Trust have worked in partnership to protect Hutaff Island for many years. Audubon biologists will continue to manage the bird and turtle nesting grounds on the island, as part of a network of coastal sanctuaries that protect 40 percent of all nesting waterbirds on the North Carolina coast.

Monday, April 19, 2021

It's That Time of Year Again!

Every year, a special group of birds including American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, Black Skimmers, Common Terns and last year Gull-Billed Terns migrate to beaches along the Atlantic Flyway to nest. Wrightsville Beach is one of those lucky beaches. The Wrightsville Beach nesting colony is right on the south end of the busy beach which provides the perfect opportunity to share with the public the wonder of one of the largest colonies of beach nesting birds in North Carolina.

Disturbance to nesting areas by people and dogs is dangerous to nesting birds! Suitable, undisturbed habitat is declining for beach-nesting birds due to coastal development and human recreational activity. Posts and signs help beach-goers be aware they are sharing the beach with nesting birds and at a safe distance. Wrightsville Beach School’s fifth-grade class make artwork for the signs every year as part of a unit of study about our coastal environment. Production of the signs is sponsored by the Harbor Island Garden Club, which also works with the students.

Beach-nesting birds are adapted to nest on open, sandy beaches. They usually prefer areas with sparse vegetation that allows them to see all around them and can’t hide a predator’s approach. Seven bird species nest on Wrightsville Beach, five of which are in the south end posting.

The Least Tern, Black Skimmer, Common Tern, and Gull-billed Tern are Colonial Nesters. Most of these species nest in large groups called colonies and use a group defense called mobbing in which they dive at, poop on, and harass predators (or people) until they leave the colony.

The American Oystercatcher, Wilson’s Plover, and Willet are Solitary (non-colonial) Nesters. They defend a territory and exclude other birds of the same species. They will attempt to distract a predator (or person) and some will try to lure the predator (or person) away from their eggs or chicks by pretending to be injured.

All species at the south end are excellent parents. In all of these species the male and female share incubation and chick-rearing duties, and both are attentive to their nests. (The lone difference is that Willet females tend to leave their broods and mates before the chicks have fledged.)

2020 Nesting Pairs at South Wrightsville Beach

Least Tern


Common Tern


Gull-billed Tern


Black Skimmer


American Oystercatcher




Wilson’s Plover


 Least Tern

Least Terns are the most numerous species on Wrightsville Beach. We are already seeing large groups congregating in what could be called a "meet and greet" as they arrive from Central and South America

Their high-pitched calls fill the air. The males court the females by flying in circles carrying a fish. If she is impressed she will fly with him and then land, and the pair will mate. Their chicks leave the nest in 2-3 days of hatching, when they seek shade. The parents feed them whole fish and bring larger and larger fish as the chicks grow older. The parents and chicks recognize each other by call, and so the parents usually only feed their own offspring.

Black Skimmer

Everyone knows the Black Skimmers, which can be seen “skimming” the surface of the sound early in the morning and late in the day. Their specialized bill—the lower mandible is longer than the upper—is unique among birds. They catch baitfish and anything else on the water’s surface.

Recently over 150 Black Skimmers were seen hanging out on the South End of Wrightsville Beach. Their call is a doglike “bark” and they also lie flat on the ground like a dog—no, they’re not dead, they’re just resting. They are related to terns, and like them, Black Skimmer chicks leave the nest scrape to find shade and shelter after 2-3 days. The parents bring the chicks fish until they fledge.

Common Tern

Common Terns are extremely aggressive! While the other terns and skimmers will fly at intruders and poop, Common Terns will strike your head if you enter their territories. Common Tern courtship is impressive. Their "dance moves" almost seem to be choreographed. Their chicks are like the Least Tern’s: they leave the nest within 2-3 days of hatching and the parents feed them whole fish. Courtship is similar to the Least Terns.

photo by Tom Hanna

photo by Tom Hanna

Gull-billed Tern

An unconventional tern, Gull-billed Terns feed not on baitfish but on crabs, lizards, and other terrestrial or marsh-based prey. They had not nested on a beach in the Cape Fear Region for at least 10 years until two pairs showed up at the south end in June in 2013. One of those pairs nested, but that nest failed. We were surprised to see 8 pairs of Gull-billed Terns successfully nest on the south end in 2020.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatchers court with loud piping displays, both while running on the ground and while flying. Their chicks are “precocial,” meaning they can walk the same day they hatch. They walk around, pecking the ground and probably eating small insects and other items from the wrack, but their main food is shellfish their parents bring them. After they fledge, they are still dependent on their parents for up to 60 more days because their bills are still developing and aren’t strong enough to open the shellfish they eat. They learn how to do this with a combination of instinct and watching their parents.


Willet are secretive nesters, and we do not monitor their nests. Their chicks are also precocial, and unlike the oystercatchers they feed themselves on insects and other invertebrates while the parents brood (shelter) them and herd them away from danger. The female usually leaves about two weeks after they hatch and the male finishes raising the chicks.

Wilson’s Plover

The Wilson’s Plover specializes in eating fiddler crabs, but they pick other invertebrates out of the wrack line. Their chicks are like the Willets’ in that they feed themselves from the day that they hatch while the parents herd and brood them as needed. They have not nested at the south end, but a few pairs try every year at the north end. In 2013 a pair briefly hung out at the south end, but it did not nest.

Lots to see....

Interesting comparison
of the larger Royal Terns
and Least Terns

Green Herons can be seen in nearby trees.

Dolphins and Willet

Sandwich Tern flyby