July 22, 2008

Waterfowl Flock to Inlet Preserve in Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

By Gareth McGrath, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

Jul. 21--WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH -- The interlopers stepped up their pace when they recognized they had been spotted taking a shortcut through the bird preserve at the north end of this barrier island.

But they couldn't move fast enough before they were intercepted by Angela Mangiameli, a conservation biologist with Audubon North Carolina.

"They said they were sorry, that they didn't want to walk around," Mangiameli said as she returned to the small group touring the Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area on Friday morning.

Andy Wood just shook his head.

"Where they went through was one of the worst places they could have gone, right through the heart of the black skimmer colony," said Wood, education director for Audubon North Carolina. "This is our biggest problem: keeping people and their pets out of there."

Yet it is a task Audubon has become remarkably adept at in the five years since it took over management of the site.

When Mason Inlet was moved 3,000 feet north six years ago to protect Shell Island Resort and other properties at the northern end of Wrightsville Beach, no one knew whether turning the old inlet channel into a bird preserve would work.

Nesting and migrating shorebirds had first started congregating on the sandy spit when it was attached to Figure Eight Island. But with the inlet relocation, the area went from being a largely inaccessible part of a private island to the northern tip of a popular beach town.

The first nesting season after the relocation reflected the biologists' worst fears.

Wood said only six birds tried to nest, and all failed.

But additional signs, a rope fence, an on-site presence and aggressive enforcement have turned the area into a little piece of waterbird nirvana.

This year the preserve, which covers most of the nonbeach area of the undeveloped half-mile of land north of the Shell Island Resort, was the largest natural colony for least terns, common terns and black skimmers in the state, said Walker Golder, deputy director of Audubon North Carolina. Plovers and a handful of oystercatchers also found the protected oceanfront property a good location to nest.

The preserve has become an important tourist draw, especially during the "shoulder" season between Labor Day and Memorial Day, when migrating shorebirds visit and most of the island's human visitors have gone home.

Audubon's educational outreach efforts have helped alleviate some of the concerns residents had about the birds getting priority over humans for the undeveloped oceanfront land, part of which used to be a public access before it was washed away by the encroaching Mason Inlet.

Wrightsville Beach Mayor Steve Whalen said he hasn't heard anything from locals about the bird area that occupies some of his island's most prime real estate.

"Nothing," he said. "To be honest I've heard nothing, pro or con, which is a good sign, because if there were any issues, I'm confident I would have heard about it."

But challenges remain.

Feral cats, foxes, raccoons and even ghost crabs can take their toll on the birds if not kept in check.

Then there's the vegetation, which has grown thick in many places.

Normally, tall dunes secured by clumps of sea oats are something coastal officials like to see. But Wood said it's not ideal habitat for many shorebirds, such as terns and plovers, that prefer bare, exposed sand to nest.

He said Audubon is exploring options to thin out the vegetation.

But the primary threat to the skittish shorebird colonies remains trespassing by humans and their pets.

Mangiameli said some people still bring their dogs to the north end, formerly known as "doggie beach" before the inlet was relocated, and let them run through the preserve.

Wood said activity a few miles to the south on Masonboro Island underscores the importance of keeping people and pets out of the bird area.

Although undeveloped and protected by the state, the 8-mile-long island didn't have as many successful nesting birds as the Mason Inlet site.

"There's plenty of suitable habitat there," Wood said. "But the disturbances help keep them away. Here we have the protocols in place to prevent that."


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