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Birds of a Feather

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9/13, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Lea-Hutaff Birding Tour • $35
Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours

Heading to Masonboro Island; photo by Jay Cronley.

I’ve spent a lot of time on Masonboro Island, but until recently I never noticed the birds. It seems like they’re everywhere this time of year—lounging on the floodtide deltas, cackling to each other while flying overhead, diving after sparkling schools of menhaden and mullet. Often when I kayak to the island, I’ll paddle past herring gulls and black skimmers resting on sandbars, or startle white egrets who retreat back into the marsh when I pull up on the muddy shore behind the dunes. On the beach I’ll watch pelicans spiral into the ocean, impacting the water with enough force to make me wonder if they’ll surface again. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll spot an osprey.

I recognize a few species from my field guide, but I’m no ornithologist. I have no idea where these birds come from, what they eat, if there are any endangered species, or why they come to Masonboro specifically out of all the other islands in the area. 

For answers to these questions I refer to Captain Joseph Abbate, the head of Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, a local business that has been offering eco-tours to Masonboro Island since 1999. With two environmental science degrees from UNCW, experience in shorebird biology and a wildlife refuge manager for the National Audubon Society, he can answer any queries about all things avian. I call him, and he graciously invites me on a taxi run to the island in his 27-foot catamaran, the Shamrock, so we can talk birds. 

He welcomes me aboard with a handshake and a smile and we push off, motoring south past the houses on the backside of Wrightsville Beach. With a halo of curly black hair and vibrant eyes hidden behind wraparound sunglasses, Captain Joe sits relaxed at the helm, steering with one hand. Since the migration season is beginning, I ask him about the origins of the flocks we see now.

“A lot of these birds come from breeding grounds up north, near Nova Scotia and a region called the Canadian Maritimes,” Joe says. “They fly south down the eastern flyway, sometimes all the way to South America and Tierra del Fuego.” 

For the geographically challenged, Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago in Patagonia, the southernmost nail on the curled index finger of the South American continent. He mentions one species in particular, the red knot. An unassuming bird with speckled grey feathers and a cinnamon-colored belly, every year they fly a preposterous distance— around 9,000 miles—to breed. Pausing here to rest and feed, they take in warmth from the sun and prepare for the long journey ahead. “Seeing a red knot would definitely be the highlight of a birding tour,” he says. 

The tide is dropping, and we cruise past one of the shoals. It’s packed with birds. “Here,” says Joe, “Take a look.” He hands me a battered pair of binoculars. I see perhaps a hundred individuals, sharing one outcropping of sand no bigger than our boat, all basking in the afternoon sun. Although I don’t see any red knots, I’m amazed by the diversity. 

“Wrightsville Beach and Masonboro are home to seven distinct species of shorebirds,” Joe says, then recites them from memory: black skimmer, least tern, royal tern, gull bill tern, Wilson plover, piping plover, and American oystercatcher. I sense he’s given this talk before. He points out the skimmers to me, black birds with white bellies and a vibrant band of orange circling the base of the beak. They’re his favorite. 

“The amount of specialization is amazing,” he explains when asked why. “They’ve got a tactile feeding mechanism, which basically means there’s a trigger in the beak which closes when it senses food. Kind of like a Venus Flytrap. Also, they’ve got [ventricular] compressed pupils, like a cat, so they can see extremely well in low-light conditions.”

We pull up onto the sandy backside of the island to pick up his fare, 15 ladies on a surf retreat. While they board, Captain Joe queues up Jimmy Buffett on the stereo. I look at the island.

Masonboro is the largest undisturbed barrier island in the Cape Fear region, and has everything an island should have: good surf, a pirate history, and an unparalleled dedication to conservation. As part of the N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve, it’s only accessible by boat. There is no development anywhere on the island, save for the rocky jetty on the northernmost tip, making it singularly unique. It’s one of the reasons, along with the abundant food sources and ebb-tide shoals, the birds like to come here—they know they won’t be disturbed. 

“Although this island is 8-and-a-half miles long, there’s really only about an acre or so that the birds can actually use for nesting,” Joe says, pressing buttons on his iPod. Jimmy starts to croon about living and dying in three-quarter time. “Sometimes people get frustrated with the boundaries that we set up, but it’s necessary.” I recall the Colonial Waterbird Nesting Site we passed on the south end of Wrightsville Beach, denoted by white signs and cordoned off to the general public and their dogs.

“Globally, we’re seeing a shorebird decline due to the lack of suitable sand for nesting birds,” he explains. “The biggest problem facing them here is probably the dredging that’s about to begin.” 

The dredging he refers to is a tri-yearly process, described saccharinely as “beach renourishment,” which pumps sand from Masonboro inlet through a rusty pipe lying on the beach to the north end of Wrightsville in a futile and expensive effort to counteract the natural process of erosion. Last time they tried it, a professor of mine made a comment that stuck with me: “There’s no amount of engineers and contractors that can out-sand God. He’ll pick it up and put it right back where it was.”

The shoals, visible at low tide, make an easy target for the dredging. “They look at the shoals and see all that nice sand,” Joe says, pointing, “and it’s easy to get to, which means less work.” But the birds need those ebb-tide shoals, too, as do fish and crabs and other creatures who call the shoals home when they’re submerged.

Despite the hazards the birds face, Captain Joe is convinced the future of Masonboro looks bright. He cites the increase in management and understanding as sources of optimism, and he’s noticing more people valuing local resources. “Surprisingly, the BP oil spill in the Gulf helped,” he says. “That event got soccer moms thinking about conservation, not just environmentalists.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Karen Rose

    September 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Nice article. Enjoyed reading about this area and finding out more about the tours offered!

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