Cape Hatteras's Beach Birds
When parts of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore get busy, the array of shorebirds using it might as well be crossing a highway.
These threatened sandy-colored birds live year-round on the seashore, which is at the northern end of their wintering range. In spring they nest on the beach, where their eggs blend in with the sand. Piping plovers are extremely sensitive to off-road vehicles.
These yellow-beaked, black-capped birds nest right on the seashore's sandy beaches. Their first line of defense is to leave their nests. In extreme temperatures, unattended eggs or newly hatched chicks can die in 15 minutes. Eggs and chicks are also eaten by gulls and crows.
In breeding season, colonies of black skimmers dot the seashore's open beaches around inlets and points. Their mobile chicks, which blend in perfectly with their environment, often hunker down and hide in a tire rut or other depression in the sand, and can be easily crushed.
Breeding from the Gulf of Mexico up the East Coast to Massachusetts, American oystercatchers nest on the Cape Hatteras dunes. Adults forage at the shoreline and bring food back for the chicks. Survival rates drop in half when vehicles are allowed to drive near the nests.
Migrating sanderlings stop on the seashore, an IBA. At high tide the birds rest on the upper beach. As the tide ebbs they feed in the intertidal zone. Unrelenting intrusions complicate the birds' efforts to store fat and energy, making migration even more dangerous.
This candidate for endangered species listing uses the seashore during migration. While fattening up in the intertidal zone, the last thing they need is vehicles interrupting their feeding. When they reach their breeding grounds in less-than-optimal shape it impairs their breeding success.
This story originally ran in the September-October 2012 issue as, "Hit-and-Run."