July 13, 2017
Last month, among the tempestuous winds and currents of the Outer Banks, a new island rose from the waves off the coast of Hatteras Island.
Shelly Island, a mile-long sand spit, captured the attention of the world late last month, although strong currents had been piling sand since last fall. Sightseers flocked to the new island, regardless of strong currents which prompted several rescue missions.
But will birds also flock to the new island?
"Birds love open, sandy places,” said Sara Schweitzer, biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “They’ve adapted to nest on them.” Seven species of coastal birds lay eggs on bare sand near inlets and capes. Shelly Island is sandy, flat and bare: a perfect place for nests, if the island becomes permanent. But humans also like to lay out on bare sand.
“There’s not much beach that’s flat and quiet and not too busy,” said Curtis Smalling of Audubon, North Carolina. “Mostly because the beach is wildly popular.”
According to the Commission, seabird populations have plummeted in the last several decades. For example, the common tern’s population has declined 80 percent since the Commission started surveying them in the 1970s.
Sara Schweitzer said people are the main disturbance to beach nesting birds. Their nests are often camouflaged with sand, and humans (and their dogs) step on eggs, or cause nesting birds to “flush” (fly off) leaving their chicks exposed.
"When I heard that people are bringing their dogs to Shelly Island, I immediately got stressed out,” said Schweitzer. “It’s just normal behavior for dogs to chase birds off their nests.”
But Shelly Island could be a boon to coastal birds, if it sticks around long enough for nesting season, which begins next April and lasts through September. The island is in a risky position; it's situated among strong currents and winds, and the next hurricane may wipe it out.
Schweitzer said birds have already found the island. If they come back next year, the Commission will get permission from state officials to put up signs warning beach-goers about nests.
“It would be really great if birds came back and ended up nesting there,” said Schweitzer. “So many other areas on the coast are developed, and birds have fewer and fewer places to nest.”
Both Smalling and Schweitzer said the management of the new island is still up in the air. Traditionally, newly formed islands belong to the state. But because this island is so close to federally protected shoreline, that may soon change.
- Rossie Izlar
Rossie Izlar is the associate producer of Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly show highlighting the latest science stories from North Carolina and across the nation.