Beach Access Issues
July 24, 2008

The little oystercatchers that could: An update


In June, I wrote about the American oystercatchers that nested just about 130 feet off Highway 12 at the area known as Sandy Bay on the soundside just east of Hatteras village.

Despite vehicles passing by at 55 mph, the oystercatchers managed to sit on their nest and hatch two chicks on May 30.

Then the adults and the chicks foraged on the flats along Sandy Bay for more than a month.

In mid-July, one of the chicks fledged and the other was found injured by the National Park Service.

The injured chick had a broken wing, said Doug McGee, lead avian biotechician with the Park Service.  McGee said a veterinarian who examined the chick said the wing was most likely broken in an impact with a vehicle.

The injured chick was sent to a veterinary clinic, and died on July 21.

The surviving chick, he said, is still “hanging out” at Sandy Bay with the adult oystercatchers.

McGee explained that eating the food that is the staple of the oystercatcher diet, shellfish, is a learned behavior.  The chicks first feed on sand fleas or mole crabs.  Then, after they can fly, they stick with the adults to learn how to use their bill to cut the muscle of shellfish and open them.

McGee added that the oystercatchers have tried to nest at Sandy Bay every year since 2005 when he arrived at the seashore.  This year was their first success.

For more information

For more information on the oystercatchers that could, see article from June 9, which is reprinted below.

June 9. 2008

The little oystercatchers that could


Resource closures on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have gotten more attention than ever this summer – from the media, on the message boards, and in conversations at local stores and post offices.

More of the beach is closed than ever before as a result of a consent decree, signed by a federal judge on April 30, that settled a lawsuit by environmental groups over ORV use on the seashore.

The National Park Service is required to put up buffers around nesting shorebirds, including the American oystercatcher, which is not defined as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

However, breeding and nesting oystercatchers on seashore beaches require a buffer of  150 meters (492 feet), which in some cases can close access to areas of the beach that are still open.  This is part of what has happened to close Cape Point.

Once the chicks have hatched, the buffer must be 200 meters (656 feet).

Then, you have the case of the little oystercatchers that could.

These oystercatchers did not get the word about nesting on the beach and the buffers that are available.

Instead it nested on the soundside of Hatteras Island, just east of Hatteras village, in the area known as Sandy Bay.

The nest was just 40 meters (131) feet off Highway 12, and the little oystercatchers that could sat on the nest as trucks and cars whipped by at 55 mph.

The consent decree stipulates that when nesting occurs in the “immediate vicinity of paved roads, parking lots, campgrounds, buildings, and other facilities, NPS retains the discretion to provide resource protections to the maximum extent possible while still allowing those sites to remain operational.”

In other words, the Park Service is not required to close down Highway 12 for nesting birds.

There was the prescribed buffer to the east and west of the nest, but only 40 meters – not the required 150 – to the south along the highway.

On May 30, the two-egg nest hatched, and a week later, the parents and two chicks are foraging close to the sound in the area.

“A lot of them are less disturbed by vehicles,” says Britta Muiznieks, wildlife biologist with the National Park Service.

“To some degree birds are more tolerant of people in their vehicles,” says Susan Cameron, waterbird biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She added that there are different levels of tolerance for vehicles for different species.

 Anyone who tried to stop along the highway to get a closer look at the little oystercatchers that could or to photograph them found that out.  The birds, seemingly tolerant of the traffic, flew off the nest if a pedestrian appeared.

Muiznieks said the couple who set up housekeeping at Sandy Bay is a new pair.  One of the oystercatchers is banded, and the Park Service knows that it nested last year north of Buxton.  There was a pair last year at Sandy Bay, and seashore biologists think that the other oystercatcher is one of the two there last year.

It takes oystercatcher chicks about 35 days to fledge, so these chicks have at least another four weeks to go, being raised on the island’s only and very busy highway.  They will have to learn not to forage or play in the traffic.

What are their chances?

“It will be a nice surprise if they fledge,” says Muiznieks.

No one is suggesting that oystercatchers need to nest next to a highway or that close to vehicles and people.  The little chicks are still in great danger from passing vehicles.

However, it does make you wonder what all the fuss about ORVs and expanded buffers is about.  After all, these birds were extremely tolerant of passing traffic but not of pedestrians. Yet, the consent decree allows pedestrians access, in some cases, that ORVs don’t have.

Anyway, as you drive along Highway 12 near Sandy Bay, slow down and help the chicks of the little oystercatchers that could fly away.

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