June 24, 2014

Least tern nest closes oceanfront in north Avon

The National Park Service discovered a least tern nest on Sunday that has closed the ocean beach in front of nine houses on Pamlico Court on the very north end of Avon.

The Park Service established  a colonial waterbird pre-nesting area north of Avon in the spring, but this pair of birds nested just south of the pre-nesting area.  

The buffer distance for a least tern nest is 100 meters, which is about 328 feet or a little longer than a football field. Therefore, the resource closure extends in front of about nine oceanfront houses on Pamlico Court in northern Avon.

This is the first time that anyone involved in the beach access issue can remember that a resource closure for nesting birds has closed the beach in front of houses in a village.

Outer Banks Group Superintendent Barclay Trimble said yesterday that he had already fielded phone calls from Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, and at least one rental manager.

He said the Park Service has closed the ocean beach just up to the toe of the dune, so that the occupants of the cut-off houses can cross over the dune and then head south along a narrow path between the dune and the closure to gain access to the open beach just south of Pamlico Court.

"It's not an easy walk," said Beth Midgett, rental manager for Midgett Realty, who visited the area yesterday. The company handles two houses affected by the closure.  Both are occupied this week.

One, she said, is on the southern end of the closure and is not as much of a problem as the other one, which is the very first house in northern Avon.  That house, she said, is occupied by a family with a grandmother who has mobility issues and cannot manage the walk in the deep sand behind the dune to the ocean beach that is open.

"They are not at all happy," Midgett said, noting that they had been planning all  year for this vacation and chose the oceanfront house for the easy access.

According to park biologist Eric Frey, the average incubation time for a nest is 21 days and chicks usually fledge in 19 to 20 days.  

The closure for unfledged chicks is 200 meters, which could mean more oceanfront closures in a few weeks for northern Avon.

Even if the nest is not successful, the closure will remain in place for two more weeks to see if the pair of bird will try again with another one.

If the nests hatches, Trimble said, "We'll just have to see where the chicks go after that."

At any rate, the oceanfront closures won't end anytime soon and could extend into August.

The least tern is not a federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act.  It is listed by the state of North Carolina as a "species of special concern."

The state said when the Park Service was formulating its new off-road vehicle plan that it did not intend that the protections for these birds be as extensive as was being proposed. The Park Service said it had an obligation to protect the species of special concern.

Jan Harvard and her husband own a home on Pamlico Court and split their time between Rocky Mount and Avon.

"It bothers me that they (the Park Service) just go on and on with these closures," she said yesterday. "It seems like they're trying to ruin the economy of Hatteras Island.

Certainly, Beth Midgett noted, this oceanfront closure will have economic consequences for the owners of the houses that are rentals and for the companies that handle them.

This morning, Midgett Realty was calling the folks who have the houses rented in the coming weeks to inform them of the situation.  And, at the height of the rental season, they're aren't many other rentals to which they could be moved.

"It was just a stunner for them," she said.

Midgett then made another point about the contentious issues that surround the park's ORV rule and final plan and the opposition to it by many who think there should be more reasonable access for all.

"This has never really been about beach driving," she said. "It's about access, and it's just out of balance."

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