early morning sky was in a moment of indecision, split in half, unsure
of its intentions. To the north, a blue sky was growing the promise of
a sunny day, however, to the south, dark clouds still held the outlook
of soaking rain showers.
was trailering a boat down to the isolated community of Cedar Island on
the far eastern tip of Carteret County. From there, I would head
out into Pamlico Sound in search of a tiny island best known as a
location to fish for red drum. As I pulled into the empty boat ramp
area, a woman was playing with two black Labrador retrievers on the
nearby beach. One of the labs was much older, its muzzle the color of
launching the boat, I motored through the protected harbor with its
high walls of riprap rocks. Gliding across the emerald waters and into
the open sound, the light winds delivered a welcomed message of calm
waters. Pointing the boat north, I headed off in search of Raccoon Island, the last hunk of land where the Neuse River spills into the vast sound.
knew that the island was about seven miles away from the boat ramp, but
after four miles, an island was not coming into view. So, as any
prudent mariner, I pulled out my cell phone and opened up the maps app.
After a slight unintended detour into West Bay, I was soon following
the pulsating blue dot towards Raccoon Island, but I was not heading
there to fish.
the years, I have been asked many times, “Why don’t you ever see baby
egrets, pelicans or gulls on the beach or in the salt marsh?”
it’s mainly two reasons. First, many different species of shorebirds
prefer to nest in remote isolated locations such as small islands in
marshes, sounds and rivers that are intentionally
selected away from human activity. Secondly, new chicks are usually
already the same size of an adult and have similar plumage when they
fledge from the nest. Thus, after the chicks have left the nesting islands, the casual observer will not recognize them as cute “baby chicks” running about.
birds like to nest in large numbers, in groups called colonies, so they
can all benefit from a collective effort. With more alert sentries to
call out the danger alarm as well as plentiful fighters to drive out an
intruder, the survival rate of eggs and chicks increases. Selection of
a colony site is also influenced by the availability of food and thus
the birds all end up at the same spot, similar to fishermen when they
hear where the fish are biting.
in the colony also learn to follow other, more successful hunters to
their favorite spot, again, just like fishermen. Colonies with terns,
plovers and skimmers tend to sprout up on the
sandy spits at the ends of barrier islands while pelicans, herons and
egrets favor isolated island with grasses, shrubs and trees. In North
Carolina, 25 different species of waterbirds nest colonially and rely
on such sites.
As I approached the island, I was a bit concerned; it was low and flat
without any significant shrub thickets or trees. No wonder I couldn’t
find the island, it is not prominent enough to rise above the horizon.
I was expecting an “island,” but this was basically a big hunk of salt
marsh made up of various tall grasses. My hopes of seeing any nesting
ibis, herons or egrets sank just like this island appeared to be doing.
to the island, I began to see birds flying around the south shore.
Laughing gulls, lots and lots of laughing gulls, were flying in and
then dropping into the grasses. Their trademark riotous call could be
heard from quite a distance. I soon began to see heads poking up
through the grasses like periscopes. Looking deeper into the low grass,
I saw clusters of glossy and white ibis, tricolored herons and snowy
egrets. The plentiful laughing gulls had created a perimeter, nesting
closer to the shore. My mood lifted as my doubts faded away like the
distant curtain of rain draping from a cloud over the Pamlico.
With so many birds sitting on nests, I could now see
why this island had been listed as an important nesting site for the
glossy ibis, tricolored heron and laughing gull. It appeared that many
of the birds were still sitting on eggs, but it was hard to tell since
the nests were not visible through the grasses. Then, every now and
then, I could get a glimpse of a fuzzy-headed chick. The snowy egret
chicks appeared to be top heavy as their heads would wobble, while the
tricolored heron chicks stood erect and stable. One chick was shy as it
poked out its stubby variegated bill, a glossy ibis chick.
with the crowded conditions, everything was pretty peaceful until a
bird would land too close to another nest, creating an uproar of
squawking and wing slapping. One laughing gull was popped so hard you
could hear it out on the boat. White ibis and laughing gull
chicks were nowhere to be seen. Either they hadn’t hatched out, or they were tucked well into the vegetation.
adults were resplendent in their magnificent breeding colors and
plumage, coming and going, in search of and returning with food for the
chicks. The fleshy face of the white ibis is fire engine red, glossy
ibis feathers shine with a bronze glow, while elegant plumes drape off
of the tricolor heron and snowy egret.
Throughout the last half of the 1800s, these elegant breeding feathers
were at times more valuable than gold. To satisfy a new craze in
fashion, millions of colonial nesting birds were slaughtered to
“harvest” the chic breeding plumes used mainly to adorn women’s hats.
Snowy egrets in particular were targeted and were brought to the verge
of extinction. At the time, killing these birds simply for
their feathers was unregulated and because of their tempting value,
many hunters turned to plume hunting. All along the Atlantic coast,
breeding sites were wiped out, the adults killed, eggs left to rot and
chicks left to starve.
with the annihilation of these birds ignited the formation of the
Audubon Society chapters in many states, which influenced the creation
of bird-protection laws and the establishment of bird refuges. To
enforce these laws, the Audubon Society hired the nation’s first game
wardens. One such warden was a man named Guy Bradley.
In 1902, Bradley was hired as Audubon’s first game warden charged to
protect a huge swath of the Florida’s west coast down to Key West. Even
though it was now illegal in Florida, the carnage continued. A reformed
plume hunter himself, Bradley went about his job with a vigilance that
created many enemies and a foreboding prophesy of his death. Three
years later, Guy Bradley was shot and killed as he attempted to arrest
a familiar plume hunter and his sons on one of the rookeries.
Bradley once described plume hunting as “a cruel and hard calling.”
Watching the birds of Raccoon Island, I wondered if he was just doing
the job he was paid to do or if he objected to the absurdity of killing
birds to satisfy human vanities. A pioneer in wildlife protection,
awards are now given in his name to distinguish those who have
demonstrated a commitment to wildlife protection through enforcement or
conservation. His story is depicted in a movie, “Wind Across the
Everglades,” released in 1958.
1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect
migratory birds such as the egrets and herons from eventual extinction.
Some states were not pleased and challenged the constitutionality
of the act, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the law in
1920. The act has now been protecting birds for almost 100 years and is
being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bolster
protection for birds from new hazards that were not around a century
elsewhere in the world including Eurasia, market hunting continues to
threaten birds to satisfy the culinary fad of eating fried songbirds.
Yellow-breasted bunting populations have dropped 95 percent during the
past three and a half decades due to illegal poaching and a strong
black market appetite in China.
I piloted the boat away from the island and was greeted by a pod of
dolphins as I neared the boat ramp. Tucked in among the adults, a tiny
newborn leaped completely out of the water, putting a smile on my face.
Normally this would have taken my full attention, but today I was still
captivated by the sights and sounds of the bird colony.
reflected on Guy Bradley and the courage he had, even in the face of
danger, to protect these birds. Birds may not mean much to most people,
but to me they are a strong fiber that weaves through the fabric of
nature that is worth saving. They are the most obvious of nature’s
ambassadors that have the best opportunity to keep us connected to the
Oh, by the way, I didn’t see any raccoons on Raccoon Island.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)