a slightly overcast Wednesday afternoon, and National Park Service lead
biological science technician William Thompson is stepping into his
remarkably clean truck, navigating the big pools of waters that have
amassed at Ramp 43, and is heading out to Cape Point to check on the
day’s birding activity.
And this time of year, when the nesting season is arguably at its peak, there’s definitely a lot to see.
45 least terns, who are closely monitoring a
collective 53 eggs and 23 chicks, have set up a colony in the heart of
The Point closure, and are fully engaged in everyday bird behavior –
resting on hidden nests, preening themselves, and scoping out the
horizon for any would-be predators.
And as the birds are checking their surroundings
to make sure their “safety in numbers” strategy is working, Thompson is
also watching through the eyes of a “spotting scope” -- or telescope --
and from a distance of roughly 150 meters away.
It’s a task that is completed routinely by Thompson and the 12
full-time and part-time biological science technicians, or “biotechs,”
he supervises, and at this time of year, it occurs at least twice a day.
The role of a biotech is, essentially, to
observe. And Thompson’s team of biotechs go out for roughly an hour in
the morning and an hour in the afternoon to conduct daily surveys of
the bird activity within the boundaries of the Cape Hatteras National
Seashore's Hatteras District, which covers Ramp 30 to Hatteras Inlet.
Armed with a telescope, a pair of binoculars, a
GPS unit, and something to write on, they keep track of new
developments and behaviors to get a sense of what, essentially, is
going on in the local bird community. “Every day, we’re watching so we
can tell the story of what’s happening,” explains Thompson.
And while on the surface it may appear to the
untrained eye that what the biotechs are watching are just birds doing
traditional bird things, with a little guidance of an expert, the
complete story starts to unfold.
On this particular Wednesday afternoon, a trio of
oystercatchers are casually hanging out around the edge of the closure.
As Thompson stops to answer a beach-goer’s question on what’s happening
within the closed area, the trio meander around, seemingly enjoying
another day on the beach.
But the real story behind this ménage à trois of oystercatchers is a lot more lurid that one would expect.
“I know these [birds] really well,” says
Thompson, after finishing up his conversation. “This is a pair that
nested this year at Cape Point, and up until June 13, they had chicks.
At that point, the chicks weren’t identified anymore and were signed
off as lost… and this is indirectly due to that third oystercatcher
that’s there right now.”
Apparently, the third oystercatcher is, in fact,
a homewrecker of sorts, and he has latched onto the pair in a dedicated
attempt to steal away a mate after losing his own partner at Ramp 38.
On a larger scale, this is part of a domino effect that started with
the loss of an oystercatcher several weeks ago to a predator. After
that happened, this initial oystercatcher’s partner moved on and stole
another bird’s mate, who in turn came south to The Point to bother this
And at some point soon after the interloper’s arrival, the couple lost their chicks.
“The pair wasn’t paying attention to the chicks,”
says Thompson. “XW, [the name given to the interloper based on his
band], wasn’t a direct cause, but at some point while the chicks were
unsupervised, they were preyed upon by something.”
Thompson also adds that there is still time to
re-nest if the pair is so inclined, but one imagines that nesting and
breeding may be awfully hard to do with an uninvited third party that’s
constantly tagging along.
“They’re definitely trying to figure out who’s the boss here,” says Thompson.
This lone sighting is just one of the stories
that biotechs uncover and outline on a daily basis. By heading to the
closure sites and watching the behavior, not only can they pinpoint
when a closure should be expanded or even closed, but they also create
a database of information that can be instrumental in the years to
“All of the data that we collect this year is
extremely helpful,” says Thompson. “It helps us determine where we put
the closures next year, and it allows us to cross-reference the
historical data with what we’re seeing real time.”
And after seven seasons with the Hatteras
District, Thompson attests that the activity and habits of the nesting
birds changes every year. Weather, flooding, environmental conditions,
and unexpected events, such as the unusual re-pairing of the
oystercatchers, all play a role in where the birds nest, the success of
the chicks, and the length and placement of the closures.
A slightly submerged metal cage in the barely
inland region portion of Cape Point serves as a current reminder of the
effects that unusual weather can have. Per federal regulations, when
there is a “full clutch” of plover chicks -- which includes the
sighting of four chicks and the supervision of one adult -- the NPS
puts a sturdy but versatile cage over the nesting area so that the
plovers can easily go in and out, but the potential predators can’t
reach the newly hatched birds.
This cage was installed after such a sighting,
but by June 6 – when the area was under 18 inches of water after two
coastal storms – the nest was clearly abandoned and the cage was no
The piping plover activity is not diminished in
the region, however. And a view from the telescope reveals that there’s
still at least one plover in the area on this particular afternoon that
has no trouble preening and hanging out with the local tern crowd.
And while it may seem on the surface that all a
biotech has to do is sit back and find a good vantage point of the
local colonies or nests, it’s a much more involved process than just
admiring the view.
Thompson’s team of biotechs traditionally have a
bachelor's degree in biology, and if they’re new to the area, they go
through an in-depth crash course on the different species that frequent
the region, as well as the environment itself. From there, they head
out to conduct surveys with an established supervisor to make sure they
are on the right track, and adhere to a delicate balance of finding a
vantage point that has a good perspective of the nests, while keeping a
The biotechs do two “walk-throughs” of a nesting
area per year, so they can accurately identify the number of nests,
birds, and chicks, but otherwise, they do their very best to stay in
the background and not interrupt the activity
“We also try to double up our tasks so we’re not in the closure all the
time,” says Thompson. “So, for example, we’ll combine turtle patrol and
“Only when we see breeding activity do we
approach to do a GPS of the scrape, [or potential nesting site] to
ensure that we’re in compliance with the buffers. Otherwise, we keep as
much distance as possible.”
Proving the point, Thompson steps into the
closure a little further and sets up the telescope to keep an eye on
the big tern colony that’s stationed a good 150 meters away. From this
distance, the view to the naked eye looks simply like a cluster of
birds, but through the eye of the lens, the assortment of different
types of terns, skimmers, and even a plover or two, is abundantly clear.
This is the largest colony of terns in the
Hatteras District, and the terns have a story of their own too – which
boils down to a unified philosophy of “safety in numbers.”
According to Thompson, if you get too close to
the colony, the terns will respond in kind by taking to the skies and
swooping down to eye level to give you a threatening shock, a la Alfred
Hitchcock’s "The Birds." If you continue to cause them concern, they
might even upgrade their defensive maneuvers to include defecating on
And with this mass-effort of intimidation, the
colony as a whole is better able to scare off any potential predators –
such as fish crows, gulls, feral cats, or foxes – all of which have
been spotted this year, and which can devastate a nest.
and his crew have a keen eye for this kind of activity, and are
familiar with the birds that have nested and re-nested in the area for
years. But this year, the NPS biotechs also have a new ally when it
comes to monitoring which helps make their data even more
Starting in 2015, researchers with Virginia Tech
have partnered with the National Park Service to “band” the adult birds
and chicks with small bands around their legs. A tricky but harmless
process that involves a box trap over the nest for catching the adults,
the banding allows VT scientists to continue research on the movement
of our local coastal birds, and also allows the NPS to do a more
thorough job of identifying and monitoring the activity of specific
“Now I can ID [a bird] and confidently say this
is a new nest, or this is a re-nest of a pair that has nested before,”
says Thompson. “Banding information is priceless. You can make an
educated guess of what’s going on without bands, but you can get
definitive data with them.”
After all, bands are part of the reason why
Thompson recognized the aforementioned oystercatcher trio by sight –
and they’re also how “XW” got his name.
June 1 through June 15 is the peak nesting
season, and it’s when the biotechs are at their busiest. The season
then begins slowing down, and by July 31, it’s possible that most of
the activity will wane, and some closures will re-open to the human
But for now, Thompson and his crew will continue
to watch, jot down the new chapters of this season’s story, and use
this invaluable data to create future management plans that will best
serve both the human and avian visitors to the Cape Hatteras National
And for Thompson, one of the biggest benefits of the job is sharing his unique seashore perspective with the public.
“I enjoy being able to interact with people and
let them know what’s going on in the area. Everyone learns by seeing,
and not just by hearing,” he says. “I run into a lot of folks who might
walk over a recent turtle track and not know what it is.
When you tell them that it’s the path of a
250-pound turtle that just laid 100 eggs in the sand, you can see the
lights pop off in their heads.”
“We want to make our appearance known, and wave
[to folks on the beach], and be available to talk,” adds Thompson. “I
value everyone’s opinion here, and I’m eager to answer any questions
that people may have.
“The knowledge of what we’re doing, and why we’re out here, is very useful to everyone.”