One of the most distinctive shorebirds, American Oystercatchers are easily identified by their black-and-white bodies, long red bills, and yellow eyes. These birds nest in pairs on isolated spots high above the tide line on the beach and are particularly sensitive to human activity, leaving their nests when approached by people or pets. If they stay off the nest for too long, the eggs can overheat in the hot sun and die. Oystercatchers generally lay 2-4 eggs per nest, which will hatch in about a month. Chicks will leave their nests when they are able to fly, about 35 to 45 days after hatching. Because they only nest on isolated beaches, these birds are often used as an indication of the health of an island. When American Oystercatchers start to leave an area, other shorebirds are also in danger of losing valuable nesting grounds.
Black Skimmers got their name from their unusual feeding method. They skim their knife-thin lower jaw through the water and, when they feel a small fish, they snap their jaws closed. The Skimmers’ lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw, which helps them better skim the water for these fish. Skimmers are highly social and often nest in large colonies with other skimmers, terns, and gulls, building their nests directly on the sand. Due to loss of nesting habitat as beach areas are developed, Black Skimmers are listed as a species of special concern in North Carolina.
The Eastern Brown Pelican is the smallest of all pelican species, although their wingspan is generally 6 to 8 feet. Unlike other pelicans, Brown Pelicans catch their food by diving head-first into the water from up to 60 feet in the air. Pelicans nest on the ground in large colonies on uninhabited beaches or dredge spoil islands. Each pair builds a nest only a few feet away from those around them and will lay 2 to 4 eggs, which the parents take turns incubating. One of several success stories: the population of Eastern Brown Pelicans recovered enough that the bird was removed from the Federal Endangered Species list in 2009.
Piping Plovers were pushed to the brink of extinction during the 19th century when they were heavily hunted for their feathers. About two-thirds of North Carolina’s nesting piping plovers can be found at Cape Lookout National Seashore, most of which nest on Portsmouth Island (North Core Banks). Unlike birds that nest in trees, shorebirds lay their eggs directly on the sand. Camouflaged to protect themselves from predators, the nests and eggs are often difficult to see. Young plovers that have not learned to fly can often be seen running back and forth from their parents’ nest to feeding grounds. Because they are only about the size of a cotton ball and generally freeze in place when threatened, these young birds can be stepped on or run over before they are seen. Joint efforts by visitors, concessionaires, and park staff to protect nesting areas have proven that this threatened species can coexist with other beach-goers.
There are four species of sea turtles commonly found on the North Carolina coast: Loggerheads (shown in the photo), Leatherbacks, Greens, and Kemp’s Ridleys. Most of the sea turtle nests found at Cape Lookout National Seashore are made by Loggerheads, but the other three do occasionally nest on these beaches. Female sea turtles only nest about once every three years, generally crawling out of the water to dig their nests at night. Females can lay 2 to 4 nests in one season with 50 to 160 eggs per nest, depending on the species. While this may seem like a lot of eggs, only about 1 out of 500 to 1000 eggs will produce a hatchling that will survive to adulthood. This is part of the reason all species of sea turtles are listed as endangered or threatened with extinction.