Study: Bird sanctuaries like WB’s are effective at improving vulnerable populations

American Oystercatchers, sometimes spotted on Wrightsville Beach, are a vulnerable species, aided by stewardship programs that protect nesting areas from human disturbance. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Audubon North Carolina)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — A new study published in the Conservation Biology journal finds vulnerable coastal birds have more positive population growth trends in designated stewardship areas compared to both protected and unprotected areas.

Evaluating coastal sites across the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico, the study included Wrightsville Beach’s designated shorebird protection area, according to Audubon North Carolina.

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The south end of Wrightsville beach is roped off to prevent human disturbance to protect nesting coastal birds. This area is patrolled and looked after by the bird stewards, a group led by Audubon biologists.

Sanctuaries like Wrightsville Beach’s help provide a home to 40% of the state’s coastal nesting waterbirds, according to Audobon.

Stewardship sites effective

Analyzing 12 vulnerable waterbirds, researchers tracked population trends among three areas: 1. unprotected 2. protected (often with some recreational use permissible) 3. active stewardship sites.

Active stewardship sites use a variety of techniques to reduce disturbance, including signage, fencing, exclosures, and patrols by stewards to ward off humans, according to the study.

The study found more positive growth trends at stewardship sites compared to unprotected sites and protected sites. Human disturbance is a serious threat to coastal birds and stewardship efforts can reduce its negative impacts, the study concluded.

In Wrightsville Beach, the program was put on pause due to the pandemic but will return this summer.

“Having our volunteers and Bird Stewards back in action is a huge gift to the Audubon team and to our coastal nesting birds,” Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist at Audubon North Carolina said in a press release. “Species like Least Terns and Black Skimmers raise their young right on the sand. These birds can coexist alongside humans, as long as you give them plenty of space and respect roped off nesting areas.” 

Signs humans have disturbed a nesting shore or seabird include the bird flying away, calling loudly in an attempt to scare, or even defecating on intruders. “This isn’t good for anyone, and when parent birds are disturbed off the nest, even for just a few minutes, it can be fatal for their eggs and babies,” Addison said.

This summer, Audubon encourages people to look out for Wrightsville Beach’s bird stewards, who will be wearing blue t-shirts. Say hello; the stewards can help educate visitors on how to observe birds from a safe distance and share information on nesting season.  


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