This spring the five other tracking project oystercatchers were returning to their nesting territories and laying eggs in April and May, we waited in vain to catch sight of Oreo, the Wrightsville Beach oystercatcher. Now that spring is almost over, we have concluded that Oreo is not coming back this year. She was last seen wintering in northwest Florida, and we don’t know whether she migrated elsewhere this spring or didn’t survive to return to North Carolina. Though she dropped her transmitter, she is still carrying her dark green bands with the code CF6, so if someone does see her and reads the bands we will discover her fate. For now, though, Oreo is missing.
But what would Oreo have found if she had returned to Wrightsville Beach?
Unfortunately, a recurring beach renourishment project collided with nesting season. Scheduling problems cause the project, which normally happens in the wintertime, to begin in mid-April, just as Least Terns and American Oystercatchers were returning to the south end of Wrightsville Beach, looking for nesting habitat. Unfortunately, though migratory birds and their chicks and eggs are protected by law, their habitat is not always so. As a result, the Least Terns were turned away almost completely. Last year about 250 pairs nested at the site, and so far this year only five nests have been laid, and all have been lost. Usually Least Terns need a larger group to be successful.
Oystercatchers have fared better, but not without some close calls and a very uncertain future. One pair, whose territory is next door to Oreo’s old stomping grounds, laid its first egg the day before bulldozers began moving sand on the beach. With construction vehicles and workers whizzing back and forth, the pair was flushed repeatedly off its nest, jeopardizing the eggs, which needed to be kept warm in still-cool weather and were vulnerable to gulls and crows patrolling the area. After several nerve-wracking days, traffic through the nesting area was stopped, and the pair was able to incubate in peace.
Now they have hatched their chicks, and must safely chart their course through a much-altered landscape. The wide beach that had been in front of their nest and which buffered the little chicks from disturbance by beachgoers has been dredged away. That sand was pumped up the beach in order to widen another part of the island. So now the chicks have a narrow strip of shore to use. If all goes well, the parents will still be able to bring in enough food (too much disturbance cuts down on feeding trips) and guide their chicks to fledging.
Even in the best circumstances, raising chicks on the beach is tough, as we learned last year from watching Oreo. This year, additional challenges face the four pairs of oystercatchers that are nesting at the south end of Wrightsville Beach.