News Stories

Former Dredge Material Placement Islands Still Provide Valuable Habitat for Nesting Seabirds

Published July 20, 2017

   If you’re on the ferry heading from Fort Fisher to Southport in late June through July, it’s hard not to notice a flurry of activity on an island located just downriver in the middle of the Cape Fear River.  It’s called South Pelican Island, and it provides a home to thousands of nesting seabirds and their young.  What was once just a typical U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged material placement island roughly three decades ago has developed into some of the last nesting habit for seabirds in southeastern North Carolina. 

  “We have several different species of waterbirds and several species of shorebirds that nest here,” explained North Carolina Audubon biologist Lindsay Addison.  “We have brown pelicans, royal terns and sandwich terns, and laughing gulls which all nest in their habitats on the island.  We also have American oyster catchers which are a large shorebird, and we also have willets which also breed here.”

   Addison said to give an idea about the importance of preserving habitat for these birds, South Pelican Island, together with Ferry Slip Island support about 20 percent of North Carolina’s royal tern and sandwich tern breeding population.  These two islands are the only suitable nesting sites for those species between Cape Romaine, South Carolina and Cape Lookout, North Carolina. 

   “The islands in the Lower Cape Fear River also support about 20 to 25 percent of North Carolina’s brown pelican population,” she said.  “And both of these islands are absolutely essential to them and essential to their recovery in this state.”  

  The island is divided by various habitats.  Pelicans prefer grassy, sandy areas while terns prefer just sand.  When the right kind of sand is available from dredging, the Wilmington District works with Audubon N.C. to coordinate placing it on South Pelican or Ferry Slip Island to maintain the proper habitat.  On average that happens every seven years.   

   “The quality of the material, coarse-grained sand free of large shells and debris, is essential to these birds,” said Wilmington District biologist Keleigh Cox.  “Fine-grained material is nearly unusable for nesting, due to the small grain size being washed away by incoming and outgoing tides.”

   The island is off limits to the public to lessen stress on foraging birds during the nesting season that runs from April 1 to August 31. And because it is an island, Cox said it is harder for mammalian predators to be able to disturb the nesting colonies, ensuring that seabirds will be able to continuing nesting in southeastern North Carolina uninhibited.

   “Sea and shorebirds are a major component of our beach ecosystems and a familiar site to any beachgoer,” she said. “Though most people won’t see these bird islands, they can still appreciate the aesthetic aspect that these iconic birds bring to our beaches."