You are here

Counting Birds and Turtles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore

CAHA - closed sign

 Beach areas are closed to pedestrians and ORVs to protect piping plovers and sea turtles. Colonial birds fly as a large group. Photos by Danny Bernstein

Last year, I walked the length of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, about 83 miles, to finish the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in early May.

When the annual Park Planning documents recently came out for Cape Hatteras, I looked at the detailed reports to see if any related to my experience. Six reports came out on the state of birds, turtles, plants, and visitor behavior in the national seashore.

The reports referenced the lawsuit filed in 2007 by Defenders of Wildlife and National Audubon Society charging that the Park Service was not adequately protecting various species. The next year, a consent decree was reached that provided for additional protection to threatened species.

A final plan for managing off-road vehicle use on the seashore just took effect this past week, though a lawsuit has been filed against it. While it will be months before we see the outcome of that lawsuit, birds, turtles and humans will continue to visit the seashore. How they interact will continue to be assessed annually by seashore staff.

Here are some observations from the latest batch of reports.

Piping Plovers 

The piping plover is a 7-inch, sandy–colored shorebird with a black band across the forehead and around the neck. The Atlantic Coast population of these birds has been federally listed as endangered since 1986. North Carolina is the only state that has these plovers all year round. They establish their nests in late March or early April, then lay three to four eggs in a small, shallow depression or scrape. The pair incubates until the eggs hatch within three-to-four weeks.

As the result of the Consent Decree, the seashore established earlier dates for pre-nesting closures and larger buffer requirements for nesting birds and chicks. They close certain parts of the beach by March 15, putting up fencing, flagging tape, and signs. But they modify their closures throughout the season to continue protecting the nests and birds. Last year, they monitored until July 15 to see where the birds had settled.

Once a nest is located, an exclosure  is installed to keep out predators, including ghost crabs, raccoons, crows, grackles, opossum and even feral cats. These exclosures consist of a ten-foot diameter, welded-wire fence topped by mesh bird netting. The seashore also put up traps for these predators.

But people also disturbed the plovers. During 2011 seashore staff documented that 83 pedestrian, 5 ORVs, 10 dogs, 5 boats, and even one horse entered a closed area.

According to the report, 15 breeding pairs of plovers with 18 nests were counted last year, the first one on April 15. The report gives the stages for each nest - number of eggs, abandoned nests, and hatched eggs.

The bottom line is that 10 chicks fledged, down from the 15 in 2010. The report offers numbers since 1992. For two years, (2002 and 2004), there were no fledged chicks at all. Page 11 of the report has the table of the success rate.

Most of this 40-page report consists of maps of each beach closures with the nests pinpointed. The report didn't have any clear conclusion, but here's mine. With only 15 pairs of piping plovers, over 83 miles of beach, it's not surprising that I never saw the bird during my hike last spring.

Sea Turtles

Cape Hatteras has seen five species of sea turtles reach its beaches. The loggerhead, weighing 250 pounds, may be the best known. To look for these turtles during nesting season, volunteers and seashore staff patrol the beaches daily from May 1 to October 1, looking for nests and turtle hatching.

In 2011, 147 sea turtle nests were found, compared to 153 nests the previous year. This is the second highest number of nests since 2000, the first year cited in the report.

Volunteers assist biologists by nest sitting. That is, they try to minimize potential disturbances to the nests and turtles. Nest sitters watch for ghost crabs and mammalian predators such as mink, raccoon, and cats. Nests are sometimes relocated because turtles laid their eggs below the high tide line or because of erosion. From those nests, 6,483 turtles were calculated to have emerged last year.

People also disturb turtles. In particular, chairs and other equipment left on the beach overnight can trap or hamper a turtle looking for a good nesting site. For example, the report states:

NBH15: During turtle patrol on July 26, this nest was found 2.1 miles North of Ramp 23 in the tri-villages. The tracks indicated that after successfully nesting, the turtle hit a beach canopy and drug it approximately 100 feet from its original location. The turtle was able to return to the ocean on its own accord. It is unknown if the nesting turtle sustained any injury from the incident.

Sometimes visitors actually harass turtles:

NBH03: This nest was laid on the night of May 31 in the tri-village area. That night, Park staff received a call from Dare County Central reporting that pedestrians on the beach were harassing a nesting turtle. The following morning the nest was found, but was so low on the beach that it needed to be relocated. The nest was relocated to higher ground. Since the nest had a good success, it is unlikely that any damage was sustained.


The 55-page report ends with a detailed list of turtle nest activity and maps locating the nests.


This attractive bird has a long, fire-engine red beak, red eyes, black head and top and white underparts. Its red beak is all you need to identify easily. They've been designated Significantly Rare by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a Species of Special Concern in North Carolina. Only 23 pairs nested in 2011; in 2002, there were 39 pairs.

Last year, the 23 pairs that nested on the seashore produced 49 chicks. Of those, 29 fledged. In 2002, only 9 had fledged. If we can define ultimate success as the number of fledged birds, things are looking up. I saw an oystercatcher on my MST hike last year, but never realized that they're that uncommon on the beach.

Other Birds

There seemed to be no shortage of gulls, terns, and cormorants on my hike. They are combined in a report entitled Colonial Waterbirds. The adjective, Colonial, refers to the fact that these birds live in large colonies, not related to the American Colonies. Though they seem to be innumerable, they still need to be monitored. 

Law Enforcement Report

Since so much focus is put on human disturbance, it might be interesting to look at violations. The biggest problem was speeding on paved roads - 368 violation contacts. No surprise here.

But the report breaks out resource violations. The largest one, 360 incidents, is pets, presumably dogs, disturbing the wildlife by not being on a leash. Further down on the resource violation are the 99 pedestrians who went into closed area.

Cape Hatteras had more than two million visitors in 2011. They reported one assault. With over 24,000 acres in the National Seashore, it's a pretty safe place.


PLEASE NOTE that of all the issues on the beaches of Cape Hatteras Pedestrians cause many more incidents as compared to ORV's. Yet ORV users must pay a fee to access the park while Pedestrians pay nothing. The ORV users must also view and sign off on a manditory video training them on how to stay within the law, Pedestrians can continue to visit uneducated as usual. I cannot keep count on the number of pedestrians I have brought up to date on rules as they were being broken, but I have never seen with my eyes a person violating these beaches in an ORV.
I will state now that I totally support putting a booth at the bonner bridge and charging all who come with only permanent residents getting a pass. They can hand out a brochure with each paying adult and it can educate you on how to behave on the island. they already do this in other national parks why not here?

Also note that there is no charge to access the park, as samsdad wrote above. Both ORV users and pedestrians can "access the park" for free. If one wants to drive a vehicle on the beach, then s/he has to pay a permit fee to do so. "Accessing the park" and "driving on the beach" are not the same thing.
I also doubt that the State of North Carolina would allow a toll on N.C. Highway 12 as an entrance fee, since much of the land south of the Bonner Bridge is owned by the state or county.

When was the last time a pedestrian squashed a nesting sea turtle beneath its wheels or flattened a bird into the sand? 

True Chris, but the majority of violators are pedestrians and part of my point is that ORV users are the only ones forced to be retrained by watching a video. ORV user fees are the only funding for parking lots for the pedestrians. I guess I will be more specifc by saying People who drive walk or fly on the beach need to sit through this video and pay a fee to access the beach and this will end the dicrimination of forcing one group to pay for everyones access.

While you are correct that most of the violations were by pedestrians, did not some, if not many, of those pedestrians access the areas adjacent to the resource closures by ORV, then walk into the closures?  When does an ORV user become a pedestrian or as implied in your comments a non-ORV user?  As soon as they step out of their ORV?  It really is not as clear cut as folks would like it to be is it? I do agree with you that an educational process is needed for all beach users.

In turn Angler does not a vehicle become an ORV once it leaves the highway? Like the persons who park along the roadside to ACCESS the beaches? I will guarantee this stops once it becomes an issue by putting more signs up further cluttering the island, though these will say "no parking".
Pretty soon the beaches of Cape Hatteras will become covered woth more signs than South of the Border has on 95 south.



Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide