This article was originally published in the Wilmington Star News on February 17, 2014, and was written by Kate Elizabeth Queram. View the original article here.
The number of American oystercatchers in North Carolina increased by more than 30 percent in the past five years, a jump researchers say is a direct result of a long-term conservation partnership between dozens of groups along the Eastern Seaboard.
“This is highly unusual in the shorebird world,” said Shiloh Schulte, American oystercatcher recovery coordinator at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Plymouth, Mass. “Shorebirds are in really dire straits at this point, so seeing one that we’re able to turn around is pretty exciting.”
American oystercatchers are orange-billed, black-and-white birds that make their homes on coastlines from Maine to Texas. They’re classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a species of “special concern,” several steps below endangered. A survey in 2003 estimated the total oystercatcher population at 10,900; that number fell steadily until 2009, when conservation groups from Canada to Texas – including Auduborn North Carolina, N.C. State University and the state Wildlife Resources Commission – joined together to help protect the species.
“Instead of having groups competing for limited resources, we’re doing this coordinated approach,” Schulte said. “It’s pretty easy to go into an area and say, ‘We’re going to protect this spot,’ but that doesn’t do anything for the other 95 percent of the species. You have to operate at scale if you want results.”
Oystercatcher conservation efforts focused largely on habitat protection and educational outreach. In Wrightsville Beach, for example, elementary school classes drew educational signs warning beachgoers to steer clear of the grass-covered dunes on the island’s south end, where oystercatchers nest. Audubon North Carolina then posted those signs, resulting in less foot traffic through the birds’ habitat.
“If you address those threats and provide high-quality habitats and give the birds the protection they need, they have the best possible chance of nesting successfully,” said Walker Golder, deputy state director of Audubon North Carolina. “When you have everybody doing that on a large scale, it’s resulted in great benefits for the species.”
Last year – four years into the 10-year conservation project – Schulte conducted an aerial survey along the East Coast to take population counts and gauge the success of the large-scale efforts. The results, released last month, totaled 11,200 birds, a 3 percent increase from 2003. In North Carolina, the population increased by from 602 to 800, a 33 percent jump from 2008.
The results are promising for the oystercatchers, and also indicate that environmental factors such as water quality and shellfish populations are also in relatively good shape along the coast.
“Oystercatchers are an umbrella species. If you protect one, you’re protecting others,” Schulte said. “For example, when you protect sections of beach and marsh so oystercatchers can nest, that means other species that depend on that environment are also protected.”
The project is funded through 2019 via a $10 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The steady money stream is a large part of what’s made efforts successful, and researchers hope to continue the project past its original time frame.
“The working group and the effort and the conservation initiative have really just expanded tremendously,” Schulte said. “Maintaining that is a challenge, especially when you start seeing success. It’s easy to see people’s attention diverted to other things, but we haven’t yet achieved what we want to. We want this to be indefinite.”