Audubon officials have measured a colony of more than 1,000 birds on Lea-Hutaff Island

PENDER COUNTY -- When Hurricane Florence made landfall in September 2018, its heavy winds and crashing waves punished Lea-Hutaff Island, a 4-mile spit of land that is one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the North Carolina coast.

The force of that storm laid the groundwork, months later, for the largest recorded colony of least terns in the history of the state to nest at the island's northern tip, near Topsail Inlet, according to officials from Audubon North Carolina. At 1,034 nests, the colony is about 200 nests higher than the previous record-holder -- a 2014 group on Figure Eight Island.

"Least terns are a species that has adapted to capitalize on newly created sandy habitat," said Lindsay Addison, an Audubon coastal biologist. "That's where they like to place their nests, and so when they see an area that has a lot of suitable habitat they'll flock to it, so to speak, and choose to nest there."

Weighing about as much as 5 quarters, least terns are the smallest species of tern found in the United States. The birds migrate to the area from the Caribbean and South America every spring in search of newly created sandy areas where they can build nests, with large populations typically found between New Topsail Inlet and Masonboro Island.

"These birds that nest on barrier islands typically like open bare sand with little to no vegetation, and that's because they can see the approach of predators," Addison said.

Least terns' adaptability is, Addison said, key to their survival, as they pick new locations to nest every year, particularly in ever-changing coastal areas.

Lea-Hutaff's importance

Lea-Hutaff Island is about 5,641 acres of undeveloped land managed by Audubon North Carolina. The last house on the island was destroyed in a 2015 storm.

Hurricanes Fran, Bonnie and Floyd also knocked dunes over on the island, which was created when two separate spits of land were joined together in 1998 when the Old Topsail Inlet closed

In addition to least terns, other species that are found on Lea-Hutaff include piping plover, Wilson's plover and American oystercatcher, among others.

Coastal birds often will not, Addison said, nest in the vegetation that grows on more permanent dunes. When dunes are knocked over creating wide sandy swaths of beach, though, Least terns and other birds have a new place to nest.

"Mother Nature, by constantly changing barrier islands, creates habitat for these birds," Addison said.

In an era of sea level rise, Addison added, it may be important to consider the lessons offered by Lea-Hutaff.

Much of the island was overwashed during Hurricane Florence, with waves knocking dunes over and shifting the location of the beach. But now, months later, the same creatures that have always called the island home are doing so in unseen abundance.

"If we try to armor the coast with sea walls and jetties, we'll eliminate habitat for coastal nesting birds," Addison said. "If we allow the coast to move, we'll be allowing for coastal habitat, and it'll ultimately be better for us because we won't be fighting Mother Nature."

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Protecting Least Terns

Least tern nests appear, Addison said, like a scrape in the sand as opposed to the bowl of sticks. While this allows the birds to see predators, it also leaves them vulnerable to human impact on more developed beaches.

"If you're not looking for them, you might not notice them," Addison said, later discussing how people might not even notice a least tern is in distress, saying, "If you're a person, you might not even notice a little tiny bird squeaking overhead, especially if you're doing something else."

Should least tern parents be disturbed by people, they could abandon the area, eggs could overheat, well-camouflaged eggs could be stepped on or other predators could swoop in while the parents are distracted.

Least tern colonies such as the one nesting on Lea-Hutaff were likely common about 100 years ago, Addison said, but are now very rare. In 2016, a statewide census of least terns found 2,388 pairs across North Carolina, according to Audubon.

In other words, the Lea-Hutaff colony measures nearly half the total that was recently found throughout the state.

To protect the birds, Audubon volunteers monitor the least tern colony on Lea-Hutaff nearly every day. Volunteers have also posted signs and string fencing in the area alerting visitors to the island it is a least tern nesting area and asking them to keep dogs -- which appear to birds to be predators -- out of the area.

Visitors to Lea-Hutaff have, Addison said, respected the postings so far.

"It helps to have individual contacts with folks, and then they tell other people and maintain a good culture around respecting these postings and helping these birds raise their families," Addison said.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.