BUXTON, N.C.

Shorebirds and beach buggies co-existed well this summer on Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Permits sold to drive on the beach soared to 41,000, the most since sales began in 2012. The number of visitors is expected to climb above 2.6 million by year’s end, about 200,000 more than last year and the most since 2003. 

The good economy boosted tourism, said Kyle Perry, manager of Frisco Rod and Gun. He sold an abundance of high-end fishing gear.

“We definitely saw an uptick in business,” Perry said. “They were splurging. People are confident. I think it’s a mental thing.”

Also thriving? Shorebirds nesting close to where four-wheel-drive trucks rumble over the sand.

Preliminary counts showed 25 pairs of oystercatchers produced 20 fledglings, or young birds that are able to fly. That is the most since 2011, said Dave Hallac, superintendent of the Outer Banks Group including Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“This was a banner year,” he said.

Colonial waterbird nests, including least terns and black skinners, totaled 965, nearly 300 more than last year, according to Hallac and the 2017 annual report for the park.

The number of piping plover nests fell from six to three, but three birds fledged this year compared to two last year, Hallac said. One fledgling per nest is good considering the average of the last 20 years is about half that, he said. Piping plovers are a threatened species.

Park rangers mark buffer zones around shorebird and sea turtle nests, and in some cases, close sections of beach to vehicles. Years ago, the boundaries were much wider and beach closures came more frequently and for longer periods.

Environmental groups and off-road advocates used to clash over access to the habitat. A federal act in 2014 mandated that buffer zones be reduced. Park officials narrowed them the next year and increased access with new ramps from the highway to the beach.

Concerns were raised that smaller nest boundaries would allow drivers to get too close and chase away birds and sea turtles. But a record 325 sea turtles nested in the park in 2016, and shorebirds nests were steady leading up to this year’s increase.

The numbers are encouraging, said Curtis Smalling, director of conservation at Audubon North Carolina. Both sides of the issue have settled in with the current rules, he said. Rangers have set aside potential nesting sites early in the season and are diligent in protecting breeding pairs, he said.

“It is a testament that people want to make this work,” he said.

Concerns remain for piping plovers. One storm could wipe out three nests.

They once numbered around 15 per season on Hatteras Island in the 1990s, but the numbers have fluctuated since then.

“There is a whole mix of things going on there,” Smalling said.

Beach driving is not a primary threat to nesting, Hallac said. Predators such as ghost crabs, foxes and raccoons take a toll. Storm surge can wash the nest away, and at times, the parents abandon the eggs for unknown reasons.

“Off-road users are generally law-abiding and behave very well,” he said.

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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