BUXTON, N.C.

An American oystercatcher with its long, bright orange beak covered the chicks in the nest while the other parent stood guard about six feet away, looking in every direction for predators.

It is shorebird nesting season at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and there is an all-out crusade to protect precious chicks — by the adult birds themselves and by park rangers.

Piping plovers are threatened and oystercatchers are a species of concern in the state. Every single chick is crucial.

A horde of predators is out looking for a quick, tender meal. Adult birds watch for gulls, ghost crabs, feral cats, hawks, coyotes, mink, fish crows, raccoons and opossums. Even the overwash from an Outer Banks storm is dangerous.

The oystercatcher nest sat in the middle of Cape Point, typically busy with lines of vehicles and anglers casting into the surf. But the park cordons off the area about 180 meters wide as a buffer zone around shorebird nests. The point was empty of people last week, like a desert with no tire marks or footprints.

Park ranger Mark Seaman stood just outside the protected area next to a scope with the power to magnify the view by 30 times. People parked nearby occasionally walked over for a look. The scope was trained on the oystercatcher nest.

The scene can be dramatic. A few days earlier, the adult oystercatcher held off about a dozen gulls waiting for the chance to grab an egg.

The chicks were five days old on Thursday. Their chances of survival increase if they can reach 10 days when they can forage for themselves, Seaman said. Until then, the adults have to forage for them and stand guard. It's hard work.

"You watch him," Seaman said. "He'll chase off seagulls and all sorts of other stuff."

Adult shorebirds have a range of tricks and outright attacks they employ, said Tracy Zeigler, a chief of resource management and science for the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.

First, they lay nests in a depression that blends into the pebbly sand. It's hard to tell the spotted eggs from the rest of the beach. The chicks are also dusky colored to blend better.

When a predator approaches, a parent might first try faking a broken wing and looking helpless as it draws the attacker away from the nest. If that doesn't work, it might try screeching loudly to scare away the intruder, Zeigler said.

The bird can also go airborne and dive bomb its enemy, pecking it on the head or defecating on it.

Oystercatchers and piping plovers nest alone, but colonial waterbirds such as black skimmers nest in groups. They fly in a group and mob the predator from the air to chase it away.

Hidden in the dunes near Cape Point, a seasonal biological technician was keeping watch over a piping plover nest. The technicians take shifts overseeing the nest from sunrise to sunset as part of the park's effort to save every plover possible. If a predator approaches too close and the bird's tactics fail, the technician could chase it away. They also record valuable behavioral data on the birds, Zeigler said.

Rangers trap animals that pose a threat. Earlier this month, five coyotes were caught near the Bodie Island Lighthouse and dispatched. Feral cats caught are taken to the animal shelter, she said.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore and its roughly 70 miles of beaches is one of the last and largest open shorelines on the East Coast, said Dave Hallac, superintendent of National Parks of Eastern North Carolina. Even a few tiny plovers deserve protection, he said.

"You never know the value of all the different species out there," he said.

So far it is a good year for the plovers. Four pairs have set up house at Cape Point, Zeigler said. At least eight chicks in two different nests have hatched. Last year, three piping plover nests produced one fledgling each. One fledgling per nest was good since the average has about half that over the last 20 years.

Last year, several storms washed away plover nests, Zeigler said. The birds are able to nest again, but typically lay fewer eggs or the eggs are not as resilient, she said. This year the weather has been great. So far, not a chick or egg has been lost on Cape Point.

Adding to the optimism, the first Wilson's plover pair in at least 10 years has nested on Hatteras Island. It is also a species of concern.

Through the scope, the guard bird could be seen changing its position again, looking over the empty sand to the west side of the nest. Its head tilted upward toward the sky and lowered again. An attack can come from any direction.

"They're outnumbered," Seaman said.

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

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