OCRACOKE — It could be said that two birds were killed with one stone, except the expression is awkward when describing a successful shoreline restoration project that has benefited an iconic coastal bird.
Beacon Island, a 7.5-acre island in the Pamlico Sound that is home to hundreds of nesting brown pelicans, is now more protected from erosion thanks to reefs of oyster shells built along its western shoreline. And while the reefs act as natural buffers, they are helping also to restore the oyster beds that had historically thrived in the sound waters off Ocracoke Island.
“They’re doing very well,” said Gene Ballance, one of the local fishermen who had worked on the project. “The pelicans love them as a perch – they’re all lined up on the shore.”
Lexia Weaver and James Barrie Gaskill inspect some of the 5,000 bags of oyster shell that were used at Beacon Island. Photo: Sam Bland
Some of the bags were used to stabilize a portion of the island. Photo: Sam Bland
The project is a partnership between the N.C. Coastal Federation and Audubon North Carolina, the owner of the island. It involved filling 4,785 bags with 3,325 bushels of recycled oyster shells. A stabilization technique known as “marsh toe revetments,” the shells were then placed in eight sections along 750 feet of island shoreline. Another 8,279 bushels of recycled oyster shells were also used to build nine patch oyster reefs – foot-high rows – further off the island to provide additional protection.
Ballance had worked alongside another Ocracoke waterman, James Barrie Gaskill, shoveling the oyster shells into bags or totes, loading them onto a barge and transporting them to Beacon Island. Other members of the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association assisted in the project, which began in early 2012 and has recently concluded.
The reefs have proven to be hardy enough to remain intact through a hurricane, as well as the constant pounding from the sound that has been eating away at Beacon Island.
“They break the waves to keep the pressure off the shoreline,” Ballance said. “And also you can harvest them when they’re big enough in about three years.”
Oysters filter and clean water, and their reefs are excellent habitat for fish. Over time, living oysters attach to the old shells, making healthy reefs gradually grow larger and stronger.
In an earlier project, Ballance had re-mapped the locations on the sound floor of old oyster beds that had been killed years ago by disease and pollution. He is continuing to examine old documents to compare to and improve upon the new oyster maps.
Walker Golder, the deputy state director of Audubon North Carolina, said that Beacon Island is one of the earliest sites that brown pelicans used as a rookery when they first showed up in the state in the 1920s.
“It’s been a long-standing and really important nesting site for brown pelicans in North Carolina,” he said.
Pelicans typically lay two or three eggs, of which one or two young will survive. Nesting season runs from March to September, a prolonged time for birds. Largely for that reason, the pelicans require habitat that is vegetated, high ground with no access for predators.
There are nine known pelican nesting islands in the state. Others are in Oregon Inlet, the lower Cape Fear River and the lower Core Sound. According to Audubon surveys, there were 558 pelican nests on Beacon Island this year, which is a bit more than the typical 500 nests.
Pelicans build more than 500 nest on Beacon Island each year. This baby hatched in one of them. Photo: Sam Bland
Golder said that Beacon Island, which was once as large as 15 acres, is one of 19 Audubon coastal sanctuaries in North Carolina between Ocracoke Island and the lower Cape Fear River, protecting about one-third of the water bird population in the state.
Statewide, there are about 4,400 breeding pairs of brown pelicans – a remarkable recovery from a low of about 100 pairs of pelicans that existed in a single colony in the 1970s.
“They’re really doing well,” Golder said. “And the great thing about the brown pelican is they’re a tremendous success story. They’re a species that has really bounced back.”
Nearly decimated by the pesticide DDT, the brown pelican, Golder said, was not abundant in the state until recent years. In fact, their range was limited to the more southern states until 1928, when they were first spotted in North Carolina.
“About 40 years or so ago, seeing a brown pelican was a great and exciting sight,” he said. “Seeing them in the winter was even more rare.”
But now they are the beloved icon of the coast: Nearly every tourism promotion shows pelicans perched on pier pilings, gliding in formation right above the water and diving for fish like flying bombers. To the delight of beach residents, quite a few stick around year-round.
Golder said that innovative habitat protection projects like Beacon Island, where birds, fish and the coastal environment share the benefits, could be effective elsewhere.
“I think the project overall has gone great,” he said. “I think what it shows is that this type of work can be successful and replicated in other areas.”
If all goes as hoped, the other side of Beacon Island will be getting similar protection, said Lexia Weaver, a coastal scientist for the federation.
Weaver said that, because of the increased wave energy and depth on the eastern side, a shoreline project there would require complex engineering. Fundraising for the $20,000 restoration plan is underway.
The federation would again partner with Audubon, she said. Ideally, the Ocracoke watermen, invaluable for their local knowledge, will again participate, she added.
A master restoration plan would likely again incorporate oyster shells, but it also would require support with sturdier pilings.
“I think it’s going to be a bigger structure,” Weaver said.