Lea Island: Haven For Feathered Friends
One of the last undeveloped barrier islands in North Carolina is one step closer to permanent protection. Thanks to a generous donation, Audubon North Carolina has purchased a 35.7-acre tract on Lea Island, an undisturbed barrier island in Pender County. The island is one of the most important havens for shorebirds and waterbirds in North Carolina, as well as an important nesting site for federally threatened loggerhead sea turtles. Audubon North Carolina will manage the tract as part of its coastal sanctuary system, which comprises 19 other island and inlet bird habitats along the coast.
Located between Topsail and Figure Eight Islands, Lea Island is only accessible by boat and has never been affected by the intensive development found on many of North Carolina’s barrier islands. The island has escaped the impacts of off-road vehicles and hardened structures, and its beaches are not replenished with dredged sand. It has the natural features and plant communities characteristic of an untrammeled barrier island, as well as the wildlife.
During the spring and summer, the island is a haven for nesting shorebirds such as Piping Plover, Wilson’s Plover, and American Oystercatcher, and other nesting birds including Black Skimmer and Least Tern. The island represents the southernmost documented breeding site for Piping Plover, a federally threatened bird named for its melodic call. Clapper Rails nest in great numbers in the marshes bordering the island. Nelson’s Sparrow and Seaside Sparrow are abundant during the fall and winter and the island is recognized as a globally significant site for Saltmarsh Sparrow.
At other times of year, numerous migrating and wintering shorebirds flock here, numbering a thousand or more during the peak of migration. Topsail Inlet on the northern part of the island provides critical habitat for migrating and wintering Piping Plovers; as many as 26 birds have been observed during migration.
In 2004, the National Audubon Society identified Lea Island as a critical component of the Lea-Hutaff Important Bird Area. The 5,461-acre Important Bird Area includes the upland sandy beach of Lea and Hutaff Islands (now joined by the closure of Old Topsail Inlet) as well as an extensive marsh and tidal creek complex. The newly-protected tract is located in the middle of the upland beach portion of the island and spans the marsh to the ocean. The tract is important for nesting shorebirds and terns, migrating and wintering shorebirds, nesting sea turtles, and seabeach amaranth (a federally-threatened plant).
The island is a popular destination for beachgoers who enjoy shelling, walking, swimming, fishing, surfing and wildlife viewing. Audubon biologists protect bird and sea turtle nesting sites during the spring and summer by roping off nesting areas and talking to island visitors about how people and dogs can inadvertently disturb nesting birds and sea turtles.
The conservation of Lea Island is part of a long-standing partnership between Audubon North Carolina, the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, and the State of North Carolina, which established the Lea Island State Natural Area in 2003. The acquisition of this 35.7-acre tract nearly doubles the acreage already protected through this partnership.
Audubon North Carolina is the state office of the National Audubon Society representing 13,000 grassroots members and nine local chapters across the state. With a century of conservation history in North Carolina, Audubon strives to conserve and restore the habitats we share with all wildlife, focusing on the needs of birds. Audubon North Carolina achieves its mission through a blend of science-based research and conservation, education and outreach, and advocacy.
added: January 7, 2011
updated: January 17, 2011
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