20,000 white ibises that typically swarm Battery Island near the mouth of the Cape Fear River are nowhere to be found

SOUTHPORT -- An eerie silence, abandoned nests and small fledgling bird skulls pervaded a grove of cedar and yaupon trees on Battery Island Tuesday as Lindsay Addison, a coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina, explored the area that should’ve been full of nesting birds raising their chicks.

Thousands of white ibises that normally nest on Battery Island near the mouth of the Cape Fear River are missing, and Audubon wants to know if anyone has seen them. The birds typically begin to nest in April, but by late May only a handful of ibises could be seen on the island.

In a normal year, 10,000 pairs of ibis nest on the island, a total of roughly 20,000 birds. Addison said it looks like “someone shook a snow globe” when the ibises come to nest on the island. Yet this year, the island is noticeably devoid of the sights and sounds of the nesting birds.

“We still have a lot of egrets and herons at the site, but the ibis have departed,” Addison said.   

White ibis are colonial nesting birds that usually return to the same nesting sites year after year, and the local ibis colony has been coming to Battery Island to nest since the 1960s. The ibis is an “iconic” bird around Southport because of their abundance during the breeding season, Addison said.

The ibis is a wetland bird that likes to nest in trees like those that grow on Battery Island. The birds build their nests out of sticks and prefer to nest in an island setting to protect their young from mammalian predators.

Addison said the ibis colony has abandoned Battery Island once before in the mid-2000s due to the presence of a great horned owl. The birds didn’t return to the island until 2012 -- roughly three or four years after they abandoned it.

Though it’s unclear why the ibis colony chose to abandon the island site this year, Addison said she believes the colony was “getting hit pretty hard” last year by juvenile bald eagles.

“You raise your chicks up to the point where they’re almost big enough to fly, and then a giant murder bird comes and lays waste to them, that’s going to leave a lasting impression,” Addison said. “So you might kind of temporarily try someplace else.”   

When the colony abandoned the island once before, Addison said they tried nesting further up the river on a lone, marshy island called North Pelican Island. Due to the lack of mature trees on the island, the birds nested in low shrubs and grasses. As a result, most of their nesting efforts were wiped out by storm tides.

Though Battery Island offers the ideal nesting habitat for the ibis, Addison said the colony might choose a less quality habitat if a predator lurked around their normal nesting site or some other disturbance occurred.

To track down the missing ibis colony, Addison said Audubon has reached out to their partners, including the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and state parks, to see if they’ve spotted the colony nesting on another site.

Yet the public can help too, Addison said. Ibises are white birds with a “goofy” downturned bright red or pink bill and black wing tips, and if anyone sees large flocks of the birds commuting back and forth at a particular time of day fairly consistently and going in the same direction, Addison said observers should report their observations at nc.audubon.org.

“If people are noticing large numbers of ibis in an area or notice what direction they’re going, that would be a great thing to pass along to us,” Addison said.

Through funding from the Orton Foundation, Audubon manages Battery Island as well as seven other sanctuary islands in the Cape Fear River. 

Reporter Makenzie Holland can be reached at 910-343-2371 or Makenzie.Holland@StarNewsOnline.com.

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