O'Keefe Family Website  
Sunset Beach and Bird Island

 

FAQ: Answers to Your Questions

Last update: April 25, 2011

Jo O'Keefe Copyright 2011 All Rights Reserved

Each time I walk on the beach, folks ask me questions. Because people have been asking the same questions for years, I have decided to begin responding online. For answers to every question I could ever think of and far more, see Nature Guide to the Carolina Coast by Peter Meyer.
     
Q
Where are the goats?
 
A
There is an island beginning at the Sunset Beach bridge that extends directly west. Goats live on the island. There is a fresh-water lake in the center in a valley. The goats spent most of the day at the center of the island. The goats emerge to graze on marsh grass along the bank when the temperature is lower early in the day and in the evening, especially in the summer. There are as many goats near the west end of Ocean Isle Beach on similar dredge spoil islands not connected to Ocean Isle Beach. See: Goats.
Q
Do the goats pollute waters such as the Intracoastal Waterway?
 
A
No one has documented that fecal coliform from goats is polluting the Waterway. Coliform is feces bacteria from sources such as dogs, raccoons, goats and humans. Goat feces are firm, brown "berries." Because the goats residing on local spoil islands spend at least 23 hours per day on the inner parts of their islands, only a small percentage of their excrement would be dropped when they emerge to graze near the waterway. Goats are herbivores; they eat mostly plants. Their waste could be less harmful to the environment than human waste.
 
 
Q
Do the goats harm native habitat and uncommon plants or birds of concern?
 
A

Possibly. The only threatened plant and birds of special concern with which I am familiar with locally need beaches. Seabeach Amaranth, Amaranthus pumilus, grows on the beach at the base of the dunes. Birds of concern such as plovers, and Black Skimmers nest on the beach above the high tide line. I am unaware of any beaches on the dredge spoil islands.

However, Willets, Gull-billed Terns, American Oystercatchers, Painted Buntings, Seaside Sparrows, and other landbirds use the marsh edges and scrub growth for nesting sites. Although they are herbivores, if they find the nests, goats might destroy them and eat the eggs and hatchlings. Thanks to John Pagels, Ph.D., VCU, and to Joy O'Keefe, Ph.D., Indiana State Univ., and Taylor Piephoff of the Carolinas Bird Club for assistance.

 
 
Q
What happened to the old pontoon bridge?  
A
The Old Bridge Preservation Society, through the generosity of English Construction Company, arranged for a portion of the roadway and the bridge motor house to be moved to land diagonally across Hwy. 179B from the Sunset Beach Fire Department.
   
   
Q
Why aren't there any fiddler or sand fiddler crabs on the beach this year?
A
There are thousands of fiddler crabs. They are not at the edge of the ocean. If they "hung out" there, we might walk on them. You will find them on the opposite side of the island and anywhere else where there are mudflats, a moist mixture of sand and mud, and marsh grass. They dig deep burrows into which they rush when predators like us and shorebirds approach.
     
Q
Are the "stingrays" in tide pools at Sunset Beach dangerous?  
A
Although there could be stingrays in tide pools, I have only seen Smooth Butterfly Rays in tide pools. They are not stingrays. They are in danger because they are stranded. If several people walk behind one toward the edge of the tide pool, they should be able to scoop it up in a wide bucket and return it to the ocean.
FYI
Although schools of rays swim near the surface while migrating, normally rays and stingrays hide their flat bodies beneath the sand. Shuffling one's feet while walking startles them away, preventing stepping on one's barb. While sorting the catch on a fishing trawler, I jabbed my hand on a barb. The pain was intense. Running hot water over the puncture site reduced the pain within 15 minutes and also deactivated the venom. News articles about people dying from stings to vital organs describe far more serious injuries. Any systemic, whole-body response to a sting such as nausea and cramps requires immediate medical attention. Call 911.  
     
Q
What kinds of jellyfish are at Sunset Beach?  
A
In order of frequency, I have found Cannonball Jellyfish, Comb Jellies (not true jellyfish), Stomolophus jellyfish, Moon Jellyfish, Box Jellyfish and Portuguese Man-of-War (not true jellyfish). I have only seen two of the latter on Sunset Beach. One was 16 inches wide, alive and beached. I would have been stung badly if I had touched it. The venom dripping from Box Jellyfish always stings. Check these webpages: Miscellaneous Marine Life and SC DNR Jellyfish.
     
Q
How should we treat jellyfish stings?  
A

Painful, welt-like lesions on the skin are typical.
Inactivate the stinging cell (nematocyst) with vinegar.
Pick off the nematocyst with tweezers or fingers or shave the area. A credit card can be used to scrape off the venom.
If needed, take Ibuprofen, Tylenol, or stronger pain medicine.
If discomfort continues, use vinegar soaks.

Call 911 or obtain medical care immediately for severe pain, whole-body symptoms such as sweating, nausea/vomiting and cramps, or when a large area of the body is involved and for allergic shock (anaphylaxis) or a compromised airway from a sting inside the throat.

Exception: for sea nettle use baking soda slurry.

 
     
Q
Where are the goats?  
A
There is an island beginning at the Sunset Beach bridge that extends directly west. Goats live on the island. There is a fresh-water lake in a valley in the center of the island. The goats spent the hot portion of summer days in the valley. Early in the morning and in the evening they graze along ridges and banks in plain sight of boaters. There are as many goats near the west end of Ocean Isle Beach on similar land disconnected from the barrier island. See: Goats.
     
Q
How do Knobbed Whelks differ from Channeled Whelks?  
A

A Knobbed Whelk, often referred to by beachgoers as a "conch," has sharp points jutting out near its apex. A Channeled Whelk has smooth circles curling around, like the channel a small stream would make if it swirled around a rock. Here is a link with many photos: Whelks. Knobbed Whelk, left, Channeled Whelk, right..

 

 

   
Q
Where is Bird Island? How can we get there?  
A
Bird Island is the last barrier island in North Carolina. Since 1997 sand has filled the end of Madd Inlet, which formerly separated Bird Island from the next island, Sunset Beach. To reach Bird Island, walk west on Sunset Beach toward Myrtle Beach. A sign reading "Bird Island Coastal Reserve" tells you that you have reached Bird Island. The State of North Carolina purchased it in 2002, protecting nearly 1,300 acres of beach, marsh and wetlands. The island is 1.5 miles long. The last fourth, behind the jetty on the west end, is in South Carolina. For further informations, check these sites: Bird Island and Bird Island Coastal Reserve.
     
Q
What should a beachcomber do with a Diamondback terrapin?  
A
Diamondback terrapins, a North Carolina State Species of Special Concern, live in brackish water found in sounds and creeks. They are showing up on the open beach and in crab pots. If you find one on the beach, carry it to the nearest marsh, tidal creek, or soundside area away from open beach with pounding surf. A turtle found oceanside is lost or weak. Terrapins and many other creatures enter crab pots. If they are trapped in a "ghost" crap pot that broke from its moorings, they nearly always drown or otherwise perish. The corpses of trapped animals in turn attract still more victims, resulting in derelict crab pots functioning as death traps for many years. As with many topics, I want to thank Jeffrey C. Beane, Collections Manager for Herpetology at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, for contributing to this material and for this photo.
     
Q
What are the best places to see birds?  
A

On the two islands and on the mainland. Because birds forage for food in marshes, intertidal flats, and subtidal area, you can find them on the back of both Sunset Beach and Bird Island. Blane Creek is behind the west end of Sunset Beach and Jinks Creek is behind the east end. Wilson's Plovers, American Oystercatchers and Least Terns are among species that nest on the far east end of Sunset Beach. Shorebirds dart left and right pecking for dinner where ocean waves wash over the beach. Unique birds found on Bird Island are mentioned on this webpage: Bird Island.

The mainland area to inspect is fairly compact. Along Hwy. 179 heading south toward Calabash, there is marsh leading to the Intracoastal Waterway on the ocean side of the highway. Wading birds forage there at low tide. On the mainland side of Hwy. 179 are two lakes, the East Twin Lake and the West Twin Lake. Both have numerous species of herons, egrets, and ducks. Lakeshore Drive begins on the bridge side of the east lake and circles around behind both lakes, ending at the entrance to the Oyster Bay community. Birds are easily visible along Lakeshore Drive, particularly at an empty lot (photo on right). Scores of Wood Storks roost there and forage at low tide. Noteworthy is the tree at the furthest west end of the West Twin Lake. Wood Storks and occasionally a Roseate Spoonbill roost there. Roosting occurs at mid-tide, high tide and sundown. Here is a checklist of the 260 species of birds on the two islands: SB and BI Birds.

     
Q
What kinds of shells are at Sunset Beach?  
A
Recently I found 198 species at the eastern point. To learn the types of shells and how to find them, check these webpages: The Shells of Sunset Beach. I have more species to be identified. There easily could be additional species on other portions of the 3-mile-long island.  
     
Q
What are those hard, rubbery things?  
A
Colonial tunicates, called sea pork and sea liver. Numerous zooids, microscopic animals, share a common outer "skin" referred to as a tunic; living together, they make a colony. Early in their development they have a "notocord" similar to a backbone that they use in swimming to find a permanent location in which to live. Coming in an array of colors from royal purple to taupe, in some species groups of zooids are arranged in circular, star-like groups.
     
Q
What are all the tiny holes on the beach near the water?  
A

Ghost shrimp burrows. Before waves washed them away, tower-like burrows stuck up in the intertidal zone at the ends of their tunnels. About a half-inch wide and up to six and a half inches long counting their large claws, ghost shrimp dig interconnected tunnels. Many are surrounded by waste pellets that other animals eat.

 

     
Q
How do you find sand dollars?  
A

Most sand dollars are found on the walk to the jetty at the end of Bird Island. On rare days, dozens of live ones crawl beneath the sand. On most days, dead sand dollars ranging from dime size to 5-inches wide can be found during the walk. The gentle surf between Sunset Beach and the Little River Inlet jetty allows whole sand dollars to rinse ashore.

Every day there are sand dollars on the eastern end of Sunset Beach, although far fewer than Bird Island. Folks miss them. I can find them walking behind 10 people who walked right past them.

Two tricks to finding sand dollars: 1. At low tide, gentle waves leave a V-shaped trail when they wash over shells. Sand dollars do not make a V. 2. Because many sand dollars have a clump of sabellarid worm tubes on top, something in the distance that looks like a shell or turret could be a sand dollar and is worth checking.

     
Q
What are those gray half circles?  
A
Moon snail egg collars. While walking in a circle, a moon snail, also called a Shark Eye, excretes mucus filled with eggs to which sand adheres. Although the collar can reach 360 degrees, the ends are not joined.