Topsail Beach, NC

Dead Birds at Topsail Beach, North Carolina

One Writer

*Trigger warning, this article contains images that may be upsetting to some viewers. View with caution.

Finding Dead Birds on the Beach

The weather this past week in February has been nothing short of pleasant. Temperatures reached into the 80s a couple of days in the middle of the week, and on the heels of a very wet winter, I was looking forward to getting out into the sunshine for a bit.

I decided to ride over to Topsail Beach for some relaxed beachcombing and a little time with that naturally relaxing sound of the rolling waves.

I've been visiting North Carolina Beaches for decades. As a self-proclaimed naturalist, beach ecology is a bit of an obsession of mine. I marvel at the blips of bubbles rising to the surface just at the white-lipped edge of the waves, coming to their last arcs on the beach. What's buried under there? Those little sand crabs that look like beachy cousins to the roly-poly bugs found under bricks and rocks further inland? When I get home, I comb through identification books and try to identify the shells I find on the beach. I learn about the windings of gastropods inside those shells. I try to learn.

So when I saw two dead birds on the same small stretch of Topsail Beach, NC this past week, something I'd never seen before, this piqued my curiosity.

It's common to see dead things on the beach. Not that I want to see dead things, but I recognize that it's all a part of the salty circle of life. It's normal for marine life to die, or to be killed by a predator and left behind. In fact, every time you see a seashell on the beach (the ones with the circular openings in them) it's evidence that there may have been a creature living inside who is no longer alive.

The beach is a coastal ecosystem, and in an ecosystem, things die. It's part of the life and death cycle of nutrients. And every part of that ecosystem is of importance. I'll pause to examine a dead fish carcass or the bulbous mound of a cannonball jellyfish. Recently, members of a Facebook group that I am a member of (on seashell collecting) began posting the deflated shapes of Portuguese Man of War. I marveled at their bright blue hue.

The Birds

Both birds were laying in the water at low tide, appearing to be uninjured and recently deceased. Neither bird had any type of visible decomposition, other than the eyes. The first bird was ignored by all the other shorebirds who were lazily grazing along the water's edge. But the second bird I found, a small gull, was being patrolled by another gull, who stood next to it and looked quite confused. It appeared to not want to leave its deceased companion.

I snapped a few pictures when I encountered each of them, and then I just kept walking and exploring on what was otherwise a lovely day.

But immediately, the finds got me thinking:

  • What kinds of birds were they?
  • Did they drown?
  • Am I supposed to report these findings to anyone?

The larger of the two birds appeared to be a Common Loon, perhaps a juvenile one. They are full-bodied medium-large duck-looking birds. They're mostly black with a rounded longish head, a medium-length gray beak, and black webbed feet.
Common Loon, Topsail Beach, NC, February 2023Photo bythe author

The second appeared to be a smaller gull, though I'm not sure of the exact identification. It was much smaller than a Ring-billed or a Laughing Gull, and I didn't recognize the abundance of white with the darker head. Possibly a young Bonaparte's (Laughing) gull. I opted not to turn it over to get a better look at the wing patterns. Besides, this bird's friend was rather annoyed that I was near this bird. He shooed me along my way rather quickly.

Gull species, Topsail Beach, NC, February 2023Photo bythe author

I reached out to an ornithologist I know to get a clearer identification of the birds but have not yet had confirmation. And if I know my friend, he's on an expedition right now with all his birding gear in tow. If he confirms the ID for me, I'll happily update that information in this article for my readers.

Causes of Coastal Bird Deaths

There are lots of reasons these birds could have died.

  • Age — Different kinds of shorebirds live for different lifespans, just like dogs or chickens or other animals do. Gulls, for example, live anywhere from 5-15 years, but the Common Loon is fairly long-lived, gracing this earth for up to 30 years!
  • Loss of their food source — Check out this article on how crab and fish harvesting, along with other human activities, are causing mass die-offs of shore birds.
  • Injury
  • Illness or disease
  • Parasite infestation
  • Many shorebirds are scavengers and this includes parking lots, dumpsters, and what people leave behind on the beach, some of which could harm them or kill them.
  • Drowning or exhaustion— Yes, birds can drown or become exhausted during migration, storms, or rough seas.
  • Close encounters with predators

What Should You Do if You Find Something Dead on the Beach?

When in doubt, or if what you see alarms you:

  • Do not touch it.— Some animals, such as those in the phylum cnidaria, may contain tentacles or barbed stingers that could hurt you. In the case of birds, though, you want to be sure you don't contract any harmful bacteria, pathogens, or parasites.
  • Call the nearest information number — Call the town or beach where you are and give them information on what you've seen. Scientists may want to document what you've found, or pick it up for a necropsy to determine the cause of death.
  • If you find an animal in distress — Certainly make that call. You may be able to provide some assistance, with guidance, until help arrives.

Before making your trek to the beach, research the local wildlife authority in the area so you'll be ready to make that call if you need to do so. Here are a few helpful local resources:

North Carolina

North Carolina Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network Hotline

Phone: (252) 241-7367

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

Morehead City, NCPhone: (252) 241-5119

University of North Carolina–Wilmington Marine Mammal Stranding Program

Wilmington, NCPhone: 910-515-7354

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Manteo, NC, Information.

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

Fort Fisher, NC, (910) 772-0500

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission - Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education

Corolla, NC, Information

North Topsail Beach (910) 328-1349, Information

Topsail Beach Topsail Beach, NC 28445 | Phone: 910-328-5841, Information

Sunset Beach Information

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