Spreading the Word About Birds (Sea & Shorebirds)
SCDNR biologists are sharing the latest research and information about our seabird and shorebird populations with naturalists and other front-line eco-tourism workers .
The hatchlings of some species of shorebirds that nest in far northern climes literally hit the ground running. Dunlin chicks, for example, can walk and feed themselves just a few hours after hatching. Accompanied by their parents for the first 25 days or so, the juvenile birds fatten up on the super-abundant insect life available in their arctic nesting habitats during spring and early summer to prepare for an epic first fall migration that can be thousands of miles in length.
That’s just one of the fascinating tidbits of information I learned recently, while sitting in on an ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR)-sponsored presentation covering South Carolina’s seabirds and shorebirds. The seminar was part of a series of classes and workshops aimed at naturalists, eco-tour operators and other folks who make their living helping visitors to our coast and the ACE Basin experience this amazing place. Increasingly, visitors to the South Carolina Lowcountry are hungry for knowledge about the natural wonders found here. Tour guides and other professionals in this business are often frontline ambassadors for the importance of protecting our natural resources, and so the more information they have (and can impart to their clients and customers), the better.
For this seminar, held at the SCDNR’s Waddell Mariculture Center, SCDNR biologists Felicia Sanders and Nick Wallover presented information about current and ongoing research into these birds. Wallover serves as the SCDNR’s stewardship biologist for the ACE NERR, and Sanders is the coordinator for the SCDNR’s shorebird research and management projects.
So, what exactly do shorebirds birds nesting in the far north have to do with the beaches, tidal wetlands, barrier islands and saltmarshes of the South Carolina coast? A lot, it turns out -- in fact, our coastal habitat plays a key role in the life cycle of many of these birds, serving as a resting spot for some on their annual migrations to points even further south, and an overwintering spot for others. It’s a long journey from the Canadian arctic or Alaska to the beaches, barrier islands and salt marsh hummocks of coastal South Carolina, but for some of these birds, that’s only the midpoint in an incredible migratory journey that will take them down into South America. But that’s kind of the point; part of what makes them so fascinating to scientists and birders alike. Sanders has travelled to the shores of Hudson Bay during spring to observe these behaviors herself, as part of a multi-national effort to learn and understand more about the life history of these amazing long-distance fliers, which she wrote about in the January-February 2015 issue of South Carolina Wildlife magazine.
Large numbers of shorebirds spend time on South Carolina beaches, either overwintering here, or for some species, stopping to rest and refuel. A few, such as the American oystercatcher, black-necked stilt, willet, and the threatened Wilson’s plover, nest here as well. For example, red knots are an important species (a federally endangered one) that visit South Carolina’s coast. Red knot flocks roost on inlets of barrier beaches and islands in South Carolina in the fall and winter, where they feed on clams. In the spring, red knots feed on horseshoe crab eggs when the crabs come onshore to spawn in large numbers. For decades, scientists believed these birds stopped almost exclusively in the Delaware Bay Region, but recent research here in South Carolina involving capturing and tagging the birds has shown conclusively that our state is also an important spring stopover spot for the species.
“South Carolina is very important for the survival of this species,” Sanders told the group.
Nick Wallover shared with the group his experiences locating and trapping another species found along the South Carolina coast – Eastern willets – and tagging them with “geolocators” (lightweight electronic archival tracking device, used by scientists to monitor bird migrations). Willets are another species that do nest here, building shallow nests in dense grass near water in, or just behind, the barrier dunes and feeding on abundant fiddler crabs.
“There’s a big data gap in the Southeast [of information about willets’ migratory behaviors] that we’d like to fill,” Wallover told the group. The pilot project to tag the birds began in 2016, when DNR researchers netted and tagged half-a-dozen of the birds. During the 2017 season, they were able to recover the data from the geolocators on two of those birds captured at Deveaux Bank Seabird Sanctuary. Site fidelity for willets year-to-year is high, but the habitat at Deveaux Bank is very dynamic, so recovering those two birds was a bit of a lucky break for researchers.
Sanders wrapped up the presentation by talking in some detail about the SCDNR’s ongoing efforts to protect critical nesting areas for colonial-nesting seabirds, such as pelicans, black skimmers and terns, all of which can be spotted along our beaches and barrier islands. Many of “our” pelicans travel to Florida or Cuba to winter after nesting here in the summer months, but quite a few stay here year-round, Sanders told the group, something we did not know until we started tagging them several years ago. A five-year tagging project for pelicans that nest in South Carolina involving graduate students from Clemson is ongoing.
Gallery: For many summertime tourists, shorebirds are just a backdrop to a pleasant day at the beach in coastal South Carolina, but for more and more visitors, wildlife and nature viewing and photography are a key aspect of the trip -- even, or sometimes especially, in Fall and winter, when many migratory species stop by the Palmetto State. (Photos by David Lucas)
This series of seminars and workshops aimed at professional naturalists is a really great way for the SCDNR to share the latest information and updates about the work our scientists and researchers are engaged in with people who interact with the public on a daily basis. For more on this topic, check out the story “Winter Workshops for Coastal Naturalists” on the South Carolina Coastal Resources Blog.