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Being good hosts to our shorebirds

Respect and Learn the Plight of these imperilled birds.

By Michele Roldán-Shaw

Delicate little birds scurry along the beach, darting in and out of the waves on their tiny stick-legs. They poke over the mud flats at low tide, jabbing sword-like bills down to snatch a snack. It’s a sight taken for granted here in the Lowcountry, like palmetto trees and shrimp boats. But while other local species become iconic — dolphins, egrets and sea turtles for example — who’s praising the shorebirds? 

“You see a painted bunting, and you’re like oh my gosh!” said local bird enthusiast Bob Speare. “But you see a little brown bird running along the beach, and you might not even notice. I think a big part of shorebird conservation is shining the light on them.”

Speare, a naturalist who spent his career with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and has led birding tours all over the world, feels that the 25 regularly occurring shorebird species we see locally are a little underappreciated. Take the American oystercatcher. Instantly recognizable by its stunning “tuxedo” plumage and bright orange bill, it can pry open clams and oysters that no other bird can crack—though occasionally the mollusk bites back and traps the oystercatcher. Godwits sleep standing on one leg with their beaks tucked under their wings. Piping plover chicks snuggle under their parents’ bellies so that they look like a single bird with a dozen legs. Sanderlings, when confronted on their nests, will wait until the last second before faking injury and creeping off to lure potential predators away from their young. A tagged red knot was found to have traveled more than the distance between the Earth and the Moon over its 19-year lifetime. The list of fun facts goes on. Indeed, when you consider the long-haul flights that shorebirds make up and down the Americas — often using our coastal area as a pit-stop    these diminutive little birds become downright astonishing. 

“All creatures are interesting,” said Speare. “But here is a bird so small, you could mail it with a single stamp, yet it can take on the harsh conditions of a long migration.” 

Why they’re here 

He goes on to explain the three important locations in a shorebird’s life cycle: northern breeding grounds, southern non-breeding grounds and stopovers on the migration route. One of the key things about Hilton Head, he says, is that it’s all three. Some species breed here, some stop on long flights, and many overwinter, spending their time feeding, resting and evading predation. 

“When we talk shorebirds, we’re not talking pelicans and terns,” explains Carol Clemens, volunteer docent for Coastal Discovery Museum and a member of the Hilton Head Audubon Society. “We’re talking plovers, sandpipers, willets, dunlins, short-billed dowagers and red knots. This is a critical area for them as they use our wonderful mud flat beaches for feeding and resting when they stop on their migration flights.”

Clemens is part of a team that collects data through monthly shorebird surveys. Armed with cameras, binoculars and scopes, she and several others troop out to the same spot on Port Royal Sound two hours after high tide to begin the intricate job of identifying and tallying the birds. Often the only way they can make accurate counts is by uploading images to a computer and zooming in to pick out the shorebirds from among hundreds of others. The highest concentrations occur in winter (1,550 in January 2019, for example) while the lowest numbers happen in summer (in June of that same year they did not spot a single shorebird.) This is a normal seasonal cycle for our area; yet declining numbers overall have Clemens and other advocates looking at what we can do to help.

“Not disturbing the birds is very important,” she says. “The worst thing people can do when they see a flock of shorebirds is to run through it or let their dog or their child run through it. Their natural instinct is to scare the birds, and it makes a lovely photo. But every time those birds have to fly, they’re wasting precious energy that they need for their migration.” 

Why you should get excited about them 

Of the 25 species of shorebird that frequent our area, 12 are on the highest conservation need status, and eight more are on the next highest level of priority. Piping plovers, for example, are an extremely endangered species that overwinter here. A banner month for Clemens and the survey team was when they spotted 22 piping plovers; normally they get excited if they see just two or three. Many conservationists would like shorebirds to be considered more in development plans, as they’re getting squeezed on both sides of the beach: by construction on the upland side, and by storm surge and rising sea levels that erode or over-wash their feeding grounds on the ocean side. But equally important is raising awareness among local citizens so that everyone can do their small part. 

“Nobody comes to the beach and says ‘I’m here to disturb shorebirds,’” Speare reasons. “They just don’t understand what the birds are doing and how we can potentially harm them. We’ve done a great job educating people about sea turtles, and we could do the same with shorebirds. We want to approach it by celebrating these birds and getting people excited about them, not by finger-wagging and shouting.” 

Why you should keep your distance

Besides not scaring shorebird flocks, it’s also important to stay away from nesting areas. Abby Sterling, director of the Georgia Bite Shorebird Conservation Initiative, explains that despite their delicate appearance, these birds are able to withstand the blazing heat of summer when they make their nests out in the open on sand dunes and shell rakes. Recreational boaters and beachgoers can unintentionally flush the birds from their nests, which exposes the chicks to harsh sun so that they die within minutes. It’s important to stay below the high tide mark, she cautions, even if you don’t see the dunes roped off. Dogs are particularly destructive and should never be allowed to run free. The chicks are fairly independent and soon start scurrying around the beach under the watchful eye of their parents, so an agitated adult bird is often a sign that you have strayed too close to the nests. 

Sterling works for a small Massachusetts-based nonprofit with conservation initiatives sprinkled around the Northern hemisphere. The shorebird project, intended to bring diverse islands and agencies throughout the Southeast coastal area into collaboration, focuses on habitat protection as well as education and outreach. According to Sterling, a unique combination of factors makes this area a hot spot. The geography includes well-developed barrier islands and the South Atlantic Bite (the curve along the coast between North Carolina and Florida, of which we are in the deepest indentation.) The Bite creates a broad, shallow area extending all the way out to the Continental Shelf, as well as drastic tidal changes that result in a very dynamic ecosystem. The rich waters of our estuaries provide a nutrient base that gives rise to tons of invertebrates, such as bivalves and marine worms, on which the shorebirds feed. The combined effect is that our area supports an estimated 400,000 shorebirds annually, with key places being Cape Romaine and the Santee, the Altamaha River Delta and the Georgia barrier islands. 

“This part of the world is very important for shorebirds, and we have a great legacy of conservation here,” Sterling says. “But a lot of people don’t recognize the fact that the birds they’re seeing on the beach have just flown thousands of miles. They may have come from Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America, and they’re headed to the Arctic. They’ll fly four or five days without stopping, flapping their wings the entire time, and if they don’t have enough fuel, they’re not going to make it. So the most important thing we can do is be good hosts by giving them a safe place to rest and feed.”

How you can help

  • Don’t disturb, scare or run through flocks of shorebirds
  • Keep dogs on leashes
  • Carry out all your litter, especially fishing line
  • Stay in wet sand below the tide line, and don’t go in the dunes even if they aren’t roped off
  • Pay attention to your surroundings: if you see an agitated bird, that is a good sign you are getting too close to her chicks
  • Don’t feed wild birds

Best place locally to see shorebirds

  • Fish Haul Beach, Hilton Head Island

Shorebirds to look for

  • American oystercatcher
  • Black skimmer
  • Marbled goodwill
  • Piping plover
  • Semipalmated plover
  • Red knot
  • Willet
  • Ruddy turnstone