Spring on North Beach – Red Knots and more!

Red Knot, North Beach

Spring is an amazing and important time for our Seabrook Island shorebirds! Migrating Red Knots are here in growing numbers. After wintering with us, Piping Plovers are heading north to breed. Least Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, and other shorebirds are getting ready to mate and possibly nest on North Beach. It’s a time to enjoy the splendor of our shorebird residents and guests. And to be extra careful when on the beach – give them space to rest, feed, and nest, and follow our beach rules for dogs.

Our SC DNR and USFWS partners have been active monitoring the Red Knot flock to plan for their banding and research. We’re seeing flocks of 300 to 1,500 feeding and resting all along the shore – left of Boardwalk 1, on the sandbars, in the Critical Habitat, at the point, and back on the old inlet. There was a recent sighting of 4,000 knots on the far end of North Beach!

The knots are turning into their beautiful reddish breeding colors. It’s a spectacle when they fly, a large flock darting through the sky with a tint of red as they turn! From late March to early May they move between Seabrook, Kiawah, and Deveaux Bank. In past years Aija and I have seen over 5,000 knots on North Beach at their peak in late April. SC DNR has concluded we have the largest single flock of Red Knots on the East Coast!

Red Knot flock of 300, North Beach Critical Habitat

Red Knot population has declined 85% since 1980, and they’re a “Federally Threatened” species. Knots have the longest migration of any bird, 18,000 miles round trip from the tip of South America to the Arctic where they breed. From SC DNR’s research and geolocator data retrieved on Seabrook and nearby beaches, they’ve determined that 2/3 of our Red Knot flock migrate directly from here to the Arctic to breed, and do not make the usual stop at the Delaware Bay. This discovery makes Seabrook Island a critical stop for the knots before their remaining 3,000-mile journey to the Arctic.

Red Knot flock. North Beach point

To learn more about SC DNR Red Knot research, visit http://www.dnr.sc.gov/news/2018/jun/jun7_shorebirds.html

Mark in blue shirt, Seabrook Island SC DNR Red Knot Stewardship

Mark Andrews, a Seabrook Island Birders’ member and Seabrook Island resident, is working on a new project with SC DNR this spring to help protect Red Knots. Mark is spending considerable time on North Beach, observing the size and location of the Red Knot flock, and educating Seabrook residents and guests about the knots. Mark’s project is to promote awareness to help our Red Knots rest and refuel for their long migration north to breed. Look for Mark on North Beach and learn about the knots!

Piping Plover flock, high tide resting in Critical Habitat, soon to head north to breed

In April we say bon voyage to our Piping Plovers (PIPL), some having wintered with us since late July. We’re seeing the last of the PIPL now, but in larger flocks of 12 or more as more southern wintering PIPL are stopping here as they head north. Piping Plovers breed in the North Atlantic, Great Lakes, and Great Plains regions. Atlantic and Great Plains PIPL are Federally Threatened, Great Lakes PIPL are Federally Endangered.

This tiny bird, now with a dark breeding color breast band, can be anywhere on North Beach – left or right of Boardwalk 1, in the dogs off lead area, feeding in the Critical Habitat low tide mud flats, or resting in the high tide rack. They need our help for the final bit of rest before heading north. The Great Lakes banded PIPL pictured above, in the flock of 12 PIPL we recently spotted, is one of only 70 breeding pairs remaining from that region.

What’s up with the yellow SC DNR nesting signs in the Critical Habitat? Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers are beginning to mate and hopefully nest! Look up into the sky and you’ll see and hear the racket of the small white terns chasing each other with fish. From a distance, look for the Least Tern courting behavior either inside the nesting area or on the shore. It’s a hoot. The male presents a gift of fish to a female, female considers to accept or reject, and like with all guys, she will often reject the gift and dart away, leaving the male – fish still in mouth – looking very foolish.

If you look carefully in the nesting area, not getting too close to signs, you may spot a couple of Wilson’s Plovers, at times chasing each other with aggressive mating behavior. Or possibly hunkered down in some rack in the dunes. Last June, Aija and I spotted Least Tern juveniles and Wilson’s Plover chicks in this habitat. A first for us in 12 years of birding and photography on North Beach! Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers are SC Threatened Species, so they need our help to nest and thrive.

Our resident pair of American Oystercatchers, one banded U5, may also be hopefully mating, along with others. We’ve been seeing U5 and its mate on North Beach for many years, they’re old friends! SC DNR thinks the Oystercatchers have nested on North Beach, although we haven’t observed nests or chicks. We’ve also been seeing the Willets in aggressive mating behavior, and they have nested here too.

Lots of activity in the Spring! Please make a difference when you’re on North Beach by following these simple steps:

  1. Keep away from birds.  When you see a flock, large or small, give them space.
  2. Don’t force the birds to fly. How close to a bird is too close?  If birds react — calling loudly or taking flight — step back immediately.  A good rule is to stay at least 50 yards away, or half the length of a football field.
  3. Respect posted nesting and feeding areas.
  4. Follow Seabrook’s beach rules for dogs. Shorebirds will be anywhere on the beach including the dogs off leash zone. Please don’t have your dog chase any birds! Our shorebirds’ survival is not a game.
  5. Be a good steward. Learn about our shorebirds and their needs and share the word. Shorebirds are one of the many natural treasures of Seabrook for us to understand, enjoy, and most importantly protect.

Note that the Town of Seabrook, working with USFWS and SC DNR, is in the process of improving our signs. The large buoys that washed away have been reordered. These will mark to start of the dogs off lead area, and the start of the Critical Habitat/no dog zone. There are temporary signs up now at the start of the Critical Habitat until the buoys arrive and can be installed. April is such a critical month for shorebirds, and our signs are missing or faded. So some immediate clarification was needed.

Also, please remember that the Critical Habitat line extends from the No Dogs metal sign at the high tide line straight out to the ocean. The beach and sandbars continuing past this visual line are part of the Critical Habitat and no dog zone. This is especially important in Red Knot season as knots will rest and feed on the sandbars that can be accessible at low tide.

So, when walking North Beach, look around you, observe and enjoy these incredible shorebirds. Just like 20 Seabrook Island Birders did on a recent bird walk on North Beach, tallying 40 species!

Article and Photos by Ed Konrad

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