Seabrook Island Shorebirds – Red Knot, Wilson’s Plover, Least Tern – Protection, Education & Research

(As published in the June edition of The Seabrooker)

Seabrook residents and visitors love nature! We’re enthusiastic to volunteer for Turtle Patrol, or come to Seabrook to view dolphins, but how many of us stop to appreciate the incredible shorebirds on our beaches?

Red Knot, Seabrook Island (Ed Konrad)

To the untrained eye shorebirds look the same. Most of the year they’re plain but take on colorful plumage as they get ready to breed. Some call Seabrook home, but many migrate through to breed further north like Red Knots. Some arrive and stay to nest, like Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns. Most shorebird populations are declining, some significantly. Our beaches provide excellent locale to feed and rest, and recent research shows how important Seabrook Island is for survival.

Red Knots: To help us see shorebirds in a new light, Seabrook Island resident Mark Andrews has teamed up with SCDNR wildlife biologists and Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) to educate Seabrook beachgoers. Andrews has spent hours talking with folks on the beach since April. His focus has been protecting Red Knots.

Why Red Knots? Knots are a marvel! Most birds migrate from southern winter grounds to northern breeding areas within the same continent. Knots fly 9000 miles from Patagonia on the tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic, traversing the Western Hemisphere!

Many knots will stop here on their journey, exhausted from using most of their fat reserves. They feed all along the beaches of Seabrook, Kiawah, and Deveaux to restore their strength. They feed on the Donax, better known as coquina clams, little mollusks all along shore. When horseshoe crabs arrive to spawn in late April, knots feed on horseshoe crab eggs as well. Having adequate food and undisturbed opportunities to feed are essential for their long journey north, successful breeding, and survival.

Red Knot populations have declined significantly, 75% since the 80’s. They’re classified as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This spring we have seen about 4000 knots moving between Seabrook and Kiawah. SCDNR has determined we have the largest single flock on the east coast, which makes our birds very important for the survival of the species.

The SCDNR team has tagged our knots with nanotags that transmit the birds’ location to towers along their migration route. In 2017, 19 NanoTags were affixed to Red Knots during banding at Seabrook. When the data was collected, the scientific community was shocked to learn that all the knots were not flying to Delaware Bay to feed on their way to the Arctic as everyone had thought. Rather, many were stopping here, and then going directly to the Arctic. This spring Red Knots have been tagged on Deveaux Bank, and SCDNR researchers should get this data in late summer.

As his project has progressed these last few weeks, Andrews has begun to hear, “Are the Red Knots on the beach today?” from his fellow beach goers – which he then knows that the knots have made new friends.

Critical Habitat Nesting Area: At the eastern end of North Beach before you get to the Kiawah River, there is a special area marked with SCDNR yellow signs that demarcates a nesting area that is closed to both humans & dogs. This is a very special place where two SC Threatened Species nest – Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns.

Wilson’s Plover, Critical Habitat

Wilson’s Plovers are robin sized birds with heavy bills and a dark collar across their white breasts. About three pairs of Wilson’s nested in the nesting area last year. So far in 2019, we have counted a similar number of pairs. You will often see them feeding along the tidal lagoon in front of the nesting area early in the morning or at sunset.

The Least Tern is a seabird, smallest of terns at about seven inches long, and white with a black cap. They are often seen hovering over a North Beach tidal pool to fish and presenting fish to prospective mates as their courting ritual. Terns need large areas of dry sand beaches to nest. Eggs are laid just on top of the sand, so it’s easy for anyone to step on a nest and crush the eggs. Last year SCDNR counted 53 nesting pairs of Least Terns! They had chicks, which made it the first successful nesting year on North Beach for the terns since 2015!

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.

Article written by Mark Andrews & Ed Konrad
Photographs by Ed Konrad

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