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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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

Easter Parade on North Beach

North Beach Spring Plumage

The last few days, Ed and I have been birding North Beach. We were delighted to see that many of our wintering or migrating shorebirds were changing into their Easter finery! I grew up in a house of modest means, but one thing I could be sure of every Easter was a new dress for church. Made me start to hum the old song that many of you may remember, Easter Parade. I remembered most of the words, but was struck by the line “the photographers will snap us, and you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.” Huh??? What the heck is a rotogravure?  

So I went to my old friend Google and found that it is the color magazine section of a newspaper…remember back in the day when we actually read print news? So here were some of the birds on our beach today, changing into their breeding colors! They could  be featured in the rotogravure, with Ed the photographer, snapping them. 

Black-bellied Plover, North Beach

Black-bellied Plovers…turning from their drab gray winter plumage. Many of them mottled, heading toward a full black belly. 

Dunlin…turning from their drab, gray winter duds, many with darkening bellies, soon to become full black bellies and more rusty backs. 

Red Knot, North Beach

Red Knots… well on their way from drab gray to a beautiful rust color. 

Ruddy Turnstones…putting on their little black vests with rusty backs, from their drab brown winter sweaters. 

Piping Plovers…many in breeding colors with their full black breast bands and forehead spots, with two-tone bills. The Piping Plovers we saw today on North Beach are very likely the last of our wintering guests. They’re headed north to breed, and will be back in late July.

Easter Parade, indeed! 

Article by Aija Konrad, Photos by Ed Konrad