Summer on North Beach – Reddish Egret, Spoonbills with Dolphins, and more!

It was a great summer for birding North Beach! Some days it was literally a cast of a thousands…terns, gulls, skimmers, oystercatchers, and a nice mix of shorebirds. Most birds gathered at the bend toward the inlet on a sandbar. My favorite time to go is just before or after high tide, when the birds are pushed in for good views. Once they start to disperse it is hard to see them on the distant sandbars. Often when we walked out to the beach, we were greeted by Painted Buntings…singing, calling, and near the end of the summer perched on grasses eating seed.

A late summer favorite is the Reddish Egret. We’ve been seeing one, sometimes two, on North Beach for many years. Each time we spotted this year’s Reddish it stayed for a couple of hours in the large tidal pool – giving us great looks of it’s feeding behavior “dance” – running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings as a canopy to shade schools of small fish seeking shelter in the shade, and then catching its meal!

Reddish Egret – North Beach
Roseate Spoonbill, Bottlenose Dolphin strand feeding – North Beach

Roseate Spoonbills and dolphins strand feeding are always two amazing sights on Seabrook. But it’s rare to see both together! Ed first spotted four Spoonbills at the far end of the North Beach lagoon. Next came the dolphins, strand feeding first at the point and then swimming to far end of the lagoon right in front of the Spoonbills. Ed was a good distance away, but was ready with his camera anticipating a strand feed. Then it happened! Roseate Spoonbills and dolphins strand feeding in the same frame!

American Oystercatcher – North Beach

On Sep 24 we had a high count of 73 American Oystercatchers! What a thrill to see so many together. Marbled Godwits were present, often on the edge of the larger tide pools, probing the sand with their long bills. Colorful Ruddy Turnstones roamed the shore. Black-bellied Plovers and Wilson’s Plovers hung out near the end of the inlet. Black Skimmers were abundant, often in the hundreds and always fun to see skimming the water’s edge.

Black Skimmer and Piping Plovers – North Beach

Piping Plovers are here to “winter” – some staying for the season, others just stopping by as they head farther south. Then next spring they’ll return north to breed. Here’s a cool coincidence. Ed and I spotted these two banded PIPL on the same day last fall on Nov 9 – orange flag Great Lakes breeding region, and black flag 2K Atlantic Canada region. A birder colleague spotted these same two PIPL on Sep 9 on North Beach! So they’ve been seen together twice on the same day at Seabrook – last fall and this summer!

So maybe these two have decided again that Seabrook is a great place to spend the winter! These year to year “resightings” show how well our Critical Habitat is developing for Piping Plovers and other shorebirds.

2K breeds at Prince Edward Island, Canada. Here’s their Facebook post about his whereabouts south from the info we reported. The researchers are very happy that he’s doing well at Seabrook! Click on this link:

https://www.facebook.com/islandnaturetrust/posts/2590419404352616?comment_id=2596419787085911¬if_id=1569514538465736¬if_t=feed_comment

Please give our Piping Plover guests space to feed and rest. Remember, they’re Federal Endangered (Great Lakes Region) and Federal Threatened (Atlantic US & Canada Region).

Royal Tern and Snowy Egret – North Beach

Osprey prowled the beach looking for fish, often coming up with a good catch. Once, we witnessed an eagle stealing a fish, mid-air, from the Osprey. I have literally seen the eagle in pursuit, making the Osprey drop the fish and the eagle catching it in mid-air! Terns were abundant, with Royal in the greatest numbers. Caspian Terns with their large red bills and grating calls stood out. Sandwich, Common, Least and Forster’s Terns were in the mix.

It’s always a thrill to see the Black Terns as they migrate through, often speckled and mottled, changing from the black summer plumage. Gull-billed Terns patrolled the dry sand of the “highway” with their plunge-dives mid-air for crabs and insects, never diving in water.

Gull-billed Tern – North Beach

We had several walks on the beach this summer, one SIB walk that had over 25 birders led by Arch McCallum. Thanks to Mark Andrews for bringing wine, a very nice touch for the evening bird walk! Ed and I also hosted a Carolina Bird Club walk for many folks from SC and NC who marveled at our wonderful beach with it’s bounty of shorebirds. So many great spots to bird on Seabrook! The closing picture is of three beautiful young Tricolored Herons on the platform at Palmetto Lake…always fun to see a species where the juvenile is even brighter than the adult. Good birding to all!

Article by Aija & Ed Konrad, photos by Ed Konrad

SIB Learning Together – North Beach
Juvenile Tricolored Heron – Palmetto Lake

A Rare Visitor to SC

A few days ago, Ed and I went up I-26 N, to the Goose Creek/Hanahan exit to see some rare visitors to SC…two Limpkin. A Limpkin is a large wading bird, that on a quick look can look like a juvenile White Ibis or a giant rail. They are rarely seen outside of the tropical wetlands of Florida and South Georgia. It is a large, dark brown bird with distinctive white speckles and a large, bent, orange bill. It walks slowly in shallow water in wooded and brushy swamps, in this case the west side of the Goose Creek Reservoir, where there is a canal with two islands and some wetlands. The birds search for apple snails and other mollusks. Limpkin have a very loud, otherworldly cry that can be heard mostly at night. 

These birds were spotted by the homeowners in the Otranto subdivision. They had been there about a month before a homeowner told a birding friend, who put them on Facebook and subsequently EBird. Since August 2, a steady stream of birders has come to the neighborhood to see them. Ed and I were very much hoping the birds would stay until we got to Seabrook last week and they did!  Limpkin have been appearing in SC and GA the last few summers. Always exciting to add a new “life bird” to a state list! We’ve seen Limpkin before, and Ed says these two are his best looks and photos of the species.

Article by Aija Konrad, photos by Ed Konrad

An amazing morning at North Beach!

What a great morning at North Beach. Ed and I saw our first Reddish Egret of the season for Seabrook down near the point, dancing away! We spotted four Piping Plovers on the shore at the dolphin stewards area. One had orange bands, endangered from the Great Lakes Area. We learned from our researcher friend in MI that this one “is a young bird hatched this summer on Cat Island, Green Bay, WI. Good to see that it’s made it safely south!”

Then a group of 5 dolphins gave us several wonderful looks at strand feeding! While watching the Piping Plovers and dolphins, a Bald Eagle appeared and stole an Osprey’s fish in flight!!!

Doesn’t get any better than this! Just another day at Seabrook Island! And I’ve used an exclamation point after almost every sentence!!!

Article by Aija Konrad, photos by Ed Konrad

Wintering Piping Plovers – July banded sightings

Aija and I send photos of banded Piping Plovers that we spot on North Beach to Alice Van Zoeren, Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, so the researchers know the whereabouts of their wintering birds. Great Lakes Piping Plovers are Federal Endangered. They have orange flags, and then other various color bands, to identify them. Alice reports back to us interesting info from their breeding area. From this info you can see the researchers’ dedication, and the challenges the Piping Plovers face.

The three banded Piping Plovers below, spotted on North Beach July 24-25, were the first we’ve seen this year on their journey south to winter after breeding. Remember, there are less than 70 breeding pairs remaining in the Great Lakes area endangered population. These three are very special guests indeed! We learned from Alice…

“This is a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore, MI, breeder. He began breeding in 2018 at Platte Point. This year Platte Point is under water and he moved about two miles north. He fledged two chicks.” (Bands: Left leg – orange flag, red/green bands. Right leg – silver metal, yellow bands)

“Hatched 2010 at Sleeping Bear Dunes, mouth of Platte River. She began breeding in 2011 at Manistee MI. In 2012 moved to North Manitou Island, where she’s been breeding ever since. She had a rough summer this year. She and her mate lost all the newly hatched chicks from their first attempt to an unknown predator. They put in a second nest, but it was quite late and they headed south before the eggs hatched.” (Bands: Left leg – orange flag, two black bands. Right leg – silver metal, blue bands)

“Hatched 2017 on North Manitou Island, MI. He returned to begin breeding in 2018 at Wilderness State Park MI.” (Bands: Left leg – orange flag, black/blue bands. Right leg – silver metal, green bands)

In July we spotted three other Piping Plovers that weren’t banded. The one in the right photo is a “first year bird”, a juvenile hatched this year making its first trip south to winter. Note the differences to the left photo of mature birds – juvenile has black bill, partial collar, paler plumage.

Some of our July Piping Plovers may remain at Seabrook for the “winter” until they head back north next spring to breed. Others may have stopped here to rest before continuing to wintering beaches further south. Aija and I will keep an eye out, and let you know if any of the three banded Great Lakes Piping Plovers remain as our guests for the next 8 months. Plus others we spot from the Great Lakes or Atlantic breeding areas. Look for the Piping Plovers too, and please give them space to feed and rest. They can be feeding anywhere along the shore to right of Boardwalk #1, or left of Boardwalk #1 all the way to the point.

Piping Plover, Seabrook Island North Beach, to left of Boardwalk #1

Article and Photos by Ed Konrad

Piping Plovers are here!!!!!

They’re baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!, said a July 16 email from Melissa Chaplin, Biologist, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “They” are the Piping Plovers, returning from northern breeding areas. Plovers breed April to June in three US and Canada population areas – Great Lakes, Atlantic coast, and Northern Great Plains. In July they migrate to southern Atlantic and Texas coasts, and the Bahamas, to “winter” until the following spring.

Atlantic (green flag, photo above) and Great Plains Piping Plovers are Federally Threatened. Great Lakes plovers (orange flag, photo above) are Federally Endangered. The Great Lakes were once home to 800 pairs of Piping Plovers. Today, less than 70 nesting pairs remain, due to nest disruption by development, predators, people, dogs, weather.

In addition to providing habitat for Piping Plovers that pass through during fall and spring migration, South Carolina hosts a number of Piping that remain here to winter. To better understand the challenges they face, and our responsibility to protect them, a view of their full year cycle is helpful.

In April, Piping Plovers leave their wintering grounds, and head to the northern breeding areas. After mating, they typically lay a clutch of four eggs. The nest is a small scrape on the beach, usually in an area with small stones that camouflage the eggs. Both parents participate in sitting on the eggs. Chicks hatch in June and into July.  During the first weeks after hatching, chicks are unable to maintain their own body temperature. They spend much time tucked in under their parents’ wings staying warm. They can run about and feed themselves within hours of hatching. It takes 3-4 weeks for them to be able to fly.

On a recent July trip across the country, Aija and I stopped at Whitefish Point in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. We found three volunteers watching over a nest of Piping Plovers and learned that day was the possible hatch date. The nest was in stones on the beach, covered with a wire cage to protect it (photos above). This year there was only one nesting pair at Whitefish, as opposed to multiple pairs in previous years.

The volunteers were concerned that the male had not been seen for over 3 hours, which was unusual. As we watched, the female (photo below) would get up from the nest to chase a Killdeer and Semipalmated Plovers, leaving her nest exposed. Suddenly a volunteer saw a crack in one of the eggs! We all watched closely with the scope and one chick hatched! (photos below) We left the beach with the thrill of witnessing a hatch, but with worry that without the male, the female would not be able to keep the chicks warm and sustain her brood.

Later we learned from Alice Van Zoeren, researcher with the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, two of the four eggs hatched successfully. Thankfully, the male returned. When the chicks were banded, both adults were still there, and the two chicks were doing well.

Another interesting story on the huge challenges Piping Plovers face in their breeding grounds was on the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan this spring. For the first time since 1955, Piping Plovers in Chicago have hatched chicks. The adult plovers arrived at Montrose Point, one of the city’s best birding locations, in early June. Lake Michigan’s rising waters took the pairs’ first three eggs. But on a second try, there were three new Piping Plovers roaming the shores of Lake Michigan! This story became even more amazing when organizers of a concert that would have attracted 20,000 people to the beach was canceled to protect the chicks!

So, for three months of the year dedicated biologists, researchers, and volunteers work incredibly hard, despite all the many risks the birds face, to ensure Piping Plovers have a chance to successfully breed. Then they do all they can to help the chicks grow and get strong to start the next part of the life story – heading south to winter. From here the Piping Plover protection responsibility shifts to us and the southern beaches for the next 9 months.

In mid-July, the plovers head south to their wintering grounds, where they remain until the following spring. Last week Aija and I spotted five Piping Plovers on North Beach. Three had orange flags, all endangered from the Great Lakes population (photos below).

On their winter territories, Piping Plovers follow a predictable routine. As tides ebb or recede, plovers are on exposed tidal flats or sandy shores to feed on tiny crustaceans and marine worms. They typically spend most daylight hours foraging along the shore , and then at high tide retire to high beach areas to rest (photos below on North Beach). In March and April, just prior to their return north, Piping Plovers molt feathers on their heads and breasts, regaining their forehead and neck bands. The base of the bill changes to orange. Then the cycle begins again!

The Piping Plover wintering season now begins at Seabrook Island! And with their arrival, comes our responsibility to protect them so they can remain healthy and strong for next spring’s return north to breed.

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 give them space.
  2. Don’t force the birds to fly. If birds are calling loudly or taking flight – step back immediately.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 by Aija and Ed Konrad. Photos by Ed Konrad – taken on Seabrook Island North Beach and Whitefish Point MI.

Information from Great Lakes Piping Plover website: https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/

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

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