The Piping Plovers are back and there is a good chance to see more Shorebirds. SIB member Arch McCallum will lead a SIB Learning Together bird walk at North Beach. Arch was a professor of Ornithology at College of Charleston and also leads bird walks for Audubon of South Carolina. He’s never birded Seabrook’s beaches so it will be a learning experience for all. Overall, we hope to spot a nice variety of shorebirds as we work our way to the North Beach inlet. We’ll meet in the Property Owners’ beach parking lot at 5:00 pm. This will get us to the beach shortly after high tide which brings the shorebirds closer to the shore. The day should be getting cooler with hopefully a nice evening breeze. Be sure to bring binoculars, camera, hats, sunscreen, water, and snacks. Of course, you can head back at any time.
Saturday, August 24 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm Learning Together at North Beach Location: Meet at Owners Parking Lot near entrance to Boardwalk 1 Max: 18 Cost None for members; $5 donation for guests
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:
Keep away from
birds. When you see a flock give them space.
Don’t force the birds
to fly. If birds are calling loudly or taking flight – step back
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.
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.
A thank-you goes out to Seabrook Island Birders member Chuck Bensonhaver for submitting the article below regarding his birding experiences.
Introduction : I took up watching birds as a teenager in Lancaster, Ohio. Charles Goslin, a local enthusiast wrote weekly newspaper articles and led early morning bird walks. My best friend, Jim, and I went on many of those walks together.
I’ve continued the “sport” throughout my life. Going to college in the D.C. area, the extensive park system there and the Eastern Shore beach areas were fruitful. Then living in California for four years, the Pacific shores, Yosemite National Park and even the semi-arid areas offered other interesting birds. Thereafter, living in Baltimore MD, Ft. Worth TX, back to Ohio for over thirty years, and now on Seabrook Island full time for the last sixteen years, I am still a birder.
Seabrook Island birding
The American Anhingas – While common in Florida, we are at the northern edge of their range. Yearly we have a pair and sometimes their offspring on Palmetto Lake. They are often confused with Cormorants, but are longer, sleeker, and have a straight bill. Cormorant’s bills are hooked. When perched with their wings spread, they show large white patches across their backs. When they swim they are totally submerged except for their neck, writhing and cutting through the water, hence their nick-name, the Snake Bird. In flight they are long, lean, and majestic.
Cooper’s Hawks – They are a colorful mid-sized hawk with a long banded tail, blue/gray backs, black caps, red eyes and white breasts laced with fine reddish bars. For many years they nested in the pine trees at the juncture of Seabrook Island Rd. and Seabrook Village Drive. When their young were in the nests, the parents would swoop down at passers-by. About eight years ago, I heard they had sunk their talons in the skulls of two bicyclers. One of those was Allen Thompson who still lives on Seabrook. Soon signs went up for bicyclers to wear their helmets!
Pileated Woodpeckers – In April of this year, I was awakened by a loud fluttering sound emanating from our fireplace. I thought a bird or other animal had gotten trapped in our flu. However, this went on for several weeks, so I concluded no bird or animal could survive there that long. One morning when this was happening, I went outside and put my binocular onto the metal cap of our chimney. There was a Pileated Woodpecker pecking away. A large expanse of pure metal is not a suitable place for making a nest. With a little research, I learned that this is a known phenomenon called Drumming. They are staking out their territory and/or attracting a mate.
Purple Martins – I lived in one house growing up, i.e. for seventeen years. Neighbors had a Purple Martin house, so I was familiar with their deep purple color and swooping flight patterns. There were around twenty birds in that house. Then there is Bomb Island in Lake Murray, SC. In summer evenings, in taking a boat out, one encounters more than a million birds! It is the largest Purple Martin roosting site in North America. Our club would do well to organize a trip there, perhaps even yet this year.
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers – In 1970 while I was serving my military duty in Ft. Worth TX, our compound had a few of these rather dramatic birds around. However, they occasionally swarm, and indeed one day they did so for us. Many hundreds of them descended into the trees and stayed for several hours. It was a din with a lot of fluttering and swooping. I suspect we had very few insects about for the next several days.
Turkey Vulture Chicks – One day when I was about 16, my buddy Jim and I ventured into a wooded hill a few miles west of Lancaster, Ohio. We found some rock structures with small caves. There we came upon three juvenile Turkey Vultures hissing at us. Two were small but one was about the size of a full grown chicken. Their plumages were pure white. We stuck a stick in front of the large one. That’s when we learned of their major mechanism of defense, vomiting on an intruding object! That was enough to restrain us from reaching towards the bird with our bare hands and arms.
I could go on with at least a dozen other tales of ornithology adventures such as experiencing Bobolinks, Night Hawks, Cedar Waxwings, Ravens, Storks, Ospreys, Eagles, etc. However, suffice it to say that even if one is lazy, like me, about identifying birds, just put in the time. They will make themselves known and give you quite a show.
Early in June, an assignment was given to write a “fun”and “light-hearted” article about dive-bombing Least Terns- the smallest of terns with their outsized aggressive behavior to protect their nests and chicks. This robin-sized white seabird with a black cap is often seen hovering over water and then diving straight down to catch baitfish. Once they nest, they use that same precision flying to harass anyone who comes near with loud squawks, and sometimes, poop!
Seabrook Island birder Ed Konrad has already detailed their unique courtship behavior of the male presenting a fish to his
prospective mate in earlier posts (“Spring on North Beach..”, April 26, 2019) and we were eagerly anticipating the arrival of this year’s crop of chicks.
But then it rained.
On May 28th, Janet Thibault, a coastal bird biologist for South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) had counted about 45 nesting pairs of “leasties” in the yellow sign posted, protected area at the eastern end of North Beach. This was very special news because after surveying the other known beach nesting sites in South Carolina, Seabrook’s North Beach was one of only a few where Least Terns had nested this year. The same area had 53 nesting pairs last year (2018) which was the first successful nesting (chicks produced) since the new cut at Captain Sams was made in 2015. Other attempts to nest had failed because Least Terns are colony nesters and a predatory threat, like the pair of coyotes that were reported on the beach during one of those summers, can send the whole flock packing.
Almost anything you read about Least Terns mentions their inability to find safe places to nest. Instead, they use vulnerable or precarious places like sandbars prone to over wash on a king tide or gravel covered roof tops like those of big box stores in Mount Pleasant! In fact, with the loss of suitable beach habitat, over 60% of Least Tern nests in South Carolina are on roof tops with SCDNR monitoring those in a special program. Habitat loss and disturbances like predators and human use of beaches are the reasons behind Least Terns being classified as Threatened in South Carolina.
Eggs are laid in a shallow scrape starting in mid-May and are incubated for 19-25 days. After the chicks hatch, the parents hide them in the shade which can be something as meager as a pile of spartina grass wrack on the beach. For this reason, beach walkers and those in vehicles need to be careful to watch for the chicks and avoid walking or driving on debris or piles of wrack. The young terns fly in about another 20 -25 days. All told, the nesting site needs to provide a stable and safe shelter for almost two months.
In comparison to sandbars and roof tops, the yellow-sign protected area on North Beach with its large dry sand beach or the top of the dike with its shell-mash surface appears to be very secure. The Least Terns here nested mainly in the middle of the protected area in slight depressions surrounded by low dunes to protect them from the wind. The nests were fairly close together and when a gull or crow flew too close, small flocks of terns would rise up out of the sand to intercept the intruder. Those depressions were also the areas that may have filled with rain water and ended Least Tern nesting for this year.
For much of May, we had unusually dry weather, but the weekend, June 6 -10th, saw heavy rain with some significant downpours. It is hard to imagine flooding on a sand beach, but in early June, we had a series of very high tides with the resulting wrack line reaching well inside the line of posting signs. By the morning of June 10th, water was ponding in the area where the old “Cat Eye” pond used to be. My notes from early on
June 10th say that I saw fewer nesting terns and less overall activity compared to my observations from the week before. Later that same morning another storm produced 0.6” of rain in 20 minutes.
On Wednesday June 12th, I was caught in a rain squall just after sunrise. The nesting birds that had been in the central depression were gone. A few Least Terns were sheltering under the dead spartina grass of the higher wrack and some, only 33 birds over 35 minutes, would occasionally lift up from behind low dunes and fly to better protection in the vegetation. Streams were flowing out from the old Cat Eye pond area and through the posted area to the tidal lagoon. Puddles were forming in the lower areas of the protected area.The weather data from a nearby weather station on Seabrook shows a total of 2.85” over 3 hours. Downtown Charleston flooded with nearly
four inches of rain.
The next morning, the protected area was unusually quiet. I counted only nine Least Terns where once there were more than one hundred: one bird was still nesting, one was foraging and the others were counted as they flew in the back dunes. The wrack where I had seen birds sheltering the morning before was buried in sand. Water still lay in the area of the old Cat Eye pond. The central depressions were wet but did not hold standing water.
Janet Thibault came back on the 14th and we walked the area. We only saw 2 Least Terns and they were feeding over the lagoon. The last nesting bird was gone. Janet said that we should watch to see if they attempt to re-nest, but that, she said, was unlikely this late in the season.
North Beach offered seemingly perfect habitat but nature can be cruel. With Least Tern numbers down over 80% from the mid-1960‘s, we have unfortunately seen first hand how fragile Least Tern nesting can be even in the best of circumstances.
Janet and I continued our walk behind the dike and found a pair of Wilson’s Plovers, also Threatened. We watched for quite awhile but didn’t see any chicks; they do a great job of hiding them in the vegetation. Earlier in the week, two Wilson’s Plover chicks that were born to parents outside the protected area were seen near the last dog sign. They are probably still hidden in the dunes – hopefully out of the reach of the storms.
Have you ever wondered whether to intervene with nature? Since we, as human beings, have moved into “nature’s” neighborhood it might be appropriate to occasionally give “nature” a helping hand.
Rosemary Mosco is a science writer and naturalist who is a popular guest lecturer at not only birding festivals, but also writing and art workshops for all ages. Her popularity is in part because she delivers her thought provoking talks with a sense of humor. Additionally, Ms. Mosco is a graphic artist whose comics share the funny side of nature while highlighting environmental issues. You can see some of her comics on Bird and Moon and below is a clever graphic created by Rosemary Mosco to help you determine when, whether, and how you should rescue baby birds.
If you need to contact the wildlife care center in our area, please contact the Avian Medical Clinic at 843.971.7474 and press option #1 for the Injured Bird Line. You can also send an email to email@example.com
Thirteen (13) Seabrook Island Birders “beat the heat” to join us for SIB’s fourth movie matinee this past Tuesday. If you were not able to attend, you may still be able to watch these documentaries.
The Egg: Life’s Perfect Invention, is a 53-minute episode from PBS Nature (Season 37 Episode 12). How is an egg made? Why are they the shape they are? And perhaps most importantly, why lay an egg at all? Step by step as the egg hatches, host David Attenborough reveals the wonder behind these incredible miracles of nature. To watch, you can stream it through PBS.
Our second movie was Remarkable Birds, a 28-minute film by Coastal Kingdom. What is it about birds that makes them so appealing? Join Tony for a closer look at some of the avian fauna living in the LowCountry – butcher birds, Spoonbills, Clapper Rails and more! To watch, click here.
We hope you enjoy these two programs and share with your family and friends.
Many people may not use the term “snag” often until they become birders. According to Miriam-Webster, the term snag as a noun is defined as:
1.) a tree or branch embedded in a lake or stream bed and constituting a hazard to navigation 2.) a standing dead tree
Snags make wonderful habitat for birds and I often look towards snags if I’m in search of birds. They make great perches for birds who want a view. They make excellent home both for nests on and inside of the snag for cavity dwellers.
This article written by SC DNR explains the importance of snags in our natural habitat. We want to make all residents and guests aware that the snags are not an eyesore, but something that is beneficial for birds and other wildlife.