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The South Carolina Coast: An Embarrassment of Riches
Whimbrels come home to roost
When the three of us planned a trip to Harbor Island in South Carolina, we planned to birdwatch at the local hotspots. Just me, an urban planner, and a pediatrician. We had no idea that we would be swept up in Whimbrel fever.
Coastal staging areas for Whimbrels are critical for their migration, and they are only now being identified. Deveaux Bank in South Carolina is one such staging area that biologists recently found. The story of this barrier island is captured in this beautiful video. Just 17 miles south of Deveaux Bank, Harbor Island is part of a large expanse of salt marshes that cover multiple islands in this area.
Upon arriving at Harbor Island, we immediately started birding and entering our bird lists into eBird. By day two, several interesting things happened. We submitted an eBird list with two Whimbrels in a marsh off the north beach. We ran into Peggy, the local shorebird volunteer, whose duties include protecting nesting Wilson’s Plovers. She was on her way to check on Mrs. Wilson (the working name for the female nesting on the north beach), and she allowed us to go along.
That same day, we also learned that a neighbor on our street is a professional bird guide - Jenn Clementoni, owner of Birding Beaufort, LLC. It turned out that she was watching our eBird posts as we submitted them. With these new bird relationships forming, we were unexpectedly permitted to observe an evening shorebird survey with local shorebird stewards and experts from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Among the many exciting shorebirds to be identified, the two Whimbrels spotted in the distance generated the most interest.
The three of us returned to the same beach later that evening and walked as far south as possible, stopping adjacent to the Johnson River, which flows out to the ocean from the salt marshes. We saw the usual mix of birds on our walk. As we approached the end of the beach, the sand became soft, and human tracks in the sand fell away. Two Whimbrels flew up from the marsh and across the river. When we scanned the far bank of the river we noticed a large group of shorebirds roosting on the sheltered bank. We could tell Whimbrels were part of the mix, but at that distance it was hard to identify the birds.
We started to walk back the way we came when we noticed a flock of 20 Whimbrels flying past us low over the water. They flew out and landed where the river entered the sea. This area is a large expanse of complex sand dunes bisected by the river and inundated twice a day by rising tides. A second flock followed the first. And then another. And another. And this is when we realized that we were watching Whimbrels fly in to roost … just like at Deveaux Bank.
The numbers built up to 325 pretty quickly, which generated a red flag in eBird, meaning that the eBird system was not expecting to have this many submitted. Mercy wanted to see if this seemed unusual, so she texted Jenn, who responded, “OMGGG! I will be right there.” It was 8:15 p.m. at that point, and the birds kept streaming in low over the river. A constant flow of groups of 5-50 birds passed us by, and we tried to keep count in the fading light.
When the flocks stopped coming and it got too dark to see, we tallied our numbers. We had seen 2,000 Whimbrels. By then Jenn had arrived. She could tell the beach was full of Whimbrels by listening to their calls drift across the sand. She had already texted Whimbrel biologists with the Department of Natural Resources, some of whom are featured in the Devaux video. They plan to visit the area within the next few days to band Whimbrels and to learn more about their migratory timing and route.
In the meantime, we wanted to continue gathering data as citizen scientists. We returned the next morning at 6 a.m. to see if we could catch the Whimbrels leaving the roost. This time we counted 3,100. About half the birds appeared low on the horizon and flew just above the river as they headed out to the salt marshes to feed for the day. The other half of the birds were much higher in the sky. They were riding the wind out of the north and appeared to be coming in from the ocean.
So there we were. Three Midwesterners on vacation who had just helped to identify a significant staging area for Whimbrels and other shorebirds. The tides and river serve to isolate this area from human disturbance, and the complex topography provides a variety of resting places at different water levels. These birds are on their way to northern Canada and Alaska where they nest on the tundra. We know so much about these fascinating birds - we know they forage in the salt marshes in small groups during the day where they specialize in extracting fiddler crabs from their burrows with their perfectly decurved bills - but we know so little at the same time. Exactly what is their route? Where do they stop for sustenance and rest? And how can we protect these places more effectively?
The diverse calls of sea and shorebirds are part of this place. They mingle with the shimmering gray light that accentuates the subtle gray tones that make up the beach. This place is a paradise for birds and other wildlife. It’s also a paradise for people. Much is being done to ensure that humans and wildlife can coexist in this fragile place, but it is a struggle. For a few days, we have tried to simply appreciate witnessing one of nature’s great migratory spectacles.
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