By Jeff Dennis

Birding is not for everyone, but if one possesses a curiosity about avian life, then looking out for migratory birds each spring becomes a ritual. The coasts of Georgia and South Carolina are now the focus of a study by the Center for Conservation Biology, tracking the shorebirds that stopover for rest and food. A strong horseshoe crab spawning event in 2016 provided a banquet of sustenance to visiting shorebirds, which come alive and sing nature’s symphony with renewed vigor at the break of each day.

At dawn on May 14, I was witness to a synergy in nature on Edisto Beach that is truly rare. Though only a half-moon was visible overnight, the landscape was lit up with a luster that was remarkable. The high tide associated with the moon triggered horseshoe crabs to come onto the beach in the early morning to spawn and leave eggs buried on the beach. Remarkably, some of these same horseshoe crabs chose not to crawl back into the ocean, but rather lay prone on the beach waiting for the next high tide cycle.

All around these stalled out horseshoe crabs, a swarm of shorebirds were looking for an easy meal. No one else was on the beach that morning to see the juxtaposition between the slow-moving horseshoe crabs and the lightening quick shorebirds. At first a large number of ruddy turnstones were probing a gulley that still held a bit of water after the ocean had retreated down the beach. But when they hit pay dirt and found the horseshoe crab eggs, their calling set off a feeding frenzy.

All in a matter of 15-minutes or so around dawn, the shorebirds and the seagulls joined in a cacophony of sound that was so loud it was exciting even to humans. Other birds began showing up, flying in from all directions, upon hearing the sound of successful feeding. Some of the last shorebirds to show up were the endangered red knots, with dunlin and semi-palmated sandpipers also present. Having witnessed this event in awe, I reached out to research biologist Fletcher Smith to seek out more details about the study in S.C. and Georgia.

Smith has been on the shorebird study for three years for The College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. They have funding partnerships with Georgia DNR, Manomet Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and even the Canadian Wildlife Service. Smith spends two months in Georgia and S.C. during spring migration and he also spent six weeks at the shorebird nesting grounds at Bathurst Island in the Arctic, near Polar Bear Pass Refuge.

“Our research study is underway because 75 percent of shorebirds are in decline,” said Smith. “Our emphasis is on tracking red knots, using federal leg band identification while in the field. We also place satellite-tracking tags on black-bellied plovers. One of these plovers stopped in S.C. near Beaufort during spring migration this year, so it was neat to see this kind of return on our work. They eat small fiddler crabs and marine worms to put on weight before completing migration to the Arctic. When they leave S.C. it is not uncommon for them to fly five or six-days straight, without ever taking a break, to reach the breeding grounds.”

“We know the red knots have low reproduction success historically, which is why it’s important to monitor any downward trend,” said Smith. “The flip side of the equation is that red knots can be long-lived.” It’s just the opposite for waterfowl, which do not have long lives, but they enjoy high reproduction success rates. The data from the study in Georgia and S.C. by Smith and researcher Bryan Watts is currently being analyzed and is not published yet.

“My impression from the spring of 2016 is that we saw a big horseshoe crab spawn early in May and the red knots were right on it,” said Smith. “The full moon in late May did not see much horseshoe crab spawning, but by then the red knots likely had moved up to Delaware Bay. Kiawah Island and Bull Island each reported large numbers of migrating red knots this year. Another observation this year is more human disturbance where shorebirds are stopping over, so we’ve got to do a better job of education regarding this small two-month window each spring.”

South Carolina is home to some shorebirds year round, but red knots and others only migrate though. In time, one comes to know a good day versus any other when it comes to wildlife sightings. This same morning I saw a painted bunting in the sand dunes shrub zone and a leatherback turtle just beyond the surf zone. All of these species were on a journey of spring migration, making protected properties along the S.C. coast vital today and priceless for the future.

 

Jeff Dennis is a longtime outdoorsman. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com.

 

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