Some birds flying thousands of miles north to the Arctic to breed stop on South Carolina’s beaches to refuel and rest.
Other birds use our beaches as nesting grounds, laying eggs in the hot sand during the summer and shielding the vulnerable eggs and chicks from the sun and predators.
Beachgoers can unwittingly threaten these shorebirds, whose numbers are sharply declining due to lost habitats and food sources. Dogs off leash or unruly people can shoo away birds and leave their offspring to bake in the sun or be eaten by predators — or keep them from the rest needed to complete their migratory journey.
That’s why conservationists have worked to train hundreds of volunteers to help tell the public about the vulnerable birds they see on the state’s beaches and how best to help them survive. It’s similar to a successful statewide effort to identify and protect sea turtle nests.
Now the training program is expanding on Hunting Island State Park in northern Beaufort County, which sees 1 million visitors each year. One training session was held at the park’s nature center Thursday morning, with another session for prospective volunteers scheduled for Saturday at Harbor Island.
“We hope to slowly build more of a sense of concern and care for these beautiful resources,” said Kate Hudson, a Friends of Hunting Island volunteer who coordinates the park’s Shorebird Stewards program with Audubon South Carolina.
The Audubon shorebird program began in 2016 to help educate the vacationers at Harbor Island, crowds at Folly Beach and visitors on remote Dewees Island in the Charleston area. Now the program will also have trained volunteers on beaches at Hunting, Kiawah and Seabrook islands.
Numerous migratory birds stop on Beaufort County beaches on their way north from Central and South America. Most recognizable might be the red knot, whose rusty breeding plumage is easily identifiable.
The birds can fly for days at a time on their way to the Arctic tundra and drop as much weight as possible to become flying machines, said Kristen Mattson, an environmental educator who teaches the Lowcountry Master Naturalists program.
“They pass through our area and use it as a place to rest, a place to stock up on energy,” Mattson said.
Scientists know Delaware Bay farther up the Atlantic Coast to be the preferred stopover for red knots because of the abundant supply of horseshoe crabs. The birds feast on the crabs’ eggs which are easily digested and provide loads of needed energy.
But red knots have been tracked flying from Port Royal Sound directly to the Arctic, Mattson said, making Beaufort County an important stop.
Red knots are regular visitors to Harbor Island, a private barrier island with a largely undeveloped beach facing St. Helena Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Bird volunteers say the number of horseshoe crabs that come ashore to lay eggs has dropped significantly in recent years.
Audubon says overharvesting of horseshoe crabs has reduced their numbers, and that red knots seem to have been affected.
The volunteers help keep migrating birds from being disturbed and also try to ensure that people avoid nondescript nests of birds such as Wilson’s plover and American Oystercatcher, which can be here year round and nest on undisturbed beaches.
Signs were placed to tell people not to bring dogs where Wilson’s plover nests were found on Hunting Island’s far north end, beyond where a beach renourishment project is underway. Similar signs advise visitors on Harbor Island, where vacation rentals flourish and new people walk the beach each day.
Shorebird Steward training educates volunteers on basic bird identification and how best to talk to visitors about the sensitive birds. Volunteers agree to certain shifts and wear yellow vests.
“Most people would not intentionally harm a bird or disturb them, but they don’t realize that it’s easy to do that,” said Peggy Lucas, who heads the shorebird program on Harbor Island. “Most of the time when people hear that message, they are very receptive to it and want to help.”
Harbor Island shorebird steward training
Where: Harbor Island, 1 Harbor Island Drive N.
When: Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Details: You must email HIShorebirds@gmail.com with your name, email, and address to register.