Birds In the News

A Novel Message For Shorebirds

This article first appeared on Mary Alice Monroe's website.

My island life just outside of Charleston, South Carolina inspires my writing life. The lush landscape teems with life in the marshes and rivers, forests and beaches. The wild is my inspiration. Sea turtles, monarch butterflies, and dolphins have sparked my stories in the past. And this time, migrating shorebirds are the backdrop of my new novel, BEACH HOUSE FOR RENT, available June 20.

I didn’t set out to tell a story about these birds. Instead, I like to think the story found me.  It started with a pelican rescue (read that story here), which opened me up to the fascinating world of shorebirds. And when I learned from Audubon that 70% of the shorebird population is in decline, I knew I had to tell this story.

Today I introduce you to guest blogger, Dr. Jessica Hardesty Norris, president of Audubon Charleston, and shares details about a shorebird stewards program that I’m committed to helping raise awareness about along South Carolina beaches and beyond. A big thanks to Jessica for this special contribution today.

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"Nolan Schillerstrom has learned to start with the positive.  He has to.  His job is encouraging South Carolina beachgoers to share their play-space with the wild birds who need undisturbed access to our shores in order to survive.

Take the typical scenario. It’s an idyllic beach day for a visiting (or local) family.  They have come to the shore, perhaps with kids and dogs and bicycles, ready to enjoy the sun and waves. As they play, they might not notice the feathered families trying to make their living on that same beach.

Most shorebirds, after all, are small and have cryptic coloration that allows them to blend in with the sand and pebbles. So Nolan, who’s on staff with Audubon South Carolina, must make the human family aware of the bird families who share our beaches.

According to the South Carolina Audubon Let ‘em rest, Let ‘em nest webpage, disturbance is one reason for the abrupt decline of species like the Least Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, and Piping Plovers. Scaring or chasing the birds can quickly create dire consequences.  On a hot sunny day, a newborn chick whose parent has been chased off the nest can die within minutes.

Biologists like Nolan, with his team of “Shorebird Steward” volunteers, work throughout the nesting season to raise awareness among families, dog-walkers, and cyclists.

As they walk the beaches, they have to be able to start the conversation in a friendly way that opens people to learning more.

How do the Stewards keep it positive when patrolling the beaches?  “I end up talking about dogs a lot,” says Nolan. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked up to a stranger on a beach to ask them what kind of dog they have.  And I do love dogs!”

Once the conversation is rolling, he seizes the opportunity to share a little information about shorebirds and how to be a good neighbor on the beach. He also travels with a telescope that allows people to spot birds long range, which delivers his message better than any prepared talk.

Wilson's Plover and Chick

“If you can show a family a nesting Wilson’s Plover, you have instantly fostered stewardship.  The kids love to see the chicks – and I think I can be unbiased in saying they are some of the cutest babies on the planet.”

It always helps if beach-goers have already heard about shorebirds in other places.  That need for education and awareness is what makes Mary Alice Monroe–whose support for sea turtle conservation has helped spur an army of new volunteers to protect nesting turtles–an important partner in shorebird conservation. Earlier this month, she hosted a nature walk to Bull’s Island with Audubon SC.

Photo: Sally Watts Photography

Monroe’s stories, so often set on our beloved beaches, share conservation messages with general audiences. Beach House for Rent, her upcoming book, draws a parallel between the shorebirds and the heroine who paints them – both are easily alarmed, with beauty entwined with vulnerability at their very core.

We are working together to help spread the message now. With beach parties and boating celebrations, Memorial Day is one of the worst weekends of the year for our shorebirds, many of whom are just trying to wrap up their nesting for the year.

Please respect the signs on closed beaches, avoid scaring birds, and do your best to be a good neighbor as you enjoy your time at the beach. If you see an Audubon Shorebird Steward, let them know you appreciate their work; they will have a prize on hand to share!

And if you are interested in helping the effort, you can contact Nolan at Audubon South Carolina and sign up to be a Shorebird Steward.

Audubon South Carolina is honored to be a beneficiary of Monroe’s BEACH HOUSE FOR RENT Book Launch Celebration on June 24th at Wild Dunes Resort. A portion of proceeds from the event will support the Audubon SC Shorebird Stewards Program.

Written by: Dr. Jessica Hardesty Norris, Audubon Charleston