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A Champion for Beach Birds

Morning light glitters on the open water.  The beach is heating up fast.  Carl Cole squints at joggers and sunbathers.  At the far end he can see a motorboat, just anchored.  Cole feels his jaw tighten.  Four boaters and an off-leash dog are heading straight for the nest of an American Oystercatcher.

Oystercatchers could be in peril in the Carolinas — they aren't producing as many chicks here as elsewhere.  In this particular estuary, they nest just once or twice each year.  If people or dogs scare the birds off their nest, the eggs will likely fry in the sun.  Grabbing his hat, Carl Cole begins trotting up the beach as fast as he can. 

Shorebird Stewards

Cole, a retired IT manager, is an Audubon Shorebird Steward at Lighthouse Inlet, on the Northeast end of Folly Beach.  At high tide here, there’s just a thin strip of beach between wild water and wild land.  Behind the beach are dunes, then acres of salt marsh and pluff mud pocked with tidal pools. 

The fascinating overlap of habitats, plus a view of the Morris Island Lighthouse, make this a tremendously popular spot.  But the narrow high-tide beach puts visitors on a collision course with birds that nest in both the wrack and the dunes. 

These birds include American Oystercatchers, whose Atlantic populations have seen a century of decline but are now increasing slightly due to conservation efforts.  They also include Willets and Wilson's Plovers, which are in trouble as well. 

All three species face threats that are typical for coastal birds, including overfishing, habitat loss, and human disturbance.  Due to these and other challenges, shorebird and seabird populations worldwide have declined 70 percent in the last few decades.

Saving a Nest

To help arrest these declines, Audubon South Carolina recruits Shorebird Stewards for Folly Beach and for Dewees, Kiawah, Seabrook, Hunting, and Harbor Islands.  Carl Cole is a particularly faithful volunteer.

Rushing along the beach that day, Cole could see the boaters approaching the oystercatcher nest.  Their energetic young spaniel raced forward, nose down.  Gauging the distance Cole realized — there’s no way I’ll get there before they do. 

Then, something remarkable happened.  Approaching Cole was a friendly young man he’d met an hour before.  They’d talked at length about threats to birds.  “No worries,” the young man said, grinning from ear to ear.  “I told ‘em about you.  Look!  They’re heading back to the boat now to leash their dog.”

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.  And once the nest was saved, the boaters asked Cole to tell them all about the birds. 

The Razor's Edge

Each year, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does its best to protect typical nesting spots at Lighthouse Inlet.  They post signs with string running between them to keep people off the dunes — and off the nests, too, which are virtually invisible in the sand. 

Still, people duck under the strings.  And in spring and fall, they disturb exhausted birds that rest here during their marathon migrations.  Migratory shorebirds struggle with so many stresses worldwide that just a few flights to avoid humans and dogs can threaten a bird’s survival.

Keith McCullough, who coordinates natural history interpretation at Lighthouse Inlet for Charleston Parks, often sees birds disturbed.  Beachgoers, McCullough says, will send a child or dog dashing through a big group of shorebirds and seabirds just to snap a picture of them wheeling in the air.  Similar photos appear in the local press, with cheerful captions.

“There’s really no thought,” McCullough adds ruefully, “about the razor’s edge these birds sit on between life and death.”

Positive Response

Which is exactly why our beaches need Shorebird Stewards.  On Sunday mornings through the summer, Carl Cole sits at the entrance to this beach with a sign that says, “Ask Me About the Birds.”  His approach is always gentle.  When someone ducks under DNR’s protective string into prime nesting habitat, he might say, “Hey ... good morning ... can I tell you about the birds?”   

And people respond well.  “The overwhelming majority,” Cole says, “get really engaged.”  People choose to come back when the tide is lower, so they can walk farther from the dunes and not disturb birds.  Or they move themselves and their dogs to an entirely different part of Folly Beach. 

From the nest that Cole protected that day, two chicks hatched and made it at least to near-adult size (that's the last time they were spotted).  His reward for a job well done included scores of positive conversations, as well as an intimate look at birds whose presence on the South Carolina coast may not last forever. 

“I got so tickled,” he remembers, “watching this oystercatcher chick imitating his parents, chasing off Laughing Gulls way bigger than him.  I could practically hear him saying, ‘Hey ma, look at me!’”

Bigger Changes

Felicia Sanders, a wildlife biologist with DNR, enjoys this same intimate view of coastal birds all the time.  She and her colleagues keep track of the declines and upticks in our state's seabird and shorebird numbers.  So she’s acutely aware of the need to build public will to strengthen the laws and policies that can stabilize their fragile populations.

“Shorebird Stewards do critical outreach," Sanders says, "to change the perspective of the general public.  And only with their help can we make even bigger changes happen for South Carolina’s coastal birds.”
 

To become a Shorebird Steward, contact Nolan Schillerstrom at nschillerstrom@audubon.org.

Shorebird Stewards protect newly-hatched chicks like these American Oystercatchers. Photo: Christopher Ciccone