Lately, downtown residents and visitors have noticed something unusual on the roof of a Charleston County School District office building on Calhoun Street: a pair of nesting oystercatchers. An iconic Lowcountry shorebird with yellow eyes and a vivid red-orange bill, the American Oystercatcher typically nests on beach sand or oyster shell rakes. However, in recent years, they’ve had to get more creative as natural nesting habitat becomes increasingly scarce.
“Nesting on gravel rooftops is a unique and interesting adaptation to a lack of natural nesting habitat, but it is also a clear sign that something is wrong. There isn’t anywhere left for these birds to go,” says Nolan Schillerstrom, Audubon South Carolina’s Coastal Program Coordinator.
“Before oystercatcher chicks are able to fly, they face a gauntlet of threats,” says Schillerstrom. “Everything from crows, gulls, and raccoons want to eat those little buggers. However, what we worry about most is the hot summer sun overheating and killing chicks or the chicks falling off the rooftop and getting run over by a car.”
With the initial distance from the rooftop to the pavement being 60 feet, the chicks must also be proficient flyers to have a successful landing. “The first step better be a good one as there is little room for error,” said Ray Swagerty, an employee in the building who has been monitoring the nesting pair since 2017.
When Swagerty first spotted the pair, he immediately reported it to South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), which had only received one other report of American Oystercatchers nesting on a gravel roof in South Carolina up until then.
Swagerty kept detailed notes about the oystercatchers’ nesting habits that first year, and again when they returned in 2018 and 2019. In his notes, he recalls seeing a chick from the first nest in traffic on Calhoun Street, where pedestrians tried to shoo it back to the sidewalk as adult oystercatchers screamed to the chick from nearby. The next morning, Swagerty saw the young bird walking down the middle of the nearby train tracks with a parent following close behind.
His last record from 2017 reads, “Did it fly there? Did it survive a walk across the intersection of East Bay and Calhoun as a pedestrian? It was never relocated so I do not know what became of it.”
Swagerty was elated when the pair returned in 2018 to nest, but yet again the oystercatcher chicks failed to make it to the water, each dying within a few weeks of hatching.
Between climate change, sea-level rise, and human disturbance, this isn’t something we can sit down about,” said Mary-Catherine Martin, a wildlife biologist with SCDNR who focuses her work on rooftop nesting birds, primarily Least Tern and occasionally American Oystercatchers.
“All of our shorebirds are in decline and they need our help,” said Martin.
This year, Martin and Swagerty are working together to give these birds a fighting chance, providing shade for them and installing chicken wire fencing to prevent the hatchlings from falling before they learn to fly. So far things are looking up, as it appears that this year’s chicks are better flyers and have left the roof and returned successfully. You may even see one of the chicks wandering around downtown Charleston as some locals have reported.
As the landscape and weather patterns change and increasing numbers of beachgoers encroach upon the places the shorebirds and seabirds used to nest in peace, groups like Audubon SC and SCDNR are working hard to protect our declining coastal birds from human disturbance and displacement. If you want to get involved and make a difference for coastal birds that need your help, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (843) 459-2473, or visit sc.audubon.org/coasts.