*** Warning ***
This page contains multiple images of very cute, adorable, fluffy baby birds! These may cause you to care about protecting them and their parents.
Nesting Shorebirds on our Lowcountry Beaches
On an early June day I held a female willet in my hands. She was as light as a.... as a handful of feathers. She was scared and still, until we released her and she flew back to her nest. It was an awesome experience.
That day, I was volunteering with SCDNR to erect more signs on Deveaux Bank to keep boaters and beach walkers away from the nesting birds. We dug holes, put up posts, and installed the signage.
After a quick lunch, Felicia Sanders, the shorebird guru of SCDNR, said we were going to try to catch some willet and put geolocators on them (lightweight electronic archival tracking devices, used by scientists to monitor bird migrations)!!
Four of us held the corners of a mist net horizontally between us a few feet above the ground. We walked slowly and carefully over the grassy area where the willets were known to nest, looking for a bird hiding in the grass. Suddenly, I saw a bird on her nest, just 18 inches from my left foot. Freezing and letting the others know this, we centered the net over the bird then flushed her. Gently catching her, we proceeded to measure and weigh her, put tags and the geolocator on her leg (she is bird #BK119, in case you were wondering). I had the honor of holding this creature in my hands and releasing her.
After releasing her, we went back to see the nest and saw that she had 4 eggs, one of which was hatching.
You've seen willets. They are on our beaches and in the salt marsh year round. You can recognize them by the black and white chevron pattern on their wings as they fly. You probably have not seen willet chicks. Those stay in the grasses, well camouflaged, until they are on their own and look all grown up.
Nests on our beaches and sandbars
Each year various shore and seabirds come to the Lowcountry to breed. Wilson's Plovers, Willets, Oystercatchers, Black Skimmers, Brown Pelicans and Terns (Royal, Sandwich, and Least) all come to find a safe place with abundant food to breed and raise their young.
These birds don't put a lot of effort into building nests. It is often just a literal scrape in the sand (can you find the two nests in this picture?). It is always on the ground. So a safe place is protected from predators like raccoons and foxes with a wide field of vision so they can see threats coming and take defensive (aggressive) action. Once the chicks hatch, they need some dunes and grasses nearby to hide in. Safe spaces for these birds, large sandbars and sand spits with open sand flats, nearby grasses and inaccessible to predatory mammals, are limited.
Also, these birds must nest near abundant food. The parents can't be gone from the nests and chicks for long and they have very hungry mouths to feed. Inlets, salt marshes, and healthy beaches are all productive habitats for the food the birds need. If you see a bird carrying fish in its bill, it is likely taking it home to feed the chicks.
Chicks on our beaches and sandbars
These chicks are born ready to go. They are born precocial, which means that within hours of hatching their eyes are open, they can walk and run around, and they have a nice downy coat. At first, they mostly still rely on parents to provide meals, but gradually, the chicks become stronger and can forage on the ground. Eventually, when they can fly, the parents teach the chicks to hunt on their own in the abundant waters and beaches nearby. (It is fun to watch a parent tern try to convince a fledgling to catch its own food. Lots of screeching and acrobatics.)
The brown pelican chick, which is born altricial vs precocial, (see picture to left - not high on the cuteness curve) is completely dependent on its parents and for a longer time. They stay in the nests for a month or two, vs hours or days for precocial chicks.
Here are lots of gratuitous pictures of adorable precocial chicks and their parents.
Oystercatcher and newborn
Black skimmer and newborn
Least tern and newborns
Wilson's plover chick
Willet and chick
Royal tern chicks
Those Beaches and Sandbars
Did you ever paddle out from Shem Creek to Crab Bank to see the nesting birds? If so, what do you remember most? The smell (ugh!)? The noise? The huge numbers of birds flying overhead? Crab Bank was a gift to us in the Charleston area. It was accessible by kayak and paddleboard and we could get close enough, without disturbing the birds, to really see the birds and nests.
This aerial view of crab bank shows the many nests. The larger dots are pelican nests, the smaller dots are likely terns.
Up close it was a mass of birds, smells, sounds. A visceral experience. (Though this picture was taken from the land, we should never land on the sandbars or get out of our boats. The birds are challenged enough without us traipsing around.)
In 2017, Hurricane Irma washed over the bank and eroded it beyond use for nesting. This happens. By their very nature, the low lying sand and grass areas used by nesting birds are vulnerable to overwash. It was sad to lose this accessible resource, however the story has a happy ending. Crab Bank is back as a nesting site thanks to the hard work of many individuals and organizations. See some of that story here.
Thankfully, we have at least two other sandbars in the Charleston area where the birds are successfully nesting. Bird Key Stono and Deveaux Bank. There are several beach areas and sand spits also in use. These sandbars and the beaches are always changing with the storms. The birds resiliently move to another suitable location when one is lost.
As humans move close to these locations, however, the danger increases that we will run out of safe places for the birds to nest. By building houses on the beaches, we diminish the isolated locations they need. By recreating in the waters and walking the beaches, we disturb the birds when they cannot tolerate the disturbance. When humans add stress to this already stressful time for the birds, breeding success diminishes.
This picture illustrates what happens when we walk too close to nesting terns. They fly away, leaving the eggs exposed. These eggs are now in danger of overheating and predation.
To avoid the stress of human disturbance, birds move on to find other suitable nesting sites. These are becoming harder to find, however.
Some least terns and oystercatchers have adapted by nesting on gravel rooftops. See this article from SCDNR Oystercatchers and this facebook post. Unfortunately, many of the chicks hatched on the rooftops will die by falling off. Nesting on rooftops is not a successful strategy. So if you see terns flying over a flat topped building, let DNR know and they will monitor it.
The nesting birds on our Lowcountry beaches and sandbars face significant challenges from nature. Lets not add to their challenges. Follow these tips from Audubon to be bird-friendly.
It is an amazing thing to be able to experience nature as closely as we can here in the Lowcountry. Take opportunities to do this, to hold a bird in your hands or be surrounded by the cacophony of thousands of nesting shorebirds. But be respectful and responsible. How can you not care about that cute fluffy ball of feathers? Please allow them the safe places they need.