CHARLESTON, SC (June 15, 2021) – It’s not every day that someone discovers a new science show about bird migration. It is even more unexpected that such an encounter – in this case, tens of thousands of shorebirds flocking together on their annual journey north – would be a stone’s throw from a metropolitan area. But two years ago, that’s exactly what happened on the coast of South Carolina.
In May 2019, Felicia Sanders, a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), and a team of researchers confirmed that about 20,000 Curlew Corlis roost at night on a small island during their spring migration. The team again documented similar numbers in 2020. This flock alone comprises almost half of the estimated eastern population of declining shorebirds: a staggering sight hidden in plain sight. The results were recently published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Study of waders.
Sanders has dedicated his career to protecting South Carolina’s coastal birds. After decades of exploring the coast, few are more familiar with how shorebirds and seabirds use the state’s salt marshes, tidal streams and barrier islands. But when Sanders got a hunch about the large number of crows she saw congregating at Deveaux Bank – a small island just 20 miles south of Charleston – she could hardly believe what she had found.
“A lot of people were skeptical, but after compiling the results of surveys coordinated by other birders and the video documentation, we are certain of the size of the herd,” said Sanders. “Finding so many curlews here gives me hope that we can turn the tide for this and other declining shorebird species.”
Raven curlews are remarkable large shorebirds known for their downward curving beaks, which are ideally suited for picking fiddler crabs in muddy burrows. Like many shorebirds, they migrate incredible distances every year across the Western Hemisphere, facing threats such as habitat loss and overhunting along the way. Over the past 25 years, the Whimbrel has declined by two-thirds in the Atlantic Flyway, the eastern portion of its population. Finding a roost of this size – the largest known for the species – is critically important to successfully protecting this rare shorebird.
After spending the winter on the coasts of South America, curlews fly thousands of miles north to nest and raise their young in the subarctic regions of Canada and Alaska. They usually only make one stop along the way. For many of these birds, this stopover is in South Carolina, where they roost and feed on rich coastal nutrients that will fuel their breeding season.
At high tide and at night, when foraging habitat and other safe roosting sites are inundated, Curlew Corlis congregate for protection. They seek out large, isolated refuges offshore like Deveaux Bank, where disturbance from humans and predators is minimal. But relatively few such places remain along the Atlantic coast.
“The fact that a phenomenon of such global significance is happening right here in our own backyards is truly something to be proud of,” said Sanders. “And I think it’s really important to understand that biologists aren’t the only ones who care about these birds. Local communities are taking over places close to their homes. You really need a village to protect places too. important than Deveaux. “
Riley Bradham, mayor and longtime resident of nearby Rockville, agrees. “It’s a special place,” said Bradham, who has visited Deveaux all his life and worked for years with the SCDNR to protect the birds on the sensitive island. “We all love it, but it’s one of the last special places.”
In early 2019, Sanders’ discovery inspired a collaboration between the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the University of South Carolina, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and conservation nonprofit Manomet to survey and film this nocturnal roost during the peaks of migration in April and May. For optimum visibility, shorebird biologists, as well as videographers specializing in filming sensitive wild animals, converged on Deveaux on full moon nights as flocks of corlis corlis arrived during and after dusk.
“We worked to visually document what Felicia and the team discovered here, as this truly unique sight underscores the value of the untouched wilderness on our southeastern coasts,” said Andy Johnson, who led a team from the Cornell Lab’s Center for Conservation Media to film the roost of the Whimbrel.
A shorebird perch of this magnitude offers a glimpse of the abundance that was once prevalent on the Atlantic coast, and now a testament to South Carolina’s commitment to coastal habitat conservation.
“There is only one place in the world, one place on Earth where 20,000 raven curlews land on an ephemeral island of truly insignificant size,” says Chris Crolley, naturalist, guide and CEO of Coastal Expeditions, based in Charleston. “It’s Deveaux Bank. Just off the coast of South Carolina. It’s just phenomenal, isn’t it? It’s nothing less than that.”
The Deveaux Bank Seabird Sanctuary is closed year round above the high water mark, except for areas designated by signs for limited recreational use (beaches at ends of the island, facing inside the ground). From March 15 to October 15, some beaches on the island are closed for the seasonal nesting of coastal birds and are demarcated by fences. Dogs and camping are prohibited all year round.
YOU ARE INVITED: On Tuesday June 22 at 6 p.m., join the team that made the discovery in Deveaux for a free virtual screening and a round table. Click here to learn more and register: http: // bit.
Sanders, FJ, MC Handmaker, AS Johnson and NR Senner. The nocturnal roost on the coast of South Carolina supports nearly half of the Atlantic Coast’s Hudsonian Curlew population Numenius hudsonicus when migrating north. Study of waders 128 (2). DOI: 10.18194 / ws.00228
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