Maybe it’s seeing the first rays of sunlight peeking over the horizon while Sanderlings and Willets scamper on the sand sneaking bites to eat, or hearing the calls of Laughing Gulls overhead as Black Skimmers bark in the background—or the fact that I haven’t visited a beach in years—but sunrise at the beach is a magical experience.
This morning, I’m in Charleston, South Carolina exploring Seabrook Island’s coast with my Audubon colleagues. We’re searching for migrating Red Knots, a shorebird that stops over parts of the Atlantic Coast along its 9,000-mile journey to nest in the Arctic. (You can discover its full migration journey with the Bird Migration Explorer.)
Seabrook Island and its neighbor Kiawah Island are two key beaches that the species relies on for survival. Early May is horseshoe crab spawning season, which means the wet sand along islands nearby is filled with their eggs, and outside of spawning, Seabrook Island is rich with donax clams. Horseshoe crab eggs and donax clams are what sustain the knots as they prepare to fly the remainder of their journey to their breeding grounds.
"We get about 40% of the Red Knot Atlantic Coast population—that’s [over] 17,000 birds—that stop on Seabrook and Kiawah Islands in the springtime,” says Allyssa Zebrowski, Audubon South Carolina’s coastal stewardship coordinator.
Like Red Knots, endangered Piping Plovers use South Carolina beaches to rest and feed through the winter before making their way up north to breed. State-threatened Wilson’s Plovers raise their young here—so do state-threatened Least Terns—and 1/3 of the American Oystercatcher’s population find respite on these shores in the winter.
Human disturbance is one of the greatest threats these birds face along the nearly 3,000 miles of South Carolina’s tidal shorelines, whether that’s people walking through resting flocks or unleashed dogs getting too close to nesting birds. That’s why in 2016 Audubon South Carolina launched its Shorebird Stewardship program to conserve these five vulnerable focal species and other coastal birds by educating people about them.
“What started as a seasonal program led into a year-round need for stewardship,” says Nolan Schillerstrom, Audubon South Carolina’s coastal program associate. “We realized…that it really needed a year-round effort, not only to focus on the non-breeding birds but to continue the momentum from year to year.”
Now, depending on the year, Audubon South Carolina sends volunteers called Shorebird Stewards to 10 to 13 different coastal sites to prevent human disturbance. The stewards undergo training each year to learn more about coastal birds and their behaviors. They also are trained on how to talk to beachgoers to get them to care about the birds. Plus, they help post signs alerting people to birds nesting or resting nearby.
“It’s all about getting out there, watching out for the birds, and telling other people to [be mindful of] the birds,” says Zebrowski.
The Shorebird Stewardship program works with a variety of partners to reduce human disturbance, including Seabrook Island Birders, which runs the volunteer program at their beach site.
We’re joined by a couple of the birders today on our walk to find the Red Knots. Many of the beachgoers they encounter are their neighbors and visitors to the private island, so they have their own way of telling people to look out for the birds.
“I like to tell people a story about the birds to make them feel sympathetic towards them,” says Lesley Gore, one of the program coordinators. “I’ll tell them how many miles the Red Knots are going to fly and that it’s very important for them to gain their weight [undisturbed].”
It’s clear that stewardship plays a vital role in protecting beach birds across the country. A recent study led by Audubon’s science team found that four vulnerable coastal bird species’ populations grew 2 to 34 times faster at stewardship sites rather than birds in only protected areas.
Audubon South Carolina is already seeing positive results from the program. “We do see the improved nesting success of the American Oystercatcher, the Wilson’s Plover, and the Least Tern [at sites we help manage],” says Zebrowski. That nesting success is combined with the program’s growing number of volunteers and increased notoriety each year.
And it’s a good thing too, because shorebirds as a whole are at risk in North America. In fact, the continent’s shorebirds have declined by 70% since the 1970s.
“That’s the stat that we always think of when we’re on the ground,” says Schillerstrom. “We want to tern that around and give these birds a fighting chance here on the beach.”
After passing breeding American Oystercatcher pairs, diving Brown Pelicans, and soaring Osprey, we finally reach an inlet that gives us a view of the Red Knots, though they’re on Kiawah Island today. We watch them huddle en masse on the shoreline, preening and calling.
To be able to capture photos and footage, from a safe distance, we visit Kiawah Island the next day and make another trek in hopes of catching the knots at the right time. At first, we find them across the inlet on Seabrook Island, but suddenly, when the tide rises to the perfect height, the birds flock to the sky, flying back and forth over the water uniformly as they murmurate, creating mesmerizing patterns with their striking orange bellies and mottled gray backs.
They land on our side of the inlet, on Kiawah, and begin running along the shoreline, giving us the perfect opportunity to capture their essence. I watch their activity in awe, knowing that in just a few weeks, they will be making the last leg of their journey up north to breed. It reminds me of why we must all do our part to protect them so that they can exist for future generations.
I’m also reminded of a conversation we had with a shorebird steward volunteer, Nancy Chomel, who we met the day before at Seabrook Island. When asked what makes her passionate about protecting coastal birds, she replies, “In saving the birds, we save ourselves.”
Isn’t that what it’s all about?
To learn more about Audubon South Carolina’s coastal conservation efforts, including how to become a volunteer Shorebird Steward, visit their website.