Crab Bank is back as a beacon for saving seabirds
Declining populations of sea and shorebirds are finding their way back to Crab Bank for the island's second nesting season since being restored following decades of erosion and hurricanes
Charleston, S.C.- Janet Thibault deliberately walks where people are not allowed, a sandy, shade less island in the Charleston Harbor covered with tiny toe tracks. The wildlife biologist is keeping a close eye on the intimate lives of sea and shorebirds.
“Alright, I think we have another nest,” says Thibault peering through a giant spotting scope. “I see two birds incubating.”
Thibault works for the Department of Natural resources which owns the island and closes it for summer so birds can safely nest away from predators and people. It’s a critical time for the seabird sanctuary known as Crab Bank.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma wiped out what was left of the eroding sliver of land which had served as a nesting ground for sea and shorebirds for more than a half century. Thousands of birds were suddenly left without a place to nest or rest during long migrations until last summer when the newly restored island closed again for them between March and October.
The birds are still finding their way back.
“Okay, we got chicks,” says Thibault as she spots a nest decorated with shells and twigs. The adult parents who built it have slyly walked away to try to distract visitors.
“So, this is a freshly hatched American oyster catcher chick,” explains Thibault carefully checking out the nest and taking notes in her field book. “There’s a second egg starting to peep out, so the chick is breaking the shell.”
A fluffy, beige and white chick with big feet stares at the speckled egg beside him. The sibling egg is cracked and a barely visible beak, peeps.
The baby oyster catchers' beaks will eventually grow bright orange and flat, knife-like to pry open the salty, shelled delicacies for which they’re named. Thibault does what she needs and quickly leaves so the parents she hears calling will come back.
Nearby, graceful skimmers belly flop into the sand, creating a shallow space to lay their eggs. Tiny, yellow billed least terns dangle fish as they fly, hoping to entice a mate. And white bellied wilson’s plovers sprout new plumage, looking sharp for their big date.
Plovers, once parents, become quite protective, even feigning a broken wing to lure predators away from their nests.
“They’re just trying to raise a family,” says Thibault.
Thibault is pleased by what she sees. She hopes this season, Crab Bank will surpass the more than 500 nests she helped track last summer. Although before its demise, the island saw ten times as many. Thibault worries about the future of ocean birds.
“Their life depends on these spits of sand,” she says.
A recent study shows a sharp decline in nearly all shorebird species along the Atlantic Coast, losing more than 50 percent of their population since 1980. The findings are part of a collaboration between researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Coastal Expeditions owner Chris Crolley is concerned too. His company provides tours and wildlife education. He fears birds are being squeezed out, not only by pollution and development, but by climate change.
“Coastal squeeze is the idea that as the water continues to rise, the birds have nowhere to go,” says Crolley.
Crolley was part of the fight to save Crab Bank after it literally went under. At the time, the Army Corp of Engineers was dredging the Charleston Harbor and found fossil filled sediment suitable to rebuild the island, only it was cheaper to dump the dredge spoil elsewhere.
So, Crolley and others helped DNR raise the roughly $1 million needed.
“And then we just watched crab bank manifest out of beneficial dredge spoil spewing pipe,” says Crolley.
It took seven weeks to rebuild the seabird sanctuary. Project manager Jeff Livasy says the experience was eye opening.
“I’m an engineer. We know about moving material and that type of thing but to learn about the birds and habitats,” says Livasy. “It was amazing to be a part of that.”
Livasy says the Army Corp. has set a goal of beneficially reusing 70 percent of all dredge materials. It also plans to put sand on Bird Key Stono, another seabird sanctuary, as it re-nourishes Folly Beach just south of Charleston.
Crolley likes the sound of that. The state already spends millions re-nourishing beaches for people, why not set aside sand for creatures that need it.
“This is real life birds fighting to survive,” he says.
Crowley watches nesting on crab bank from his boat. He’s delighted by colonies of black skimmers flying by with their nasally call. A bald eagle perches on an island sign warning people not to come ashore. And a white egret swoops down and elegantly sits beside him.
Birds, Crolley says, not only need our help, they deserve it.