A chain of islands in Beaufort County has been earmarked by the National Audubon Society as an important bird area, a designation intended to identify and protect habitat for local and migrating birds.
The Beaufort Barrier Islands IBA consists of Harbor, Hunting, Fripp, Pritchard's, Old and Capers islands and spans more than 16 miles, according to a news release from the state Audubon Society and Fripp Island Audubon president Pete Richards.
Richards said local residents were instrumental in achieving the designation, which they sought after realizing the wealth of bird life on the islands.
"We were asked to do a study to monitor piping plovers by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Richards said. "When we started looking at (all the islands) and talking about it, we realized there was a much bigger picture here."
The National Audubon Society established the Important Bird Area Program in 1995. There are 2,000 IBAs around the country and 49 in South Carolina, including three in Beaufort County: Morse Creek Inlet/Bay Point Island, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Reserve and Sea Pines Forest Preserve.
The goal is to identify, monitor and protect a global network for the conservation of the world's birds, according to the National Audubon Society.
"Designating an area as an IBA doesn't necessarily guarantee it legal protection," said John Cecil, the national director of the IBA program. But it does distinguish the area as important habitat for birds and can be used as leverage to direct conservation resources to areas that need it most.
At the Beaufort Barrier Islands, bird inventories will aid national research efforts, which are used to set priorities on preserving bird habitat, Richards said.
"What we feel about it is that this is a legacy issue for Beaufort County," Richards said. "It is a gift for future generations."
Endangered Species in Beaufort Barrier Islands Important Bird Area: wood storks, bald eagles, Wilson's plover, least tern, piping plover, little blue heron, glossy ibis, American oyster catcher, black skimmer, gull-billed tern and painted bunting
Other numerous birds: brown pelican, laughing gull, ring-billed gull, black-bellied plover, hooded merganser, common tern, black skimmer, osprey, cormorants, willet, sanderling, cedar waxwing, tree swallow, and various egrets, herons and wrens.