Biologists from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources have discovered at least 732 wading-bird nesting sites on Fripp, Harbor and Hunting islands.
The survey, conducted this spring, marks the first time scientists hand-counted nesting areas on the northern Beaufort County islands. The results confirm what many bird watchers long have suspected.
"What this tells us is that we have a very healthy population of birds that are nesting and raising young ones in an environment that's very comfortable and safe for them," said Pete Richards, president of the Fripp Island Audubon Society. "It's very protected."
Data collected in the survey could have many applications, including development of a baseline to compare against future counts. It also could be used to boost the region's appeal as an eco-tourism and bird-watching destination.
"We have been working on letting people know that the Beaufort barrier islands (are) an important area and a great tourist attraction," said John Albert, a Harbor Island resident and Fripp Island Audubon Society board member.
"When we're doing advertising, it won't hurt to say we have 'X number' of nesting birds here," he said.
According to the survey, Harbor Island has at least 656 nesting sites for great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, green heron and other species. At least 20 such sites were found on Hunting Island, and 56 were spotted on Fripp.
The disparity was not unexpected. Harbor Island has more fresh water than the others, making it more appealing to the birds, Albert said.
Details about the nest count, including when it was conducted and how many state biologists were involved, were not available Friday. Christy Hand, the state's wading-bird biologist, was unavailable for comment.
In addition to confirming hunches about wading-bird populations, the survey suggests salt marshes and lagoons on these and hundreds of nearby islands remain hospitable to migratory birds, such as red knots and piping plovers.
"The important thing is to make sure the environment stays that way," Richards said.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.