Rookery on Daufuskie Island resort property to be protected by new management plan

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comJune 27, 2013 

More oversight and less access are part of a plan to help a Daufuskie Island resort protect a rookery that has twice been disturbed by employees during the past seven months, a resort spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The plan calls for Melrose on the Beach to appoint a supervisor to oversee the nesting spot for endangered wood storks and other birds on two small islands inside a lagoon near the main hotel. A golf cart path near the rookery will be closed.

Melrose on the Beach communications director Catherine Tillman said the hotel's managing partner, J.T. Bramlette, and other key employees met June 12 with representatives from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the plan.

"We've gone above and beyond to make sure we have open communication and a good relationship to protect the rookery," Tillman said. "We have an understanding of the rules now, and it's been quite an education."

Tillman said golf course superintendent Nick Bright would be the rookery's supervisor.

An auxiliary golf cart path has been deemed too close to the rookery and will be blocked by natural barriers of pine logs, Tillman said.

Educational and warning signs also will be put up around the area, but Tillman said the hotel has to be careful about when the signs are installed.

"What time of day we go out to put up the signs can have an impact on the rookery," she said. "There are a lot of things you wouldn't normally think about that go into this, but we've made sure to educate ourselves on them."

In addition to the supervisor, two Daufuskie Island residents were appointed site monitors by DNR and will record observations of the rookery during weekly checks conducted from a distance. The volunteers will note the number of the wood stork chicks and their age, DNR biologist Christy Hand said.

Monitoring the nests and the number of chicks that fledge, or develop feathers and wings capable of flight, helps DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service determine how well the nesting season went for the endangered birds, Hand said.

Hand hosted an educational event about the rookery that immediately followed the meeting on June 12.

"It was a really productive meeting," she said. "We're in the early stages of working with them, but I look forward to continuing to work with the resort to conserve habitat for the storks and other wading birds," Hand said.

The hotel was criticized in December in December after resort workers damaged the rookery while doing landscaping work nearby, but an investigation by the Beaufort County Code Enforcement Office determined the removal of vegetation there was legal.

Then, on May 30, maintenance workers disturbed the rookery while clearing brush.

Although the brush-clearing didn't damage the rookery, the work caused some wood storks to leave the area, exposing several nests to the elements and likely meaning some of the endangered species' eggs will not hatch.

The incident occurred a day after the resort issued a statement saying it was committed to protecting the rookery.

Laura Winholt, president of the nonprofit Daufuskie Island Conservancy, commended the hotel's meeting with DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service in a press release. The conservancy aims to educate residents and protect the island's ecosystem and natural resources from harm.

"We are relieved and pleased that constructive conversations are finally taking place," she said. "We are confident that Melrose on the Beach is 100 percent committed to doing whatever it takes to properly manage the rookery according to state and federal guidelines."

It is still unknown what impact the disturbance of the rookery by the maintenance crew had on the wood stork eggs. Attempts to reach the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for comment were unsuccessful.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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