Untamed Lowcountry

How you can help migrating birds rest up on Hilton Head

Tens of thousands of shorebirds are expected to fly through South Carolina during their migration south, and Hilton Head beachgoers are being asked to help make their stopover a restful one.

“When you see birds on the beach, don’t chase them,” Nolan Schillerstrom, Audubon South Carolina coastal program coordinator, said Tuesday. “They are on our beaches in the fall and spring because they are trying to refuel as much as possible. Those short flies cause them to lose a lot of energy.”

Numerous species, including plovers and pipers, will fly thousands of miles to winter farther south between now and early November, Schillerstrom said.

The red knot sandpiper can, at times, migrate up to 10,000 miles, Schillerstrom said.

“Migration is tough for any bird, but these birds have a long journey,” Schillerstrom said. “The worry is that they won’t make it through the rest of migration. Sometimes birds won’t make it to their nesting or wintering ground. They just couldn’t eat or rest enough, so they will perish.”

Chasing birds can be a fun game for children to play, but it is harmful to the bird populations, Schillerstrom said.

“It is as though someone is sitting in a food court, and a tricky kid decides to pull the fire alarm, and everyone has to go outside and leave their food,” Schillerstrom said. “Then they go back in, and someone does it again.”

It is best to stay a distance away from the birds, Schillerstrom said.

“If you are altering their behavior, then you are causing them to expend a lot of unnecessary energy,” Schillerstrom said.

The island is welcoming a couple of wintering population of shorebirds. This includes the piping plover and red knot sandpiper — both near-threatened birds.

The town has a monitoring program for both birds, said Scott Liggett, Town of Hilton Head director of public projects and facilities.

“We identify where they exist and in what number,” Liggett said. “Some of these birds are banded, and we collect that information. We are working to increase the understanding of their habitat preferences.”

The program has determined that piping plovers choose to winter on the island’s northside along Mitchelville and Fish Haul Park beaches, Liggett said. He said the monitoring program for the red knot sandpiper has just started, and their preferred location is still unknown.

Information gathered through the program is passed to state and federal government wildlife departments, Liggett said.

The town’s current renourishment project’s timeline was altered so as not to scare away the piping plovers, Liggett said. He said the project kicked off at Mitchelville Beach, so work would be moved out of the area by July — the earliest the bird could arrive to the island.

Town officials also have started an educational campaign about the birds, Liggett said.

“We have added signage about the presence of the birds,” Liggett said. “It notes how people and dogs could disrupt the activity.”

The Town of Hilton Head also posted information on how to protect the migrating shorebirds via its Facebook page earlier this week.

The post links to the South Carolina Shorebird Project at scshorebirdproject.org.

Other birds you are likely to see while strolling the beach include the black-bellied plover, semipalmated plover, western sandpiper and semipalmated sandpiper. Most of these birds are just passing through on their journey.

Beachgoers could get lucky and see a few rare birds with a trip to the beach, he said. Such species could include an American avocet or ruddy turnstone sandpiper.


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Teresa Moss: 843-706-8152, @TeresaIPBG