This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and ocean are changing and what it means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea.
A semipalmated plover is one of those flitting little birds in the wash on the beach, small enough to fit in the palm of you hand, not much heavier than a shuttlecock.
So imagine seeing one of them through binoculars on Raccoon Key in Cape Romain, then spotting its tagging band. Using the band information, that particular bird is traced back to a research team in subarctic Hudson Bay — more than 2,000 miles away from the subtropical Lowcountry.
Then imagine just how precarious the little bird’s life is.
That plover sighting led to an invitation for S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist Felicia Sanders to join the Trent University research team studying migrating shorebird nesting grounds on the Canadian tundra. She was there for the second season earlier this month.
Plovers are among any number of Lowcountry shorebirds and wading birds that make that trip every summer, nesting briefly in the food-rich tundra before returning to spend most of the year here. The species are too many to name — woodcocks, long-tailed ducks, bitterns, dunlins. The list just goes on.
Many of them are in decline, as are bird species around the world. They need both of the habitats — worlds apart in distance and climate — to survive. So, the more that researchers on each end can learn about each other’s work, the better they can dovetail their efforts to conserve the species.
The opportunity to do that, paid by the Canadian team, is rare for a state biologist. For Georgia-born Sanders, it was an otherworldly trip. When her hip waders sunk into the ooze on the study’s nesting ground at the edge of the vast Hudson Bay, the bay was still partly frozen over, haunted by icebergs, seals and Beluga whales. The view seemed endless.
Then there was the mandatory polar bear survival training.
“I just realized I was far, far, far from home,” she said.
Hordes of nesting birds were everywhere — and more spectacular than she could have dreamed. With a short span of time and a lot of ground to cover to find a mate, individual birds put on daredevil breeding displays en masse, racing high in the air, diving, flapping and screaming.
It doesn’t take long to figure out why the birds migrate so far. Their food is insects. In the Arctic like the Lowcountry, insects show up in clouds. The worst were black flies, which crawled into workers’ clothes and bit them while they were trying to do their jobs.
Team members couldn’t go out to the grounds without someone carrying a shotgun for bears. The ammo was cracker shell, or shellcrackers — loud fireworks projectiles to scare off the bears — but the last shell was buckshot.
From that work, the team and DNR have begun a long-term collaborative project to band birds in both habitats. The Canadian team has traveled to the Lowcountry to study, too, and from the experience, both sets of researchers have a better understanding of how the birds behave throughout their life cycle.
“Seeing what the birds do in the winter, whether they might be limited by food or predators, and how it differs from when they’re nesting ...” said researcher Laura McKinnon of the Canadian team. “It’s a better approach.”
But the best thing to come out of the work might just have been the hours Sanders spent in the plane over miles and miles and miles of Canadian tundra. The birds make that 2,000-mile flight with only one or two stops.
“Sitting in the airplane, flying over this vast expanse of the subarctic, I realized how amazing these birds are, how intriguing, how fascinating. A lot of people think of them as Arctic birds. But they spend August to May here. I feel like they’re South Carolina birds, or maybe South Carolina and Arctic birds,” she said.
She can now tell that story better, and maybe inspire more people to do more to protect those little birds scampering through the tide wash.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.