Lowcountry island is late summer migration stop

A pair of rare reddish egrets are photographed on Harbor Island on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. (Jay Karr/Island Packet)

BEAUFORT, S.C. (AP) — An amazing sight flies into Harbor Island in late summer and early fall each year, Mary Ann Radke says.

Thousands of birds halt their migration and fill the sandbars, ponds and shores of the island.

“There’s just all these wings in the sky,” said the co-chairwoman of the Harbor Island Owners Association’s environmental committee. “You just want to fall down; it’s so beautiful.”

Harbor Island is one of a handful of locations singled out in the fourth edition of the Audubon Society’s State of the Birds report, published every other year.

“As the gateway to the Beaufort Barrier Islands Important Bird Area, the Harbor Island Owners Association developed a number of regulations to protect coastal wildlife,” the report reads. “... The association is a model for citizen-based conservation efforts.”

Working with local, state and federal agencies to protect the birds and their habitat is a matter of pride for property owners, according to John Albert, president of the Harbor Island Owners Association. An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 birds each year use the area as a rookery, he said.

“Part of it is because we have so much habitat here. We have a big sandbar and offshore sites that are big breeding areas for these birds,” Albert said.

Harbor is also home to five rookeries, which it owes in part to its early development. Canals were planned as an island amenity and to provide sand for roads, Albert said. Grand plans for a dock for every home and a hotel were abandoned, and what were to become canals became storm water basins, instead.

As they filled up and plants grew in, they became great nesting areas, Albert said.

Harbor Island is an important birding area and the start of the 10,000-acre, six-island Beaufort Barrier Island Important Bird Area, according to Pete Richards, president of the Fripp Audubon Club. Local bird groups are trying to get the area recognized as an internationally important birding area.

“Harbor is a very unique spot,” Richards said. “It is considered a ‘hot spot’ because it is a key nesting place on the migration north.”

As for human residents, the island is home to 12 certified master naturalists, Albert said, and has an active environmental committee.

“You’ve got to see the place to see the motivation here,” Albert said. “We’ve been very fortunate, and we want to keep it that way.”

Throughout the year, residents provide local and regional education classes at places like Hunting Island State Park and the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Last year, Harbor, Fripp and Hunting islands sponsored their first bird fair with field trips and classes, which could be held every other year in the future, Albert said.

Residents work with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among other groups, to track threatened and endangered birds, including piping plovers, red knots and painted buntings, Albert said.

Harbor Island residents also track horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are a vital food source for migrating birds that will fly for days without stopping, and rest on Harbor before continuing their treks, Albert said.

“The red knots, they come up from Argentina and they’ll stop there just at the same time the horseshoe crabs come in, and they’ll fatten up to continue their journey,” Richards said.


Information from: The Beaufort Gazette, http://www.beaufortgazette.com