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SC Coastal Bird Conservation program focus turns to new protection and conservation efforts.

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Cape Romain Shorebird Steward Jennifer Cahill talks with visitors on the beach near the southern tip of Lighthouse Island.

With plans for the re-nourishment of Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary firmly in place, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ (SCDNR) S.C. Coastal Bird Conservation program (SCCBC) has begun to focus on additional projects.

Most recently the SCCBC, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), is providing an extra layer of protection for seabird colonies in one of the Palmetto State’s most critical nesting spots. SCDNR recently hired a Shorebird Steward to protect and monitor shorebirds and seabirds in the Cape Romain region north of Charleston, an important first step in SCCBC’s efforts to expand its coastal bird conservation efforts beyond last year’s successful drive to fund the re-nourishment effort.

“Cape Romain is one of the most important places for shorebirds and seabirds in South Carolina,” said SCDNR wildlife biologist Felicia Sanders, “so focusing protection efforts here can have positive effects on avian populations range-wide.” Sanders oversees SCDNR’s coastal bird research, management and protection efforts.

Last year, this part of the coast accounted for half of South Carolina’s black skimmer nests and 70% of the state’s royal and sandwich tern nests. Approximately half of South Carolina’s oystercatchers are found here. Cape Romain is also a part of the “Cape Romain – Santee Delta Region” that was recently recognized and expanded as a “Site of International Importance” by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. This special designation highlights a 50-mile stretch of the South Carolina coast for supporting more than 100,000 migratory shorebirds annually, including approximately 15% of the U.S. Eastern and Gulf Coast populations of American oystercatchers and 11% of short-billed dowitchers.

“Neighbor to neighbor education and stewardship is a critical piece of coastal bird conservation work in South Carolina,” said Nolan Schillerstrom, Coastal Program Associate with Audubon South Carolina. “Considering the hemispheric importance of Cape Romain nesting islands, hiring a guardian for Cape Romain's coastal birds was a critical next project for the Coastal Bird Conservation program to prioritize and fund.”

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Black skimmer chicks on the nest; skimmers often lay their eggs directly on the ground, usually on islands or remote beaches.

The barrier island beaches along South Carolina’s coast are also a popular destination for human visitors in the spring and summer. Cape Romain’s beaches are accessible via boat and located near the expanding coastal cities of Charleston and Mount Pleasant. On busy weekends and holidays during the nesting season (May to August), the new steward, Jennifer Cahill, boats to seabird colonies on the barrier islands to educate beachgoers about shorebirds and seabirds and the detrimental effects of human disturbance to nesting birds. She points out key species nesting in the colonies and steers visitors to open areas of the beach. Her observations update SCDNR and USFWS biologists about nesting success and provide insight to causes of colony failure, important data for guiding management of nesting areas.

“Jennifer has been working and living in Cape Romain NWR for the last three years and is very familiar with the area and comfortable on the waterways,” added Sanders. She is knowledgeable of local natural history and has professional experience interacting with people gained from years as an EMT and a dispatcher at a fire department. Her smile and fantastic personality have put bird conservation on the minds of many people in the area, and her presence has already resulted in increased nesting success at large seabird colonies.”

During the Memorial Day weekend, Cahill was stationed at the southern tip of Lighthouse Island in the Cape Romain NWR, where least tern and black skimmer colonies are protected by signage and barriers to limit human impacts on their nesting grounds. Here, she was able to interact with more than 100 people each day. Due to limited state and federal staff, this is the first time these colonies have had a guardian. Cahill’s report of those initial weekends spent patrolling the islands and interacting with the public underscore the value of this position. From the report:

“Many of the visitors are familiar with the fact that they are on a barrier island, but few seem to understand that this island is part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Some of the different educational topics I have discussed are species identification, the importance of Cape Romain’s beaches and waterways to the birds who nest here, numerical data of the species that nest there, geography of Cape Romain Region, history of the Lighthouse, loggerhead sea turtle data, colony behavior, local predators, results of human interaction/disturbance to colonies, the importance of the “No Dogs Allowed on the Refuge” rules, chick and parental behaviors, why “flushing” an entire colony can result in chick death, and many, many other topics.”

SCDNR and the SCCBC program partner organizations would like to thank all of the individuals and businesses who donated money to get the program up and running. In years to come, the hope is that other successful endeavors undertaken by the SCCBC program will be a continuing source of support for coastal bird conservation and research along the entire coast of the Palmetto State.

Working with a group of interested organizations, including Audubon South Carolina, the Coastal Conservation League, the Coastal Expeditions Foundation, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation and many others, SCDNR coordinates the efforts of the SCCBC under the Nongame and Natural Areas Trust Fund (SC Code of Laws §50-1-280). This program provides a means for SCDNR to collect donations to support coastal bird conservation efforts in South Carolina. To learn more about how you can help through actions or financial support, please visit the SCCBC website.

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