‘Bird sitters’ to help protect skimmer nesting grounds

Wildlife biologists are keeping an eye on skimmers.

Black skimmers glide along, inches above the surf, their bright orange bills slicing the water for fish. The birds are one of those elegant Lowcountry exotics, the sort of creature that makes people watch and say “Wow.”

And they are a state species of concern; wildlife biologists are keeping close watch on the population, which might be in trouble.

So what’s happening at remote Deveaux Bank might just be one of those watershed moments in coastal conservation.

Nearly 300 black skimmer nests have been laid this year on the rookery sandbar between Seabrook and Edisto islands. That’s twice as many as were laid at Bird Key Stono, Crab Bank and Castle Pinckney combined, the other three mid-state rookeries managed by S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Last year on Deveaux, no chicks survived. In 2011, no chicks survived. This year, the young birds’ survival could be up to an irregular flotilla of kayak and small boat “bird sitters.” And ultimately, to us.

Skimmers are skittish. When they’re approached, “their immediate response is to flush,” en masse, said Janet Thibault, DNR wildlife biologist. Once the flock is flushed from the nests, the wary birds take a long time to come back. The eggs get overheated or preyed on. For the past two years, that has killed the chicks, along with flood tides overwashing the nests. The birds tend to nest on the low stretches of islands only inches above the high tide line.

This year, after the two years of losses, the flock moved to higher ground — unfortunately right up against the rookery ground boundary signs warning beachcombers to go no farther.

“The skimmers are literally right there. (People) go to look at all the birds and the birds take off. It’s very dramatic,” said conservationist Dana Beach, who regularly kayaks out to Deveaux Bank. “But they don’t realize these birds are not like pelicans.”

The worst part is, the people causing the problem aren’t the partying boaters that led to Crab Bank being completely closed off in Charleston Harbor. Out in the far tidal wash of the North Edisto River, Deveaux Bank attracts wildlife watchers, photographers and serious anglers.

They respect where they are. They just get too close.

Rookery islands are tiny, uninhabited swaths of sand and reeds where seabirds tend nests in huge flocks of mixed species. A handful of them are found along the South Carolina coast; some are under state management, some federal.

They are vital links for troubled, threatened and endangered species. They provide at least some refuge from predators and human intrusion. Each one is important because individual islands tend to wash out and later reform, and because a tropical storm or hurricane can wreak havoc along any one stretch of the coast.

But as more people arrive to boat and beach, they crowd the rookeries more and more. Crab Bank, Bird Key Stono and Deveaux Bank were made off-limits above the tide line to boaters in 2006, after wildlife officers found an alarming drop in nest numbers and a profusion of foot and (dog) paw prints. Crab Bank, at the mouth of busy Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, was later made a heritage preserve, completely off-limits.

Deveaux, though, “has eroded quite a lot. It’s pushed the birds and people closer together,” said Christy Hand, DNR wildlife biologist.

“I think most people who get too close to the birds don’t realize the damage they are doing,” said Norman Brunswig of South Carolina Audubon.

That’s why the bird sitters are needed.

With a grant from the National Audubon Society, the chapter here has launched a shorebird warden program — two staffers who go beach to beach and island and island to educate people. But two just won’t cut it on a busy summer boating weekend. Part of the staffers’ job is to recruit local residents to take on the effort.

The effort is reminiscent of the early days of the state’s sea turtle watch groups, when a few beach residents took an interest in the work of DNR biologists and volunteered to help. Now, the watch groups have become an army. As state and federal agencies struggle with budget cuts at a critical point in development on the coast, the army has taken on the lion’s share of the day-to-day work guarding and nursing the nests.

More and more, the efforts of regular people like that will be needed to make a difference, conservationists agree. One by one, the groups are starting to emerge — a new age version of teaching the environmental ethic that used to be passed generation to generation through family mores.

A bird warden group is now forming on Edisto Island. Katie Zimmerman of the Coastal Conservation League is recruiting another for Deveaux Bank. Beach is her boss, the league’s founder. His love for the environs and wildlife is well known. Not so well known is his soft spot for skimmers. He plans to be among the first paddlers to bird sit Deveaux Bank.

Skimmers are majestic, Thibault will tell you … the way they slip along the surface, the open bill knifing the water to catch tiny fish on the fly. “It’s unique. It’s really striking.”

Without wonders like that, the coast wouldn’t be the same.

On Deveaux Bank right now “skimmers are doing great and we want to make sure the nesting is successful,” Thibault said. “Please, give them space.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.