Even as the greater Charleston area has experienced significant growth and development, it has remained a place where residents and tourists alike can enjoy seeing a delightful array of bird life, from songbirds to shorebirds and seabirds.
But the sights we hold so dear in the Lowcountry — once-endangered brown pelicans flying in formation overhead, black skimmers delicately dipping their bills in water as they fly inches above it, American oystercatchers prying open oyster shells near low tide — should not be taken for granted.
South Carolina’s population boom has created new threats and disturbances for these iconic birds that share our home. As an illustration: Our coastal birds once had the run of 3,000 barrier islands along South Carolina’s coast. Today, only five of these islands — natural and engineered alike — are still capable of providing every protection these beach-nesting birds require to successfully raise young.
Among this small handful of Seabird Sanctuary Islands in our state, one is now in peril.
For more than half a century, Crab Bank has served as a valuable rookery for shorebirds and seabirds. This small island off the shoreline of the Old Village in Mount Pleasant was home to roughly 4,000 brown pelican nests, 15,000 royal tern nests and 400 black skimmer nests between 2009 and 2017 alone, according to state records.
Unfortunately, due to increased wakes and a series of strong hurricanes, Crab Bank has eroded so significantly that it is facing its first year with zero nests.
The diminishment of Crab Bank should be concerning not only for people who value wildlife and biodiversity, but for the homes and businesses that benefit from the buffer the island provides against erosion from wakes, hurricanes and sea level rise, as well as anyone who earns a living from the tourism industry. It is incumbent upon us to protect the pelicans, sandpipers, plovers, terns and gulls that are an essential part of our coastal fabric, and an important part of what makes South Carolina so special.
This past year has offered a ray of hope for Crab Bank and our country’s sharply declining coastal bird populations. Seizing on the opportunity provided by the massive federal effort to deepen Charleston Harbor, the Army Corps of Engineers identified Crab Bank as the best location to receive the newly dredged sand, a conclusion that was reached after comprehensive assessment of 30 different locations based on criteria including greatest ecological benefit, public preference and cost effectiveness.
In partnership with South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, the Corps is working on a plan to restore the island to its former glory using strategically placed dredged material, but additional funding is needed to complete the project described by one Corps engineer as a “once-in-a-career” opportunity.
Unless we raise the estimated $2 million needed to match federal funds, the sand that’s dredged from the harbor will be lost — simply dumped into the ocean. Understanding the importance and urgency of this opportunity, Audubon South Carolina has joined with the Coastal Conservation League, the Coastal Expeditions Foundation, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation and other organizations to support DNR’s newly launched Coastal Bird Conservation Program, which is raising funds to rebuild Crab Bank and restore critical nesting habitat
All parties involved want to ensure a triple win for our birds, businesses and Shem Creek residents. Working together, we are confident that DNR, the Army Corps of Engineers and Mount Pleasant leadership will find a way to ensure that this extraordinary opportunity to protect our coastal bird populations does not slip away.
I urge anyone who values bird life in South Carolina to voice your support and consider a donation to protect this special island and vital habitat for our avian friends. To find out more about DNR’s Coastal Bird Conservation Program and the effort to save Crab Bank, please visit www.sccoastalbirds.org.
Sharon Richardson is executive director of Audubon South Carolina.