By Mary Pringle for The Island Eye News
Have you ever been walking on the beach and suddenly been in the middle of a flock of small shorebirds who were diving at you and screaming in alarm? This happened to Carol Jaworski on May 6 as she neared 51st Avenue on her first patrol of 2022 for the Island Turtle Team. Jaworski recognized that they were a nesting colony of least terns, who were upset to have someone walking too close to their nesting sites and reported her find to the Turtle Team. Least terns have always nested on the Isle of Palms – on the flat pebble roof tops of the old Red & White grocery store, the AT&T building on JC Long Boulevard and on top of Summer House in Wild Dunes.
Because our beach is so developed, it is increasingly difficult for them to nest successfully without being disturbed, and that is why they have chosen rooftops. However, those nests were in danger of being destroyed by aerial predators such as hawks and disturbances from workmen performing maintenance as well as extreme heat, lack of shelter or even chicks falling off the sides before they could fly. In 2021, some of them successfully raised their young on the beach at Ocean Point. But this season a group of them has established their territory in the dunes of the wide beach between 50th and 51st Avenues. A smaller group of terns along with a pair of Wilson’s plovers are again trying to nest at the Ocean Point location. Least terns are the smallest North American terns at 9 inches in length with a 20-inch wingspan. They lay one to three eggs and raise one brood of chicks a season. Disturbance is a real and constant danger when the sun is hot because the protective instinct of the nesting birds, male and female, is to leave the nest and dive bomb and sometimes even defecate on intruders. If this happens repeatedly, the eggs and/or chicks will die from the heat instead of being shaded by their parents. They don’t build nests but only scrape out a depression in the beach sand. The eggs and chicks are so well camouflaged that humans or dogs are very likely to trample on them. The eggs incubate for three weeks and then the parents take care of them for about three more weeks feeding them and teaching them to fish. After hatching the chicks run all over the beach. Mary Catherine Martin is a Wildlife Biologist for the Coastal Birds Project at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. She is the very knowledgeable and experienced person who takes measures to protect and monitor these colonies of nesting birds on the Isle of Palms whether they are on a roof or on the beach. Diane Troy is a member of the Island Turtle Team who has taken a special interest in helping these birds and has been working with Audubon SC in their Shorebird Stewards program where volunteers stay on the beach to educate beachgoers about nesting terns and plovers. On May 11, Martin, along with Camie Duquet from SCDNR, was joined by Troy and Janet Nasser and members of the Island Turtle Team, Barbara Gobien and Mary Pringle, to mark off the area for protection. This was done by erecting posts all around the area of the nests between 50th and 51st Avenues, attaching signs to the posts, stringing twine between them and then tying orange plastic tape streamers from the twine to make it more visible. Shelter in the form of small wooden “tents” and sections of wooden pallets were put in the nesting area to provide shade for the young birds when needed. Martin said, “Both least terns and Wilson’s plovers are state and federally protected and of highest conservation status. The birds at Ocean Point are scattered in the dunes and nesting further from the water’s edge than last year. That colony will not be posted with string and flagging as was done last year, but we will post signs and urge the public and their dogs to avoid the area. Please support this effort with any awareness to residents or guests that you can provide.”
• No unleashed pets near the nesting sites at any time
• No kites near the nesting area
• No balls, frisbees, etc. nearby
• Walk leashed pets near the water line when passing this area
• Don’t feed any birds near the nesting area
• And of course don’t enter the marked off area at any time.
Thank you for helping protect these birds. They really need it.