Shorebirds: a video, an overview, and an ID chart

red knots
Red Knots, by Cathy Miller

Dewees Island is a great place to see shorebirds in both winter and summer. As part of our educational outreach program, we produced this video about how to provide shorebirds with suitable nesting, resting, and feeding locations. Please feel free to share the video with your guests on the island– many of our choices, from where and how we walk our dogs, to staying on boardwalks, can make a difference to South Carolina’s coastal birds.  Please walk around flocks rather than through them, and avoid posted shorebird resting and breeding areas.

We have a variety of shorebirds on the island, and they face some challenges due to habitat destruction elsewhere. When the Charleston County Master Naturalists took a trip to Folly Beach, I took a photo of a great sign that showed all the shorebirds one might find on the beach.  shorebirdsWarning:  these birds can be pretty similar, and there is a reason even seasoned birders simply call them “peeps”. There is a great shorebird guide which uses photos to help teach you about identification.  But in the meanwhile, here are some of the shorebirds you might see on Dewees and other South Carolina Barrier Islands:

Red Knot: This is an incredible species that can participate in huge migrations, but we also think there is a resident population in the winter that may travel between Cape Romain and the ACE Basin. Capable of migrating thousands of miles, they are featured here in a video called “Crash: A Tale of Two Species.” We have counted single birds before on the island, but this year’s Christmas bird count yielded a large flock of about 150, feeding and foraging on the beach. In the winter, they are more of a drab brown, but as they near breeding season, they begin to live up to their “red” name.

red knots
Red Knots (Cathy Miller) April, Kiawah

We have both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs on the island, and they nest in the northern bogs, but some of them are found year round. These are relatively long-legged birds, usually found on our interior wetlands.  One of the easiest places to see them is the impoundment, especially at the corner near the Landings Building.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs
Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in the Impoundment

Semi-Palmated Plover: This tiny shorebird is often in great flocks on the front beach in the winter.  With yellow legs and a tiny orange and black bill, you might find them grouped in with several other species.

Semi-palmated Plover
Semi-palmated Plover: Photo Cathy Miller: Pluff Mud Perspectives

Ruddy Turnstones are aptly named for their habit of foraging and turning over stones on the beach.  Look for them along the shell middens on the ferry route, as well as in flocks on the beach.  They also head way north to the tundra for breeding season.

Ruddy Turnstone
Ruddy Turnstone, photo Cathy Miller

Sanderlings are one of the most commonly seen birds on the beach.  In Winter they are very pale, and they forage by running back and forth in the waves on the front beach.


Least Sandpipers are sometimes on the salt marsh flats on the north end of the island, or in the midst of flocks of other shorebirds.

Least Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper

Dowitchers have very long bills and are often at the corner near the Landings Building.  We have both short-billed and long-billed dowitchers, but most are short-billed. They forage with a sewing machine motion up and down.

Dowitchers with one Willet lower right

Dunlin are another small shorebird with a slightly downward curving bill.  They often fly across the waterway in large flocks, shifting and turning in total synch with one another. According to this Audubon site, they are capable of reaching speeds of 110 mph.  Dull colored for most of the year (hence the name), in spring they get a reddish back and blacker belly.

Dunlin. Photo Cathy Miller, Pluff Mud Perspectives


Black-Bellied Plovers are also plain in the winter.  They have thick, short bills and are taller than other plovers.  They can be seen on the corner of the impoundment, on the flats over near the big oak on the way to Huyler House, and on the front beach with other birds in a flock.  Towards the spring, they get the black belly that gives them their name.

Black-Bellied Plover with winter plumage
Black-Bellied Plover, winter plumage. Photo Cathy Miller, Pluff Mud Perspectives, June 17, 2012
Black Bellied Plover, Dowitchers, and Dunlin
Black Bellied Plover, Dowitchers, and Dunlin in breeding plumage with Semi-palmated plovers

American Oystercatchers are found on the oyster banks on the island and on the shell middens along the waterway.   They nest here, but we also have the largest wintering flock of this species along the East Coast.  If you use a telescope from the northern side of the Landings building, you can see large flocks of them along the waterway.  They can also be seen from the ferry on the way to Dewees Island.

American Oystercatcher
American Oystercatcher, photo Cathy Miller, Pluff Mud Perspectives

Willets live here year-round, and we have seen Willet chicks near the crabbing dock. They are often seen alone, foraging the mudflats or even the front beach.  They are occasionally in with larger mixed flocks. They are larger than Greater Yellowlegs, with gray legs and a bigger bill.

Willet. Photo Cathy Miller, Pluff Mud Perspectives

Here is a link to a Google Doc Chart to keep track of comparative sizes, leg color, etc.

It looks like this now, but it’s a work in progress:


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Tish Easterlin

    I haven’t told you in a while how much I enjoy these posts. Thank you for “keeping me at Dewees” during the long stretches when we can’t physically be there!

  2. Dershie mcdevitt

    Your posts are very much a part of Callahan Bank’s treasure trove of knowledge in “Just Holler Bloody Murder.”. My Asheville readers ask me how I can possibly know all these things, and my answer is, “Judy Fairchild and you can’t help but learn when you pass time on Dewees.”. This is a particularly user friendly look at how to sort out all the peeps so Callahan and I say, “Thank you!”

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