Birds and Birding

Dewees Island of International Significance to Shorebirds

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International Recognition

Here on Dewees Island, we are working to preserve and maintain habitat for nesting, feeding, and resting shorebirds, and our efforts have gained us inclusion in the Cape Romain region site of hemispheric significance with WHSRN.  (Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network). It is a site of international significance because the entire region hosts more than 10% of the flyway population of American Oystercatchers and Short-billed Dowitchers. This week is the official start of the celebration.

The current Cape Romain Region has been extended to include all coastal lands from Dewees Inlet north though Yawkey Island Reserve into the Winyah Bay. The new site name for this expanded region (including Dewees Island and Big Hill Island) is the Cape Romain – Santee Delta Region. This region includes a total area of 119,440 acres. A map of the region is below.

This region is comprised of ownership of Federal – Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, State – Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area, Santee- Delta Wildlife Management Area, Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve, North Santee Bar, Capers Island Heritage Preserve and Private – Dewees Island and Big Hill Island.

Cape Romain shorebirds resting along a dock on Wednesday, April 18, 2018

In late February, South Carolina Audubon sponsored a trip to Panama, where we had a chance to see another WHSRN site with tens of thousands of wintering birds.  Many of our birds winter in the tropics and nest in the Arctic, using Dewees as a valuable stopover along the way.

Celebrations this Week

There are a number of celebrations this week, in conjunction with DNR, and Cape Romain, and WHSRN.  On Wednesday night, we’ll be hosting that celebration here on Dewees Island.

Please join us on Wednesday at 4:30 for a social, with a presentation from 5-6 on the History of the Coast Presentation and WHSRN Dedication, with more social activities to follow.  RSVP here.

How Dewees Island supports Shorebirds

It’s part of our community culture of respecting the environment and creating habitat for birds AND people.  We provide habitat and protection for resting, feeding, and nesting birds. For more information on identification of our birds, click here.

  • Restoring water control structures in Lake Timicau. The new management plan will manipulate water levels for the benefit of spring and fall migrating shorebirds. The Lake Timicau Restoration Project is a joint effort of the Dewees Island Conservancy, the Dewees POA, Ducks Unlimited, and USFW. (NAWCA~ North American Wetlands Conservation Act.)
  • Closing beach areas near nesting sites of Wilson’s plovers and least terns to prevent intrusion by people.
  • Placing shorebird nesting education signs on beach access paths.
  • Participating in Audubon’s Shorebird Steward program to educate island residents and visitors regarding nesting sites, dog management and bird loafing areas
  • Maintaining limits on public safety use of beach vehicles on front beach during shorebird and seabird nesting periods.

Big Hill Island

Big Hill Island is a 175 acre island of Spartina alterniflora and shell rake edge bordering the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It supports nesting American oystercatchers and fall, winter, and spring roosting shorebird flocks often numbering in the 100s. Management is primarily to close the shell rake area to human disturbance during the nesting season.

Here is the whole announcement from SCDNR.

Birds and Birding

The Lake Timicau Restoration Project

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Lake Timicau Restoration Project

Lake Timicau Restoration Project

We’re pretty excited about some changes coming for the North end of Dewees Island: The Lake Timicau Restoration project. After several years of studying the hydrology of Lake Timicau, searching for better ways to provide habitat for migrating at risk birds and provide water flow through the Impoundment, we are seeing our efforts come together! This project has been on my radar since becoming chair of the EC (ERB, EPB) in 2005, so it’s been a long term goal for the island. Since I get a bunch of questions about this, I thought I’d try to explain what will be happening over the next year. Disclaimer: I am not a hydrogeologist or an engineer.

Lake Timicau from the air: taken from above Capers Island. The six pipes are in the center.


The pipes are aging and don’t keep enough water in the Lake for long enough periods of time.

Erosion is increasing.

Ages ago, the pipes were placed in Velvet Creek and the bridge was created over the creek, making the north part of the island accessible. These pipes have a few current limitations, and we’ve known there would be a need to fix the situation for at least 12 years, when the Wetlands Committee was formed to examine the problem and propose a solution. For years, the Water subcommittee spent a lot of time and energy and resources looking at this situation from a variety of angles. The pipes will eventually fail due to age, and the way they were situated allows less water to get in and stay in Lake Timicau over time.

It’s possible that they are too high to move water throughout the entire area, or that the hydrologic period compounds the situation: We get longer low tides than high tides and the 6-pipes structure compounds this. Anecdotally, the depth of the Lake doesn’t seem to be as deep. It is also possible that there has been some silting in of the areas around the edges. There is currently some increased vegetation along the edges of the lake, and parts of the Lake that are dry for very long periods of time. In addition, the water that flows through those pipes is heavily compressed (think of putting your thumb on the hose) which increases the speed at which the water flows. This acceleration adds to erosion around where the pipes are. If we could better manage the flow of water coming in a 6-pipes, perhaps there will be less velocity, less turbidity, and less silting.


Shorebirds are declining worldwide, and many are on target to become extinct in our lifetime. Lack of habitat, of suitable foraging and resting sites, and of food to fuel up for long migrations all contribute to rapid declines in shorebird populations. If we could manage the water levels in the Lake Timicau area, we could create optimal habitat for food resources, shelter, and resting habitat for many of these imperiled species. Some of these include: Red Knots, Wood Storks, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Sanderlings, Semi-palmated Plovers, etc.

Red knots


The goals of the Lake Timicau restoration project are to:

  • create better habitat for imperiled shorebirds,
  • replace the compromised pipes,
  • allow for better water flow and management between Lake Timicau and the Impoundment.

Other possible outcomes include a wider variety of opportunities for fishing, enhanced passive recreational activities, like kayaking and bird-watching. and more open views for lots that front Lake Timicau along Lake Timicau Lane and Pelican Flight drive.

Map of areas that might see longer tidal inundation, and where the deeper channels for fish habitat will be found. Art by Anne Anderson.

The Plan:

Replace the Pipes with a more comprehensive, stable, and sophisticated water control structure. The engineers have come up with a plan to replace the pipes with two water control structures similar to what used to manage the water in the impoundment, but they will be made of concrete and aluminum. They will allow us to control (manage) the levels of water in Lake Timicau in order to be able to provide better habitat for shorebirds and migrating birds; as well as fish and crustaceans. This should make the area more stable in terms of erosion as well.

Model by Jim Anderson of the new water structure with the current roadbed at the top.

Put in a water control structure at the area now known as One Pipe, so that more water can flow through to the northwest section of Lake Timicau and we can control the in-flow and out-flow of water through that part of the Lake.

current situation at “one-pipe.” There will be a water control structure like a rice trunk.

Create a way for water to flow between Lake Timicau and the impoundment. This will involve extending the canal  behind several lots  on the north/west side of Pelican Flight lane. A small water control device will be installed under Lake Timicau Lane connecting the newly extended canal with the impoundment. Water flow can be regulated between the impoundment and Lake Timicau as needed.

This means that the community decides how much water to keep in the wetland and for how long (based on management goals and objectives and grant requirements): it will no longer be strictly tidal. In my understanding, this won’t change the water depth significantly along the edges (a couple of inches), but there will still be deeper pockets for fishing. Since the intention is to provide better habitat, there will be an emphasis on understanding and attracting invertebrates that migrating birds feed upon. An additional result will probably be that some of the surrounding vegetation will have their roots immersed for longer periods of time and may die back, and may provide additional views. Like the impoundment, there will be times when we keep the water higher for fishing and recreation, and times when we drop the water levels so birds have resting and feeding places.

DU’s regional engineer, Malcolm Baldwin, has mapped, surveyed Lake Timicau and designed the canal route. The water control devices have been successfully used in other Ducks Unlimited projects, most recently on Capers Island.

The Costs:

The entire project has already been budgeted for. The majority of the cost is being paid by our partner organizations: Ducks Unlimited, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The total cost of the project is expected to be $510,000. The Dewees Island POA has already collected reserves of $107,000 as part of our planning and budgeting process, which represents the total contribution of the POA. The Dewees Conservancy, a non-profit 501c-3 corporation based on the island and dedicated to habitat preservation, will also contribute $107,000. The grant that provided most of the money is a USFW North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant.

Birds and Birding

How to use ebird to learn what birds you might see on Dewees

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ebird Dewees Island yellow warbler
Yellow Warbler

It’s migration season, and there are wonderful birds passing through.  If you’ve ever wondered what you might expect to see, you can use ebird as a great resource.  In fact, you can even use it to find out when the birds you MOST want to see will be on the island.

Northern Gannet in Charleston Harbor

Here’s how to use ebird to find out about a particular species:

Ebird is an incredible database out of Cornell University.  Anyone can use it without being a member, although there are some benefits that make membership worth it.  Suppose you were fascinated by Northern Gannets, who migrate through the area in winter and spring, and you wanted to time a visit to see them.  You could use ebird to help you plan when to come to the island.  Here’s how:

Start by going to  Click on explore data.

how to use ebird

Then, select species maps:How to use ebird

Then enter the species name that you’re interested in:

How to use ebird enter species name

Use the zoom tool to focus on where you’re traveling:

ebird 4

Keep zooming until you can see buttons where people have entered data.

ebird 5

Click the buttons for detailed lists:

ebird 6

While you are exploring ebird, you can find some other amazing resources, from interactive maps to migration “forecasts” to rare species.  If you decide you’d like to enter data on ebird, every piece of information helps us track and understand birds– from migration patterns, to climate effects, to species in peril.  Reach out if you need some help!  You can also click here for an weekly record of specific sightings on the island:


Birds and Birding

Endangered Least Tern Colony Under Assault by Amphibious Vehicle

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For the first time in years, on the north beach of Dewees, there is a least tern colony, which in itself is kind of big news! They have very specific habitat needs, and habitat loss is one of the key challenges for this bird. The smallest tern, Sterna antillarum, they nest in colonies in the edges of the dunes. There was a colony near Huyler House walk years ago, and our attempts to entice them back to nesting in the area were unsuccessful for years. Click here to read about our efforts in 2010.

Out on the north end of the island, there’s an incredibly quiet feeling, as dozens of terns wait patiently on the sand, their nests mere scrapes on the newly formed dunes. To the north, there are 60 miles of protected seashore, but the terns seem to require a specific zone of overwashed sand, nestled in the dunes. From a distance, you almost don’t notice they are there, so well camouflaged are they against the shell and landscape of our newly formed dunes. Their black caps and grey wings blend perfectly with the shell surroundings. Least terns are listed by the federal government as endangered, largely due to habitat loss.



Least terns nesting on the sand

I am often on that end of the beach for turtle patrol, and it’s really incredible how perfect the situation is for terns. The dunes are growing, with sea rocket and other sparse vegetation to provide small bits of shade. There are three huge tidepools where the large sandbar has attached, and they get flooded periodically by spring tides which bring new small fish to the pools. There are also much larger tidal inlets connected to the ocean which are teeming with small anchovies and silversides. Males fish and bring food back to mates on nests and chicks. Most of the time, the only sounds are the wind and the chattering of the terns.
Endangered Wilson’s Plovers seem to share the nesting area, and there was a single oystercatcher nest there for a while.

Wilson’s Plover


There were a few pairs of terns in the area last year, but last week I saw scores of birds sitting in the dune habitat, protecting nests. When disturbed, they fly at intruders, shrieking and defecating as a way to get you to leave. In the sort of heat we’ve been having, my very presence is dangerous, because if adults or chicks leave nests unattended to chase me off, eggs or chicks can perish in minutes in the hot sun.

When I realized that the colony had grown so large, Lori and I notified Felicia Sanders of SCDNR, and we agreed to get an official count, doing it very early in the morning so as not to disturb the birds unnecessarily. I took binoculars up there, as well as a camera and tripod, with clear plans to be finished by 7:30 am, so that the sun wouldn’t be as dangerous to the interrupted colony. I counted 49 nests with birds, and there were probably more. Adults flew over me, buzzing me and attempting to scare me away. It was a pretty magical morning– a few vestigial horseshoe crabs were near the edges, and I got a chance to watch the terns trying to chase off a ghost crab. A bird, nesting outside the posted signs, flushed and revealed two greenish speckled eggs. If I hadn’t seen her move, I would never have seen the incredibly camouflaged eggs.

The nest is a simple scrape in the sand.

Several terns raised wings to look larger and attempt to frighten off the intruder.
(Watch in HD for better results)
As the sun began to warm my back, I knew it was time to beat a hasty retreat, and scanned once more with binoculars to see the impossibly small outline of a chick in the sand. I was thunderstruck by the apparent fragility of the situation, and by the effective camouflage of the chick. An adult fluttered nearby, and I saw a second chick lie flat on the ground to “hide” in plain sight. Eventually they both raced after the adult, and I could only see them as slight shadows, a visual ripple against the backdrop of sand. I beat a hasty retreat. Two days later, in the same area, I saw an “older” chick who again vanished in plain sight.

adult approaches camouflaged chick

slightly older chick

Lori and I discussed moving the nesting signs, since obviously the birds weren’t reading them. We planned to have Nicole the intern go up yesterday and move the signs seaward to make the bird area bigger. After consultation with local bird experts, it was recommended that we temporarily close that small section of the beach during daylight hours so that well-intentioned walkers wouldn’t disturb the colony. This is the email that went to the community.
It’s ironic, then, that someone from a neighboring island with an amphibious vehicle came ashore for a little joy-riding. The ferry captain saw a group of people launching a new sort of vehicle from the IOP marina called a quadski. Billed as a high-speed amphibious vehicle, this jet-ski has wheels so it can come right ashore! Two vehicles were launched, and only one returned. And that’s because they came ashore right at the tern colony, using those large vehicles to spin and turn and eventually get caught in the tidepool that the terns were using for food. It’s a pretty large vehicle, and it was left on the island overnight.

amphibious vehicle assaults pristine beach
Approaching tern colony from the north before dawn. Vehicle visible from edge of nesting sign

This is a pretty large vehicle, and I am sure the rider was just looking for some harmless fun.  Motorized vehicles are not legal on the beaches of Sullivans and Isle of Palms, and I don’t think they should be here either.  My turtle probe is about 3 feet tall. It’s embedded in the sand about 6 inches, but that gives you a sense of the size of this.

Tracks went right up to the protected area:

And this is what I found where the eggs were the day before:

It is my fervent hope that the chick hatched and was able to get away.

To their credit, the owner of the vehicle returned yesterday morning before 7, and had the craft off the beach by 7:15, leaving only scars in the sand, several eggshells, and a few boards used for leverage. This morning, it was my sense that fewer birds flew over to see if I was invading their area, but that could be perception– I stayed pretty far away while I did turtle rounds. I am not sure how to keep the amphibious vehicle situation from happening again, but it’s something we should think about. From Dewees Island’s Osprey Walk to the north end of Cape Romain National Wildlife refuge, there are a lot of beautiful beaches that could be ruined by these things– sea turtle nests and other sand nesting birds are also in danger from unwary recreation seekers. Deveaux Bank, Crab Bank, and Bird Key are totally closed to recreation during nesting season except for designated areas. I wonder about the possibility of limiting access so motorized vehicles can’t do damage– I would much rather see kayakers and small sailboats land quietly in some of those lovely protected areas. I know the Dewees Island Environmental Resource Board and the Dewees Island Conservancy will be looking into ways to protect our fragile shore.

If you’re staying on the island, please limit your walks to early morning or evening when the sun rays aren’t as strong.

Birds and Birding

Eagles nest ready for 2015 season

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Bald Eagles back on platform
Dewees Island Bald Eagles back on the nesting platform

The Dewees Island Eagle nest is occupied again by a pair of bald eagles: we assume that they are the same pair that has nested here for the past four years. The birds returned to the area in late August, and began bringing sticks to the platform shortly thereafter. If they raise a chick, this will be the fourth year that they have provided us with a front row seat to nature’s incredible mysteries. Although it is fairly unusual for Bald Eagles on the East Coast to nest on platforms, our pair seems to like the central location of the pole which gives them a great vantage point over the whole impoundment, which has incredible food sources of ducks, fish, and the occasional rodent. In addition to claiming this platform as their own, they have been spotted eating and preening on other poles around the island. A November bird count spotted six eagles: four adults and two juveniles, and we are unsure whether the additional eagles were just migrating through or looking for their own nesting territory.

They are now active on the nest platform on and off all day, but we haven’t seen signs of an egg (a bird tending a single spot in the nest.) They return to the nest each night, and are there as the sun comes up most days. These photos are from Thursday.

These posts have some of the best footage from previous years:

Eagle Chicks Fledge
Eagles Have Two chicks
Eagles Eating and Preening
Eagle Platform reconstruction
Nest Building Video

Birds and Birding


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pelicansSometimes I think Pelicans are the clowns of the bird world, and sometimes I am awed by their grace. The bird featured below caught a huge red drum, and I wasn’t at all confident he was going to be able to eat it!

The pelican we are most likely to see on Dewees is the Eastern Brown Pelican. (Although we have seen White Pelicans on nearby Capers Island). It is the only pelican that feeds by plunge diving, and they can drop from great heights. According to Birdscope at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Pelicans have several adaptations to diving, including air sacs beneath the skin on their breast that serve as cushions and floats. While diving, they also rotate their body to the left, probably to avoid injury to their trachea and esophagus, which are on the right side of neck.

The eastern brown pelican was listed as an endangered species in 1970, when their population plummeted to less than 100. Widespread use of pesticides such as DDT caused thinning of eggshells, which subsequently broke during incubation. The United States ban on DDT in 1972 and similar pesticides spurred the pelican’s recovery to much of its former range. The implementation of the Brown Pelican Recovery Plan of 1979 also contributed to the restoration of brown pelican populations. (SCDNR) Now they’ve had such a spectacular comeback that they’ve become a symbol of wildlife conservation, and they’ve been delisted from the endangered species list.

The pelicans we see on the island probably nested at nearby Crab Bankpelicans, with large colonies of other pelicans and other colonial nesters, like terns and black skimmers.

They are strong swimmers, with webbing between all four toes. Their colors are brighter in breeding season, when they have one monogamous partner for the whole of the breeding season. Juveniles are brown with a white belly, and it takes three years for them to change to adult plumage.

In addition to plunging, they can also seize food from the surface of the water. Pelicans have a gular pouch that helps them catch food, and a hook on the upper mandible to help hold slippery fish. I came across this explanation for how it works at a website called How Stuff Works:

Another unique feature is the hook at the tip of the pelican’s upper mandible (the top half of its bill), which helps grab onto particularly slippery or wiggly fish. After locating and scooping up its prey, the pelican opens its bill and slowly contracts its pouch to empty out the water and keep the fish inside. Then, with a jerk of the bird’s head, the fish slides down the ­hatch. If a fish is particularly large, the pelican might manipulate it so that the fish goes down head first, which helps keep it from getting stuck. A pelican can’t eat or fly away if its pouch is still full of water, so the draining process is very important. By bending its neck, it can even turn its pouch inside out.

They can also soar right above the surface of the water, using the slight updrafts from the wave troughs in a process called dynamic soaring. This allows them to save energy as they fly.

This juvenile clown was fishing from slightly above the surface in Chapel Pond.
when he caught a fish that must have been bigger than he expected:pelican
and even though he tried to keep it to himself,
his friends swooped in and clamped down on his beakpelican
After shaking them off, he retreated to a spot where he could regroup

and try to wash the fish down with water.
and he finally moves on after somehow washing the fish down.

Here is a related post about releasing a Pelican after rehabilitation.

At a workshop at the South Carolina Aquarium, I told the story of watching this pelican, and wondering if the pouch could withstand all that action. The bird rehabilitation specialists told me that the bird was lucky– if he (or one of his exuberant friends) had punctured the gular pouch, there is almost nothing that can be done for them– sutures won’t hold, and trying to repair a tear actually makes the situation worse. Most birds with gular pouch punctures have to be euthanized. So I was glad to see this guy finally move along!

Birds and Birding

Some Books to think about giving for the Holidays

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Last weekend, when the Pro-Birder conference took place on Dewees, I was delighted to receive a gift from Instructor Drew Lanham. I had been admiring this field guide all day, because it is entirely photographic, and does a lot to show birds from a variety of angles in a variety of settings. The Crossley field guide to Eastern Birds is a great new sort of reference book. The photographer/author uses lots of pictures of each species, photoshopped against a natural habitat, to give you a clear picture of each bird.


Another fascinating field guide, this time about butterflies, was introduced to me by Lori Sheridan Wilson, island ecologist. Butterflies through Binoculars has more than just identification tips: it shows you what the host plants are for different butterflies, and explains when and where you are likely to find them.

And the third great find is Living Beaches of the Carolinas. This book has a treasure trove of information about the creatures you are likely to find in our tidepools. It’s a great reference for anyone who loves beachcombing and wonders about the shells and animals you find there!


Tropical Storm Sandy Predicted to Stay Offshore

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The current models from the National Hurricane Center indicate that Tropical Storm Sandy will stay offshore and Dewees is unlikely to feel significant winds. There may be unusually highly tides as the path of the storm pushes up the coast of Florida toward Myrtle Beach before turning and heading up the North Carolina Coast.

Dewees is hosting a Palmetto Pro Birder Training session this weekend. Perhaps some unusual tropical birds will be pushed our way.

Birds and Birding

18 Spoonbills!

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An occasional Roseate Spoonbill visit to the island is not a new thing; Ed Conradi recorded one in 1996. My first sighting was in 2005, and there have been one or two occasionally, and one year we spied 13. But every year it seems the numbers are bigger, and yesterday we counted 18 at my favorite birding corner. One observer driving by wondered if those pink birds were flamingoes, and with those big numbers and the characteristic pink color, I can see how they might guess that.

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea Ajaja) adults and juveniles can look markedly different. In the past, we have seen almost exclusively juveniles– pale pink in color with darker pink wings, and some of which are almost white. Second year juveniles get a little darker, and adults have a bald greenish head and a much darker pink color. Their distinctive bill looks a bit like an ophthalmologist’s diopter, and they have a characteristic feeding behavior of sweeping their bills back and forth. They are tactile, feeding by a combination of sight and feel. They are social, and feed and nest both in groups and solitarily.

These probably nest in the Florida Bay, and disperse northward after hatching in search of food. They share rookeries with other birds and may have ranged this far north before the egret trade for hats damaged many of of those rookeries in the last century. The ones we watched yesterday were preening and bathing, with an occasional break to grab a snack. You can spend a minute with them in this quick video, and also get occasional glimpses of Reddish Egrets feeding, Laughing Gulls, and some shorebirds. Feel free to comment with shorebird ID’s– it’s a little bird quiz.

More on Spoonbills: