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

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:

Birds and Birding

Winter Birding brings different species

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Our winter birds are back, providing birders with new glimpses of birds we haven’t seen since last winter. While on the ferry, watch for loons feeding and diving in the waterway. Loons have a similar silhouette to cormorants– they sit low in the water, but they have a sharper beak and white underparts.
Another similar bird that fished the water near the dock is a Horned Grebe. We have also seen them at the north end of the island, fishing the surf. They sit much higher in the water and have a much shorter bill than a loon does.
Also on the ferry, look for American Oystercatchers, especially at high tide. We have a great population of these every winter, and it is fun to see them fly in large flocks on the shell islands that flank the waterway.
Winter ducks are returning: Hooded Mergansers, and Bufflehead have both been seen in the impoundment, and we are keeping watch for American Coot, Scaup, Teal, Widgeons, and Gadwall; all of which have been part of our winter counts before.


Signs of fall: Pied Billed Grebes

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The first pied billed grebes have shown up in the impoundment and Huyler House pond.

They are a regular winter resident on the Dewees impoundment and Huyler House pond. They eat crustaceans, fish, frogs, insects, and other invertebrates.  They breed to the north of us, and our winter populations likely spend the summer in the northern midwest.  BNA (Birds of North America) describes them as being rather aggressive on the water, but I haven’t seen that.  (Although this one is not afraid of the alligator right nearby.)  When startled, they are more likely to dive than fly.  They are one of the smallest duck-like birds on the impoundment in the winter.


The Anhinga

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The female's mouth is red or pinkThe Anhinga, Meleagris gallapavo, (literally “water turkey” because of its feathers) is also known as the snake bird.  It is generally found in fresh water, and needs fresh water for nesting.  They inhabit shallow wetlands, and can be seen in the water or on overhanging branches. In order to be more hydrodynamic, they have dense bones and plumage that doesn’t store air (like goosedown does).

Unlike most diving birds, the feathers can get completely wet while they are under water.  They therefore lose a lot of body heat while swimming, which they make up for by soaking in the sun’s warmth for thermal regulation.  Anhingas are equipped with very strong neck vertebrae, which they use for stabbing prey (spearing) and then tossing it strongly enough to release it off the bill and catch it in their mouths.  They can fly long distances without flapping their wings, soaring the way a vulture might.  In the sky, you’ll see them flying with their necks outstretched in a sort of cross shape.

When you see an anhinga swimming in the water, you will only see the top of the head and neck

aka: snakebird

— (usually you will see the top of the back on a cormorant.) If you go to the Huyler House area behind the oyster shed, you will find a small log with a tiny tree on it.  The anhinga commonly found at this site may growl and bob his head at you to tell you to go away.  Here’s a video of an anhinga at Huyler House pond.

Anhingas may need more fresh water for nesting, because we have not identified a nesting pair on the island.  They do, however nest at nearby Magnolia Plantation in the spring.  I went there for a field trip in May, and was delighted to see large fluffy babies in nests leaning out over the pond.

Anhinga nesting colony with chicks, Magnolia Plantation
when an anhinga swims, most of it is underwater


Bird Migration: Cliff Swallows on Huyler House Pond

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swallow, post dive

Last weekend, I watched a group of swallows dive and wheel over the Huyler House pond, occasionally swooping in for a snack in the water.  (Click here to see a quick video). They were tiny, almost bat-sized, and I have no idea what they were scooping up.  We’ve seen this before, and my hypothesis is that we have a group of migrating cliff swallows who are passing through.  They were hard to identify because they were moving so fast, but they seemed to have hood-like chestnut markings, a whitish belly, and blunt tails.  (this photo sort of freezes the action.)

Cliff swallows are the famous swallows that “return to Capistrano,” and migrate long distances.  They don’t nest in our area, but they may parade through on their way south; some headed to Argentina.  Birds of North America says that they are “the most social landbirds,” because they nest in large colonies.  They have been pushed out of some nesting areas by the aggressive house sparrow, but they are also aggressive themselves, pushing eggs of other species out of nests to make room for their own eggs. (According to Wikipedia, the swallows don’t actually return to Capistrano anymore; rather, they nest further north, in the eaves of a country club.)

I’m pretty sure that I have correctly identified them, but I’d love some visual confirmation if anyone else has identified these birds.

they swoop into the water to scoop up (mosquitoes?)

National Wildlife just published an article yesterday on Bird Migration, (click here to read) and why shorebirds that rest in the marshes of the Gulf of Mexico may be imperiled by oil.

And here is a link to an interesting article in the New York Times last May about what scientists are learning about bird migration using geo-locators as small as a grain of rice. It describes birds who migrate thousands of miles.


Dewees Beach a great place to see Common Nighthawks

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Nesting nighthawk on the south end in the spring

If you haven’t noticed the funny, electrical sound of the common nighthawk out on the beach, be sure to listen closely.  Nighthawks are identifiable by their white wing patches, and you can often see them on the dead trees at Osprey Walk, or the posts at Osprey or on the post where you turn off Pelican Flight lane to get to Huyler House walk.  We have seen them nesting at both ends of the island in the springtime, and they are fairly common summer residents.  We assume they are beginning to migrate south for the winter.  They are pretty well-camouflaged birds with long wings and somewhat erratic flight.  They make buzzes and booms to the point where you may be convinced that a small jet is whirling around.

This is a link to a great video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which gives you a great example of their sounds and flight patterns.


Dewees Island helps release Pelican to wild flock

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Yesterday, we released a rehabilitated pelican to a wild flock.  When I got Lori’s call that he was headed over to the island, I was hoping we would be able to release him on the beach at Osprey walk, coinciding with the scheduled happy hour. So we headed to the ferry dock to meet Cindy Steffen, a volunteer for the SC Center for Birds of Prey.  While they usually deal with raptors, they have some new folks who are also experienced in sea birds.  This juvenile brown pelican was brought in after being found swimming alone.  He was fluffy and down covered, but somewhat malnourished.  Three weeks later, he has his feathers and self-sufficiency and needs to be with a flock.  The necessity of a flock trumped the fun of releasing him on the beach with a supportive group to cheer him on.

Cindy had talked to Captain Paul Zobel about trying to get him close to the shell middens at the end of the cut, where there is usually a flock of pelicans hanging around.  Since we had a hard time envisioning the ferry getting close enough, (and we couldn’t pass up the chance to be part of it), we jumped on our motorboat with Cindy and the pelican, and headed out to the channel.  A large group of brown pelicans seemed to be settling in for the night.  We coasted up to the edge of the bank, and Cindy released him gently over the side of the motorboat, close to the flock but not so close that we would startle them.  He swam to shore and then sat on the bank, waiting alone, apart from the group.  We took Cindy back to the marina.

On our way back, we coasted toward the bank as quietly as we could to see how he was faring.  We were glad to see that he had joined the flock.  He looks like he’s still assimilating, but I think he’ll be fine.


Watch for Clapper Rails and chicks

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Clapper Rails, or marsh hens, are marsh birds who hide in the tall grasses. They are rather numerous near the ferry dock, and trying to spot them can be entertaining while you wait for the ferry. They have a call(click to listen) rather like a clapping sound.  Usually they are well hidden in the grass, but when the spring high tides come in, they have to move to higher ground.  The last few days have been great for spotting them, and they move themselves and their chicks out of the way of the tides.  I have even seen two whole families ushering chicks across the road from the impoundment to the marsh along Dewees Inlet drive.

According to Birds of North America, Rails form monogamous pairs for the nesting season, and both males and females play roles in nest-building, incubation, and railing and protecting chicks.  They feed on fiddler crabs and other crustaceans, minnows, snails, and sometimes the seeds from marsh plants like Spartina.  They are often in the marsh channels at low tide, walking deliberately and pulling fiddler crabs out of burrows.  Enature describes their nest as: 9-12 buff eggs, spotted or blotched with brown, in a shallow saucer or deep bowl of dead marsh grasses, often domed.

Chicks are small and fluffy, and able to walk within hours of hatching,  They look just like tiny chicken chicks.  They are VERY hard to see in the marsh, especially against the pluff mud.  My dad Bob and I watched for about an hour on Friday afternoon at high tide near the ferry dock.  Because the tide was so high, the rails were somewhat concentrated in a particular area, and there were a number of loud territorial squabbles.  When I went over to check it out, I could hear tiny peeping sounds, so I suspected there was a nest nearby, but with binoculars and a zoom lens, I was still unable to find anything but adults.  Finally, after watching for a while, we realized that the chicks were black, and following the parents through the marsh.  Even when you knew they were there, they were almost impossible to see.  It’s probably a good thing: Clapper rail chicks are preyed upon by laughing gulls, raccoons, owls, mink,  and foxes.

Can you see the chick in this photo?


Screech Owl Pellet found

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Here’s an unusual present that I found on the roof this week. It was during the green building tour that I noticed a perfect, egg-shaped pellet on the corner of the rooftop deck. There was only one thing it could be– there were bits of fur and feathers and bugs, so we were sure it was an owl pellet. Since we hear Great Horned Owls most often, I started looking for pictures of their pellets, and they were large and irregular. Then I found a description of a Screech Owl Pellet on the BNA (Birds of North America) website out of Cornell. If you have never used this site, you have to pay a membership fee, but it’s great! Sure enough, screech owls form oval or cylindrical pellets.

Stay tuned– we will probably dissect this pellet as a nature program later in the summer.

When Lori and Gretchen went to check our wood duck boxes in the conservation area this week, they found several screech owls in the boxes. Nesting season is pretty much over for them in South Carolina, right now, so they were most likely roosting during the daylight in a rather safe location. Lori says they are the rufous-phased (reddish) morph of the Eastern Screech Owl.

Here’s a cool video of screech owls using a nest box with the male feeding the female:

You can learn more and hear a screech owl call at enature.