I've always thought it funny that the tall, leggy wading birds choose to nest in trees while small sandpipers and plovers are ground nesters.
Magnolia Plantation is one of my favorite spring spots to see the heron and egrets perched precariously in the cypress trees. The trees rise in the middle of spacious ponds, providing a safe haven for the young. Alligators may lurk in the waters beneath the tree branches hoping that a little one may have an accident, but the babies we saw were happily calling out to mom and dad looking for their lunch. The swampy habitat has ample food for the colony without the adults having to roam very far. Within a few months the juvenile birds will be strong enough to leave the nest and learn to fish for themselves.
Tiny shorebirds prefer to make their nests directly on the ground. Some species have nests that are no more than a divot in the sand with eggs that are perfectly camouflaged to the surrounding habitat. Much of the preferred shorebird nesting habitat is also preferred human habitat - edges of beaches and sandy islands. Many beaches mark nesting areas with sign poles and rope to warn people of the dangers of stepping on the nearly invisible eggs or allowing dogs to run around off leash and potentially crushing the eggs.
Along much of the coastline, small uninhabited islands are used by numerous species of sandpipers, plovers, terns, skimmers, gulls, oystercatchers, and pelicans as a protected rookery. Crab Band in the Charleston Harbor and Bird Key at the mouth of the Stono River are two such examples. Both are old dredge spoil islands and have little more than scrub brush as vegetation. Birds can build their nests away from predators like raccoons and the islands are closed to human foot traffic during most of the year. During March - June thousands of birds can be seen on these tiny spits of land and the process of nest building, roosting, and raising the young is a joy to behold.
The photos below show some of our regular visitors. Fluffy juvenile Royal Terns rest on the ground while adults stand watch on Crab Bank. Brown pelican chicks take some time to get their legs under them and are adorably awkward while learning to walk/fly/hunt. A flock of largely ruddy turnstones flies by the Morris Island Lighthouse. Large flocks are often found on Morris and the surrounding sandbars resting and feeding.
Over the last decade more and more development has come to our barrier islands. As our homes encroach on the fragile habitat these species need to survive we risk losing the rookeries that have helped sustain these populations for decades. Sea level rise may still be a far away mirage for many, but the effects are felt several times a season as increasingly high tides inundate Crab Bank and low lying nests on Bird Key and Morris Island. When I began running kayak tours out of Shem Creek, Crab Bank was a comparably massive island with vegetation; now it's barely 1/4 the land mass it used to be and shrinking.
Organizations like the SC Audubon Society have been working to add sediment to the island during the upcoming dredge project in the Charleston Harbor. This is neither easy nor cheap. Birds are resilient and with luck with find new places to nest while concerned citizens work to preserve what remains of their current habitat.
To learn more about the challenges these birds face visit: