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Port Royal Sound Foundation – Wildlife Conservation Series

The old Lemon Island Marina is now home to the Port Royal Sound Foundation, with a maritime center that invites the public to stop in and learn more about a unique ecosystem. Admission is free from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. from Tuesday until Saturday, and volunteers are waiting to show the 3000-gallon aquarium filled with marine life and to answer questions. The monthly Tuesday Talks series brings in educational speakers to focus on wildlife species and biologist Tom Murphy spoke in January about his work with the S.C. Bald Eagle program.

Tom Murphy retired in 2009 after 34 years working for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, helping to implement the program to monitor bald eagles. “Setting up a program to monitor and study an endangered species like the bald eagle was a new endeavor, since SCDNR mainly dealt with game species,” said Murphy. “The first ever nest survey flights over South Carolina recorded just 13 bald eagle nests, and that became our baseline to first learn about their natural history and then to marvel at their ability to adapt.”

Today, bald eagle recovery continues to boom and they are no longer listed as an endangered species. “The nest survey flight in 2009 recorded 253 eagle nests in S.C. and their population growth was estimated to be 10% per year,” said Murphy. “We learned that bald eagles didn’t simply migrate into SC during duck migration, but rather it is due to the advantages of winter nesting. The abundance of coots in winter can’t be overstated since they are an easy source of food for bald eagles. And the water clarity in the Lowcountry is best in winter, making for better fishing conditions for bald eagles, which may have vision equivalent to 7X magnification.”

“A bald eagle nest is often 6 to 8-feet across and just as deep,” said Murphy. “We began attaching leg bands to eaglets in order to study their movements and we learned through experience that they could remover traditional leg bands with ease, so we developed some with a flange and rivet that are still in use today. Other information gleaned from watching the nest is that the first eaglet to hatch is always the most aggressive and is the first to be fed at meal time.” Bald eagles do feed on carrion but the nest studies noted that anandramous fish runs, such as the shad run, are heavily utilized by nesting bald eagles.

“Natural mortality of bald eagles is occurring in S.C. each year, but this is outweighed by the stability of the population,” said Murphy. “There is an estimated 491,000-acres of man-made reservoirs in S.C. and all of that is good habitat for bald eagles to potentially utilize.” With the endangered species protections no longer in place, it is easier for development to crowd an existing bald eagle nest, but sometimes the bald eagles learn to adapt to that disturbance. In many cases, a bald eagle nest is celebrated as a source of pride in the local community, and a great place to observe nature in action.

While the Port Royal Sound Foundation may focus on marine life, they cherish the larger ecosystem including 200,000-acres of spartina grass, which is almost half of all salt marsh found in South Carolina. Port Royal Sound is the deepest natural harbor on the East Coast south of Chesapeake Bay, providing for a higher salinity rate with sea life found deeper inland. Another contributing factor is that the upper watershed is forested and that only the Coosawhatchie River flows into Port Royal Sound. Finally, with the deeper channels comes a more vigorous tidal flow, beckoning sea turtles, cobia, sharks and manatees to swim in for a visit during annual feeding and spawning cycles.

The Maritime Center will host boating tours with the return of warmer weather, but one can see oyster recovery projects underway during any visit. The next Tuesday Talks are coming up on March 13 with the Lowcountry Master Naturalist Association and on March 20 with the Charleston Aquarium talking about sea turtles. Visit the Internet at www.PortRoyalSoundFoundation.org for more information about how to connect the dots regarding the importance of this area.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (341 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com