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Shorebird Symposium Held By Kiawah Conservancy

When Kiawah Island was purchased by the Kuwait Investment Company for the purpose of development and growth, an extensive environmental inventory of the island was recorded in 1975. Eventually Kiawah became locally owned again, and with the barrier island’s ecosystem already identified as extraordinary, the local residents embraced a long-term vision regarding habitat protection. Today the Kiawah Conservancy conducts outreach programs about wildlife found on the island from alligators to bobcats, and their recent shorebird symposium salutes the little brown birds that briefly stopover on their beach to rest and recover during migration.

Attending the Oct. 12 Shorebird Symposium at the Sandcastle Community Center on Kiawah Island did not involve going outside and looking for shorebirds. Rather it featured a full house of birding enthusiasts who are keen on sharing the good news that even though shorebird habitat is declining globally, the beach at Kiawah is in very good shape and is being utilized by a wide array of coastal birds. The ambitious three-hour program included lectures, a question and answer session with a panel of experts, and even the premiere of a new film titled ‘Taking Wing.’
Other facts about the Kiawah Conservancy include that 2017 marks the 20th anniversary since their founding in 1997. And their land procurement goals are getting more serious, achieving national accreditation by the Land Trust Alliance in 2017. During its 20-year history, the Kiawah Conservancy has preserved 36 properties that total over 348-acres of pristine barrier island habitat. A map of their protected properties on the Internet at www.KiawahConservancy.org shows that some properties are literally single home lots, and others are swaths of marsh and coastal zones that are precious to wildlife.

Aaron Given is a biologist with the Town of Kiawah and he said there are at least 34 species of shorebirds that can be found on the island. His slide show presentation underscores how it can be maddening for a novice birdwatcher to identify shorebirds as anything other than those little brown birds, or LBB’s. He shares that with the right gear like binoculars and a spotting scope, that a patient observer can indeed tell these birds apart by identifying shape, height, bill length, leg color and flight pattern. Of special interest is the red knot shorebirds that stopover on Kiawah in Spring hoping to rest and feed on horseshoe crab eggs.

Speaker Lawrence Niles is a biologist, researcher and conservationist who studies shorebirds and coastal ecosystems at Delaware Bay, situated between New Jersey and Delaware. “Despite seeing a major reduction of shorebirds in the world, we hope to change this trend with volunteerism,” said Niles. “When horseshoe crabs used to lay carpets of eggs on the shores of Delaware Bay, the red knots would gorge on it. But when the horseshoe crabs were overfished, we came to find out that they are an underlying influencer on the entire ecosystem.”

Niles shared that the level of interest found today regarding crabs and red knots is far greater than in the past. In fact a community of conservation has sprung up in New Jersey, tracking the fate of the horseshoe crabs with the same vigor that our turtle ladies track loggerhead nesting along local coastlines. Return The Favor NJ records that in 2013 they rescued 4,597-crabs by turning them over when they were found stranded upside down. In 2017 the number of crabs rescued increased to 131,024 and Niles says that with these higher numbers this kind of volunteer effort can actually have an effect on their overall population. Perhaps this is the blueprint for a future outreach program of the Kiawah Conservancy.

Film producer and director Cynthia Neal of Nashville, Tennessee was in attendance to give an introduction before the debut of her ‘Taking Wing’ movie that was filmed at Kiawah. She captures the magic of spring shorebird migration on the beach using aerial drone footage and shoreside interviews with locals. She has worked with the Kiawah Conservancy before to produce films on alligators and sea turtles and she is very passionate about the natural beauty found on Kiawah Island, where development and wildlife strive to coexist in harmony.

The 20th Anniversary of the Kiawah Conservancy continues with their Legacy Gala on Sunday November 12 at the Sanctuary Hotel. The current edition of their magazine called Naturally Kiawah is available online, to learn more about shorebirds, snakes, bobcats and horseshoe crabs. A simple takeaway message form the shorebird symposium is to go around large flocks of shorebirds when you see them on the beach, since they tend to flare and fly off. Remember, an abundance of shorebirds is a great indicator of healthy habitat, and all of the Lowcountry beaches are of vital importance to coastal birds.

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

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (300 Posts)

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