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Shoring Up Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary for SC Coastal Birds

Going out in the boat, or travelling to the beach, are both popular things to do in summer. It’s a safe bet that watching a pelican fly by or perform an aerial dive into the water is a part of that experience that most folks take for granted. Did you know that South Carolina is home base for a whopping 38-percent of all the nesting brown pelicans on the East Coast. An ambitious plan addressing coastal bird conservation plans to raise $2 million dollars, and partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging project in 2019, to fully restore Crab Bank for the sake of nesting birds.

Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary is owned by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and is located in Charleston Harbor at the mouth of Shem Creek. The nesting habitat there suffered serious erosion from Hurricane Irma in 2017, and is subject to continuous wave action form wind, tide and boats. Crab Bank is listed as an Important Bird Area by Audubon, and used to be home to approximately 5000 nests for a wide range of coastal birds. Only a sliver of Crab Bank remains today, and it is much too small to provide and nesting cover presently.

The S.C. coastline is 187-miles in length and there are only four other islands like Crab Bank that are used as a rookery by coastal birds. Crab Bank may be the smallest of those islands, but its location in Charleston Harbor made it precious as an educational tool for the public. The $2 million dollar fundraising effort is going to rely on both private funding and governmental cost-share dollars that will pay for the dredge material brought up from the bottom of Charleston Harbor in early 2019. The goal is to provide 28-acres of nesting habitat at Crab Bank.

“If renourished, Crab Bank can produce hundreds of thousands of young birds over the next fifty years,” said Felicia Sanders, an SCDNR wildlife biologist. “This is also a place where humans can get close enough in boats and kayaks to learn about the birds without disturbing them.” Coastal tourism brings lots of visitors hoping to see wildlife, but in the case of restoring Crab Bank, they can witness conservation in action. Coastal birds are declining in number over the past 50 years due to habitat loss, human disturbance and sea level rise, explaining the emphasis being put on the Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary.

It isn’t all bad news for coastal bird habitat on the SC coast, because Deveaux Bank between Seabrook Island and Edisto Island is rebuilding naturally and is now easily over 100-acres. Felicia Sanders came to speak to the Seabrook Island Birders Club in July 2017 about shorebirds that nest in the Arctic and over winter in South America. Tracking research shows that some of the shorebirds make one stop during their long distance migration, and species like Red Knots are choosing Deveaux Bank as that stopover. A menagerie of birds can be seen utilizing Deveaux Bank in summer, and its importance to coastal birds can not be underscored enough.

Sand spits and barrier islands can change in a hurry when influenced by hurricanes, but they are constantly in a state of flux simply due to constant exposure to the intertidal zone. Crab Bank is at the smallest size I have ever witnessed presently, but Deveaux Bank is currently at the largest size I have ever witnessed and it is still growing. Coastal geology plays out over the long term and coastal birds have always been able to navigate these changes by choosing the next best habitat for nesting. It’s more important than ever that a place like Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary not go away permanently, because it has a proven history as a safe haven inside Charleston Harbor for coastal birds.

Besides nesting, lots of wading birds use Crab Bank as a loafing area, safe from predators, while they wait out the high tide cycle before going fishing again. Other birds flying by see multiple birds using a site, and they recognize that place as safe. One might see top-tier predators like an osprey or even a bald eagle pausing on the beach at a seabird sanctuary, not to mention shorebirds like the skimmer or American oystercatcher. To learn more visit the SC Coastal Bird Conservation page on FaceBook, and find out which other bird species are likely to benefit from this habitat restoration opportunity.

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

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (360 Posts)

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