From The Blog

Red Knots Make Critical Stop on Kiawah

When you usually think of Kiawah, you probably think of resting and relaxing with friends, maybe grabbing a bite to eat at one of your favorite places. Would you be surprised to learn that a threatened species of shorebird feels the same way? Red Knots, a small drably-colored species of bird, flock to the island for some R&R starting in March.

Kiawah Island is a critical stopover on their 9,000 mile (yes, you read that right!) journey to the Arctic from the southern tip of South America. This is one of the longest migration distances of any animal on Earth and the population of Red Knots has declined about 75% since the 1980s.

The food and rest Red Knots get here on Kiawah are important to their very survival. Birds arrive from South America starting in March, depleted of energy and often emaciated from the long and taxing flight. In order to make the flight north to their breeding grounds, these birds need to rest and increase their body weight by about 10% each day that they spend here. On Kiawah, you often see them feeding as the tide is going out, when their food source, the colorful bivalves called coquinas, becomes obvious by tiny indentations in the sand. By the time they leave the island in May, these little birds will have doubled their body weight and changed color, from a sandy gray to rusty red.

The Kiawah and Seabrook areas have long been an important stopover on the way north but recently that status came to the forefront when a flock of7,000 individuals was documented. This was the largest single flock on the east coast and possibly the northern hemisphere, reaffirming just how critical this environment is for the declining species. Bette Popillo, a self-described ‘bird nerd’ and Shorebird Steward, emphasized this point as well. “From the island, two-thirds of these birds fly nonstop to the Arctic. It’s critical that people let them rest and feed. Disturbing them could literally be the difference between life and death for some of these birds.”

According to the US Fish and Wildlife service, the smaller populations that remain face many hurdles, including sea level rise, development, reduced food availability at stopover areas, disturbance by vehicles, people, dogs, aircraft, and boats, and climate change. On Kiawah specifically, disturbances from people and pets, and reduced food availability are the biggest concerns.

People can help by giving these shorebirds the space they need to rest and feed. That means remaining500 feet away from flocks of birds. A good rule of thumb is that if birds begin to react, you are already too close. Children and pets, which might disturb birds intentionally to watch them fly, should be kept away from these flocks. While critical habitat areas at both ends of the beach help encourage this, these birds are found all over Kiawah’s beach, especially during the months of March through May. Be mindful of shorebirds when you’re out enjoying the beach. “We like to encourage folks to share the beach with shorebirds,” says South Carolina DNR biologist, Janet Thibault. “Residents of Kiawah should be proud that these remarkable creatures visit their beach. It’s their home too!”

Another way to help is to get involved in the Shorebird Stewardship program. A Town of Kiawah Island program, much like the Turtle Patrol, Shorebird Stewards patrol the beach and educate interested individuals about the variety of birds we have on the island. While shorebird stewards are out on the beach during much of the time the Red Knots visit, Bette says the best way to experience birds on the island is to get a pair of binoculars. “You can’t and shouldn’t get close to the amazing variety of shorebirds we are lucky to have on the island. A pair of binoculars is the best way to open up a world of treasures that most people don’t get to experience.”

Questions or want to help? Contact Bette Popillo at [email protected] for answers from a Shorebird Steward.