Dewees Island Shorebirds and Seabirds

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Dewees Island Shorebirds and Seabirds

Dewees Island’s various habitats provide nesting, feeding, and resting opportunities for many species of birds. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to observe many species of rare and threatened birds utilizing the impoundment and front beach as they search for food, rest during their long spring and fall migrations, and raise their young.

What’s the difference between shorebirds, seabirds, and wading birds?

Shorebirds are often migratory birds that wade close to shore and forage by poking their bills in the ground. Examples of shorebirds include American Oystercatchers, Black Skimmers, Plovers, and Sandpipers. Seabirds spend most of their lives out at sea. They only move toward coastal areas to breed or raise young. Examples of seabirds include gulls, terns, and pelicans. Wading birds often spend their time in wetlands wading through the water looking for their food. They typically have long legs and long bills that are specialized for the type of food that they eat. Examples of wading birds include herons, egrets, spoonbills, and ibis.

What are the most common nesting shorebirds and seabirds I’m likely to find at Dewees?


Wilson’s Plover

Piping Plover

The Wilson’s Plover can be distinguished from the other plovers such as the Piping Plover and the Semipalmated Plover by its single chest band. They are gray-brown on their dorsal side and white on their belly side. This gray-brown coloration and their small size makes them difficult to spot on the beach. They inhabit sandy beaches and tidal flats and eat fiddler and mud crabs. These birds lay their eggs directly on the sand, sometimes surrounded by broken shells, near or above the wrack line. When the Wilson’s Plover feels that its nest is in danger, it will begin a ‘broken wing’ display in which it pretends to be injured in order to redirect the predator away from its nest. If witnessing a broken wing display, please back away from the bird and be careful not to step on her nest. During a June 2014 bird survey on Dewees, 14 adults and 2 chicks were spotted, indicating a successful nesting season despite their status as a Species of High Concern by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan and by the Southeastern Coastal Plains-Caribbean Region Plan. The best place to see Wilson’s Plover is north of Osprey Walk on the beach during late spring to summer.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

The American Oystercatcher is a large shorebird that can be identified by its black head, dark brown back and wings, white belly, and, probably most notably, their long, orange bills used to pry open oysters. They nest in coastal habitats with little vegetative cover. On the beach, they are usually spotted in pairs or groups of 3: one mating pair and one first-year bird that is presumably ‘learning the ropes’ from the mating pair. Between 50 and 60 percent of South Carolina’s wintering oystercatchers are in the region between Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and Dewees Inlet. Oystercatchers also nest on the beach in small depressions in the sand. They will lay between 1 to 3 eggs per clutch. Oystercatchers can best be viewed from the ferry while travelling in Dewees Inlet.



During the summer, Willets are mottled gray, brown, and black. During the winter months, they turn a plain gray. While in flight, their wings display a striking white and black stripe along the ends. They are large and stocky, and they have comparably long legs. Willets typically live alone and often walk the beach, pausing to probe for prey in the sand and mudflats. They nest in the summer months, typically in the dune vegetation that they blend in with. Even though both parents will incubate the eggs, the male will spend the nights on the nest. Willets are best viewed in the Impoundment and along the front beach.





Least tern

Least Tern

Least terns are the smallest seabirds that nest on the South Carolina coast. They can be identified by a black cap ending at their white head, a short white eyestripe, a yellow bill with a black tip, and a light gray color during breeding season. In nonbreeding season, they have a black eyestripe extending to the back of the head, white on top of the head, and a blackbill. Least terns nest on sandy beaches along the southern coasts of the United States. Since the early 80’s in South Carolina, increased coastal development has led to Least Terns nesting on roofs instead of on the beach. These roofs are made up of a pea gravel substrate that allow the Least Terns to nest there. In 2013, 60 percent of Least Tern nesting sites in South Carolina were on roofs. On Dewees in the summer of 2014, we have located at least 1 Least Tern nest on the beach. Least terns are best viewed on either end of the island along the inlets in the nesting areas.

Eastern Brown Pelican

Eastern Brown Pelican

The Eastern Brown Pelican is the only pelican species that is not white. They are common throughout coastal South Carolina, and can be identified by their characteristic long bills with an underlying gular (throat) pouch. They reach sexual maturity at 3 years. While they don’t nest on Dewees, they will nest in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Lousiana in the spring and summer months on tree or in shallow depressions on the ground. Clutches consists of between 2 and 3 eggs. Pelicans can typically spotted in the water diving head first into the water in search of fish.

Why are these birds threatened in South Carolina?

Throughout the entire United States, wetland habitat alterations and coastal development have greatly reduced the habitat that shorebirds and seabirds use to nest and forage. In the lower 48 states, more than 50% of original wetland habitat suitable for these birds has been destroyed or degraded since the late 1700s. Furthermore, recreational use of bird habitats such as fishing, motor vehicle use, and walking unleashed dogs can disturb nesting birds. If disturbed, they could abandon their nesting sites, eggs, or young, leaving them vulnerable to predation

How can I help?

On the north end of the beach at Dewees, nesting sites have been marked by signs. Please, do not approach the signs and avoid the area. Also, if walking dogs north of Osprey Walk, please keep your dogs on a leash and away from the nesting area. If you spot an agitated bird (flying in circles, calling loudly and frequently, possibly engaging in a broken wing display or other displays), move away from the bird and watch your step- you may be close to a nest and they are cleverly camouflaged in the sand. Loafing birds, birds that are not feeding or breeding, are often resting on our beaches, and it is very important that beachgoers avoid these birds as well.


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