Welcome to Edisto, Whimbrels

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By VICKI BROWN

At the mouth of the Edisto River sits Deveaux Island. In the last two years, a discovery has made the tiny island famous.
The new discovery is Whimbrels.
Whimbrels are one of the most wide-ranging shorebirds in the world. They are easy to recognize by their distinctive down-curved bill which helps them barrel into the burrows of crustaceans, their favorite food.
In May 2019, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) biologist Felicia Sanders and a team of researchers confirmed that approximately 20,000 Whimbrels were roosting at night on a small island during their spring migration.
The team documented similar numbers again in 2020 and 2021. According to Sanders, this single flock includes nearly half of the declining shorebird’s estimated eastern population: a staggering spectacle hiding in plain sight.
Whimbrels have declined more than 70 percent in the last 30 years due to loss of habitat and poaching.
Some populations have decreased 80 percent since the 1970s and 80s. These losses in the number of birds and resting sites for the shorebirds have begun to significantly impact the survival of their populations and many other species.
In the 1800’s and early 1900’s there was a lot of commercial hunting in the United States. This was before wildlife laws were initiated to save various species from extinction. It was so bad that the very common Eskimo Curlew is now extinct primarily because of unregulated shooting to supply restaurants.
So, saving the whimbrels has been of primary importance to wild life conservationists.
Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology at William and Mary, said he has tracked 33 adult Whimbrels with satellite transmitters for 12,802 bird-days to investigate migration patterns throughout the year.
After spending the winter on the coasts of South America, whimbrels fly thousands of miles north to nest and raise young across subarctic regions of Canada and Alaska. They typically make just one stop along the way.
For most of these birds, that stop is in South Carolina, where they rest and feed on rich coastal shrimp and fiddler crab that will fuel their breeding season.
On the island at high tides and at night, the birds flock together for safety. They seek large, isolated islands like Deveaux Bank, where disturbances from people and predators are minimal. But relatively few such places remain along the Atlantic coast. Some of the birds have been seen on Edisto Beach and nearby islands enjoying the fiddler crabs they feed on.
“Having such a globally important phenomenon occur right here in our own backyards, that’s really something to be proud of,” said Sanders. “And I think it’s really important to understand that biologists aren’t the only ones that care about these birds. It is important that local communities take ownership of places like Deveaux for wildlife to thrive near their homes. It really does take all of us to protect places as important as Deveaux and declining wildlife populations.”

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