One Of The Most Mind-blowing Discoveries In The History Of 20th- And 21st-Century Ornithology

Whimbrel returning to Deveaux Bank for their night roost. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

We have not featured Deborah Cramer in our pages previously, but this seems like a fine time to start. She is a visiting scholar at M.I.T.’s Environmental Solutions Initiative and the author of the book to the right.  Accompanied by excellent photographs from Damon Winter as well as exceptionally lucid infographics, her interactive essay in the New York Times is a forceful plea for conservation of a sensitive bird habitat:

An Oystercatcher on the bank. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Leave This Wondrous Island to the Birds

An ever-changing spit of sand on the Carolina coast is a haven for multitudes of shorebirds. But nature and humans threaten it.

ABOUT 20 MILES south of Charleston, S.C., at the mouth of the North Edisto River, a small, horseshoe-shaped sandbar rises above the water. The claim of land is tenuous on Deveaux Bank, about a half-mile offshore. At high tide, it’s three-quarters submerged. Deveaux’s sand is continually shifting as swirling currents build it up and wash it away. In some years, the island disappears altogether.

This ephemeral spit of sand, about 250 acres, is a gathering place for tens of thousands of birds. It has been home to the largest population of brown pelicans on the East Coast and to large populations of terns. There are skimmers, gulls, oystercatchers, red knots and more. Of the 57 coastal water bird species that South Carolina has identified as of “greatest conservation need,” virtually all are found on Deveaux.

Not least among them is the Hudsonian whimbrel, a large, brown-speckled sandpiper whose curved bill looks like the crescent of a barely new moon. The island is a critical way station for whimbrels on their long back-and-forth migration between South America and northern Canada.

Until a few years ago, no one knew where, exactly, most of these birds roosted at night as they fattened up for the final leg of their journey. Then, as dawn broke one day in 2014, Felicia Sanders, a biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, watched astounded as flock after flock of whimbrels flew from the island out over the water. She couldn’t quite believe her eyes: She usually found whimbrels during the day, out in the marshes feeding on fiddler crabs, but at most she would spot a couple of small, scattered flocks. That morning, staggering numbers were leaving the island, which, as it turned out, was the largest nocturnal roosting place for these birds in the Western Hemisphere.

“This,” says John Fitzpatrick, the longtime executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “was one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in the history of 20th- and 21st-century ornithology.”…

Read the whole essay here.

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