Bird Study, conservation, South Carolina

Our expedition to capture Kiawah Island knots


We just returned from an “expedition” to Kiawah Island, South Carolina.  Kiawah is a resort for the wealthy that was originally developed during the period when I worked at University of Clemson facility at the Barnard Beruch winter plantation in 1974-76.  Then the South Carolina Coast was mostly working class with resorts centered at Myrtle Beach and Charleston.  Now it is like most of the Atlantic coast, a property of the rich.  Kiawah is one of the wealthiest islands on the east coast.

The island is essentially a gated, planned community ten times the size of Wildwood NJ.  But unlike Wildwood, whose summer population swells to 250,000 tourists , Kiawah peaks at about twice its winter population of 1,163.   At its peak population Kiawah is a sleepy town, at its peak Wildwood has density of over 178,500 people/sq mile, and even that is not enough for local NJ politicians and businessmen.


Many coastal islands of the southeast states were developed after the very wealthy sold them off to real estates developers, although a few like the RJ Reynolds estate were donated to conservation organizations.  The developers that designed Kiawah had previously developed similar coastal island resorts, like Hilton Head, SC, and learned too late the economic value of a natural setting .  With Kiawah they were determined to preserve its natural ambiance by increasing the setback distance from the ocean shore and preserving much of the maritime forest of live oak.  The result is both a lovely residential atmosphere and a largely intact coastal ecosystem.

I asked Jim Jordan, the leader of a small wildlife management unit on the island  (funded by the town government) how they control deer?  He said “We don’t, the bobcats do”.  He explained that they have >30 bobcats on the island, ten of which  are equipped each year with transmitters.  Through this work they have a good understanding of how bobcats use of the island and have documented the extraordinary relationship between deer and bobcats.  The bobcats prey on fawn deer.  This creates one of the most elegant solutions to a nasty problem – the overpopulation of deer in developed areas — that plagues many NJ towns, including less enlightened places like Princeton NJ who have paid to have their deer killed by netting and bolt guns, (ever seen the movie “No Country for Old Men”?).


Jim Jordan and Felicia Sanders, the coastal bird biologist for SC Department of Natural Resources, invited us to help trap knots.   A few months ago we tried to trap knots in southwest Florida with mixed success because the knot numbers were down dramatically.   From Jim’s resightings of knots (marked with engraved leg flags) we found that the same birds left Florida in late January and came to South Carolina.   In late January, Jim had over 5,000 red knots on the beaches of Kiawah, or 20% of the total known population.

red knots in front of the Clubhouse on Kiawah Island. Kiawah will host 2012 PGA Nationals Golf Tournament.

By the time we arrived the flock was at 3,500 knots, all in one flock.  For those lucky enough, a big flock of shorebirds is a glorious sight — thousands of individuals, all capable of making up their own minds about what to do next and yet flying together as one big organism.  They roosted on the east end of Kiawah and foraged all along the sparsely-used beach and inlet; a far cry from the Florida wintering areas, where people crowd into nearly every single beach, and a world away from Wildwood in late summer when shorebirds desperately attempt to find even tiny unused beaches.


Our South Carolina shorebird team clock wise from left Larry, Mandy, Christy, Felicia, Nick, Steve, Janet, Melissa, Jim and Arron.

With a team assembled by Felicia we made a good catch of nearly 400 birds and re-captured three knots with geolocators (see Jim’s video on above).   These birds will tell us a very useful story.