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A man-made island in South Carolina provides much needed sanctuary for shorebirds

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Scientists are warning that shorebirds are disappearing along the Atlantic coast. A study published this spring by U.S. and Canadian researchers shows populations dropping by more than 50% since 1980. They've issued an urgent call for conservation. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen takes us to a place built for birds.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Janet Thibault deliberately walks where people are not allowed.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SLOSHING)

HANSEN: ...A sandy, shapeless Ellis Island in the Charleston Harbor covered with tiny tracks.

JANET THIBAULT: I got my binoculars. I got my spotting scope.

HANSEN: The wildlife biologist is keeping a close eye on the intimate lives of sea- and shorebirds.

THIBAULT: All right. I think we have another nest.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

THIBAULT: I see two birds incubating.

HANSEN: Thibault works for the Department of Natural Resources, which owns the island and closes it for summer so birds can nest safely in the sand away from predators and people. It's a critical time for the seabird sanctuary known as Crab Bank. The eroding island was wiped away by a hurricane in 2017, leaving thousands of birds without a place to nest for four seasons until a reconstructed sanctuary emerged last summer. The birds are still finding their way back.

THIBAULT: OK, we got chicks. So this is a freshly hatched American oystercatcher chick. There's a - the second egg is starting to pip out, so the chick is breaking the shell.

HANSEN: A fluffy, beige-and-white chick with big feet stares at the speckled egg beside him. The sibling egg is cracked, and a barely visible beak peeps.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD PEEPING)

HANSEN: The baby oystercatchers beaks will eventually grow bright orange and flat to pry open the shell delicacies for which they're named. Nearby, graceful skimmers belly flop into the sand to create a nest. Tiny, yellow-billed least terns dangle fish as they fly to entice a mate, and white-bellied Wilson's plovers sprout new plumage for their big date.

THIBAULT: They're just trying to raise a family.

HANSEN: Thibault is pleased by what she sees. She hopes this season, Crab Bank will surpass the more than 500 nests she helped track last summer, although originally it saw 10 times as many. She worries about the future of ocean birds.

THIBAULT: It's their life. You know, their life depends on these spits of sand.

HANSEN: Chris Crolley is concerned, too. He gives wildlife tours and fears birds are being squeezed out.

CHRIS CROLLEY: Coastal squeeze is the idea that as the water continues to rise, the birds have nowhere to go.

HANSEN: Crolley was part of the fight to save Crab Bank after it literally went under following a hurricane. Shortly after, the Army Corps of Engineers was dredging the harbor and found sediment to rebuild the island.

CROLLEY: And then we just watched Crab Bank manifest out of a beneficial dredge spoil spewing pipe.

HANSEN: The pipe spewed for seven weeks, building a bigger 32-acre island. Project manager Jeff Livasy says it was eye-opening.

JEFF LIVASY: I'm an engineer. We know about moving material and that type of thing, but to learn about the birds and the habitat...

HANSEN: He says the Army Corps has set a goal of beneficially reusing 70% of all dredge materials. Crolley would like to see the state, which already spends millions with nourishing beaches for people, set aside sand for creatures that need it.

CROLLEY: This is real wild birds, you know, fighting to survive.

HANSEN: He watches nesting on Crab Bank by boat. A white egret swoops down and elegantly perches beside him. Birds, he says, deserve our help. For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Charleston, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATMOSPHERE SONG, "OKAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.