Sneak Peek of a Seabird Paradise

Sneak Peek of a Seabird Paradise

 

Tomkins Island was built for the birds.

A sandy semicircle at the mouth of the Savannah River, this man-made island was specifically designed to give seabirds and shorebirds a safe place to rest, feed, and, most importantly – nest and raise their young.

The beaches where seabirds typically nest are increasingly caught between the squeeze of coastal development on one side and storms and sea level rise on the other. That makes Seabird Sanctuaries like Tomkins (one of seven designated by the legislature in South Carolina) vital to the survival of these beautiful, gregarious birds.

Due to its small size and importance as bird habitat, Tomkins is closed year-round to visitors. But once a year, state and federal biologists make the trek to Tomkins for their annual count of the island’s nesting birds.

Today, we’re sharing some photos of last year’s nest count, giving you a glimpse of this important science and of what life is like for nesting seabirds on Tomkins – minus the smell and the threat of getting splattered.

Here’s a quick rundown of the island’s history from South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) coastal bird biologist Felicia Sanders:

Tomkins Island was specifically created for bird habitat and completed in January 2005. The Savannah District Corps of Engineers constructed the island in the Atlantic Ocean offshore of South Carolina between Tybee Island, Georgia, and Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.
 
Construction of the island was part of the mitigation requirements for continued maintenance dredging of Savannah Harbor. The island has an approximate four-acre crest tapering down to about eleven acres at the waterline.
 
Tomkins is constructed of previously dredged sediments from Savannah Harbor that were subsequently pumped to the site. The outer rim is composed of rocks to protect the island from prevailing winds, and the landward side contains a sandy beach for young birds to reach the water.
 
The first year after construction, Black Skimmers, Sandwich Terns, and 1701 pairs of Royal Terns nested on the island. Today, species that nest on the site include Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Black Skimmers, Gull-billed Terns, Sandwich Terns, Laughing Gulls, and American Oystercatchers.
 
Tomkins has been home to over 11,000 tern nests in one year, which makes this in some years the largest tern colony in the Southeast. Tomkins became a SCDNR Seabird Sanctuary in 2015. Management of Tomkins Island is a cooperative effort between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District and SCDNR.
 
Besides providing nesting habitat, this site serves as a year round resting area for many bird species. Horseshoe crabs spawn on the beach and thousands of shorebirds feed on this spring food resource. To allow this Sanctuary to provide the habitats for which it was created, public access is prohibited all year.
SCDNR coastal bird biologist Felicia Sanders explains the steps of the nest count before the team gets started. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

SCDNR coastal bird biologist Felicia Sanders explains the steps of the nest count before the team gets started. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Staff and volunteers use these clickers to tally the number of nests they see for each species. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Staff and volunteers use these clickers to tally the number of nests they see for each species. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

SCDNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex staff stand at the starting point for the nest count. Participants use bamboo to section off the areas they'll count.

SCDNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex staff stand at the starting point for the nest count. Participants use bamboo to section off the areas they'll count.

Nest counters start in a line and walk very cautiously to the end of their bamboo poles, counting each nest as they go. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Nest counters start in a line and walk very cautiously to the end of their bamboo poles, counting each nest as they go. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Like many shorebirds and seabirds, terns nest directly on the ground – making their eggs difficult to spot in the sand. Their speckled camouflage helps protect eggs from predators, but on busy beaches, it also means nests can easily be stepped on. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Like many shorebirds and seabirds, terns nest directly on the ground – making their eggs difficult to spot in the sand. Their speckled camouflage helps protect eggs from predators, but on busy beaches, it also means nests can easily be stepped on. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Terns nest in large groups, or colonies. With thousands of birds calling at once, nesting colonies can be deafening. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Terns nest in large groups, or colonies. With thousands of birds calling at once, nesting colonies can be deafening. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Royal terns sport pretty distinctive 'dos and bright orange bills. They're also fairly large among terns. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Royal terns sport pretty distinctive 'dos and bright orange bills. They're also fairly large among terns. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Sandwich terns are smaller in stature than royal terns and have a thin, black bill with a yellow tip. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Sandwich terns are smaller in stature than royal terns and have a thin, black bill with a yellow tip. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Terns eat schooling fish, diving dramatically from great heights into the water to catch their prey. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Terns eat schooling fish, diving dramatically from great heights into the water to catch their prey. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Brown pelicans also nest on Tomkins Island. These pelican parents incorporated discarded chunks of a crab trap into their nest construction. Marine debris is an unfortunate fact of life for seabirds and shorebirds, which commonly ingest plastics and can become entangled in fishing line and balloon strings. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Brown pelicans also nest on Tomkins Island. These pelican parents incorporated discarded chunks of a crab trap into their nest construction. Marine debris is an unfortunate fact of life for seabirds and shorebirds, which commonly ingest plastics and can become entangled in fishing line and balloon strings. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

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