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.