A Beach Habit to Break This Summer
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from high school student Olivia Long, who recently spent time as a job shadow at SCDNR’s Marine Resources Center.
As we enter the summer months and begin to dream of the beach from our desks, a few iconic images of the shore may come to mind. Maybe you picture waves crashing on the beach, children crafting sandcastles, or dogs and toddlers alike running through flocks of shorebirds. One of these images isn’t quite right.
While it has always provided some amusement to beachgoers to see shorebirds take off into the sky or to toss leftovers to the birds scavenging the beach, these actions can have serious consequences for small shorebirds like the red knot.
The red knot is a shorebird who visits our beaches during the spring, fall, and winter to feed and rest. Like many shorebirds, the red knot has a special ability to migrate extremely long distances. On their migration from South America to the Arctic, where they nest each summer, a distance of almost 10,000 miles. But without the help of another animal – the horseshoe crab – this migration would not be possible.
Horseshoe crabs produce green, lipid-rich eggs, which the red knots rely on for energy to survive their long flight. Red knots are known to stop by our South Carolina beaches for these eggs to fuel up before resuming their migration. During the spring, horseshoe crabs come up onto the shore to spawn during spring tides. After horseshoe crabs release their eggs, red knots feed on these eggs before taking off to the Arctic to complete their journey.
In some parts of the horseshoe crab’s range, such as the Delaware Bay area, horseshoe crab populations have declined. Due to the decrease in availability of horseshoe crab eggs, red knots have suffered as well. In the past 15 years, the red knot population has decreased by up to 75% in some areas.
The subspecies of red knots that visit our beaches are now protected as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. However, there are multiple small changes you can make this summer to help the red knot population and other shorebirds and seabirds.
What you can do to help shorebirds like the red knot:
1. Avoid walking through flocks of shorebirds and do your best to prevent dogs or small children from harassing the birds, as this causes shorebirds to unnecessarily expend energy. Long-distance flyers like red knots do not have much energy to spare.
2. Steer clear of posted nesting and feeding areas, because shorebirds will often lay eggs in the sand rather than forming a nest. These are most commonly found on barrier islands, some of which are closed to visitors in the summer to protect the nesting species and their eggs. These islands are vital to various species of shorebirds, so we should do our best to protect them.
3. Clean up! Before leaving the beach, please be sure to collect all of the trash you may have left behind. Food or other trash left in the sand easily attracts predators and endangers shorebirds, their eggs, and their young.
4. Most importantly, educate others. Use this information to spread the love for your local shorebirds. These actions may seem small, but in the long run, your contribution will mean the world to this declining species.
About the Author: Olivia Long is a rising senior at Ashley Hall in Charleston, SC. She researched and wrote this story as part of her time as a job shadow with the SCDNR Marine Resources Division through the Ashley Hall Junior Internship Program. “I love studying the environment and hope to major in agricultural communication as an undergrad,” Long said.