An island in Charleston harbor which has helped hatch thousands of shorebirds is disappearing.
Crab Bank Seabird Sancturary was once a piece of land at the mouth of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant which housed seabird colonies and nesting sites. But hurricanes over the past two years have eroded Crab Bank to an intertidal sandbar.
“It did have up to 5,000 nesting seabirds each year,” South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Felicia Sanders said. “There were large pelican colonies and royal terns and skimmers and it was just an amazing place to view but now it’s almost completely eroded.”
DNR is working to replenish the sandbar, which is popular with boating or paddling tourists due to its easy accessibility.
“Crab Bank is not only important for seabirds, a place where pelicans and terns can nest, but it’s also just at a great location where kayakers and paddleboarders and people boating out into the harbor and beyond can view pelicans nesting right next to their kayak without disturbing them,” Sanders said.
Mount Pleasant and the Charleston community hope to preserve Crab Bank. Several Shem Creek businesses offering kayak, paddleboard and canoe rentals and tours tout the opportunity to see the birds up close.
“It’s been an amazing education opportunity to see a large seabird colony right out their back door,” Sanders said. “It’s kind of like the Galapagos of South Carolina. You can get right near birds building nests and having chicks.”
A group of environmentally-minded organizations have formed the South Carolina Coastal Bird Conservation Program to rebuild Crab Bank back to 28 acres. The work would be done while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepens the Charleston Harbor beginning next year. The group hopes to raise nearly $2 million for the cost of using dredge material from the ongoing harbor deepening project set to get fully underway next year.
“This money needs to be raised by December this year because the dredging will start next year and we’ll have to have the money really soon,” Sanders said. “We’re hoping the dredging of the Charleston Harbor will give us an opportunity to rebuild it.”
This isn’t the first time humans have intervened in Crab Bank’s existence. The bank was originally made of dredged soil in the 1950s.
Sanders said the pile of sand is home to a fragile ecosystem for the nesting bird species.
“All of those aren’t federally endangered but they’re all declining and of high conservation importance,” she said. “There are only a handful of sites that have the right profile for seabird colonies. They need to be small sandbars surrounded by water so predators can’t eat the eggs. These birds are just laying their eggs on the ground.”
Sanders said South Carolina has about five sites that are home to large seabird colonies.
“So losing any of them is pretty detrimental to the survival of the species.”
According to SCDNR, bird populations have declined by 70 percent during the last forty to sixty years. South Carolina is a critical link in preserving these birds. Numerous species of nesting and migrating birds visit the state’s coastline each year, including 38 percent of all the nesting brown pelicans on the East Coast during summer and some of the largest colonies of skimmers and terns in the Southeast.
“Crab Bank, if renourished, can produce hundreds of thousands of young birds over the next fifty years,” said Sanders.
The SCDNR once hosted a “pelicam” camera on Crab Bank, but it was damaged by Hurricane Irma and has not yet been repaired.