Bird Key Sanctuary – Folly Beach, South Carolina
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This coastal bird sanctuary of approximately 35 acres rests at the point where the Folly River, Stono River, and Kiawah River converge. The exact size of the island, known as Bird Key or Bird Key-Stono, varies from year to year with the ever-shifting sands. Folly Beach can be seen to the upper left of Bird Key in the photo below, with the popular Folly Pier seemingly a world away from the sandy preserve. In fact, Bird Key’s isolation is what makes the sandspit a successful breeding ground for several species of coastal birds, including brown pelicans, laughing gulls, royal terns, oystercatchers, and snowy egrets.
Along with Devaux Bank off Edisto Island and Crab Bank in the Charleston Harbor, Bird Key is one of only three seabird sanctuaries designated by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. All three were declared sanctuaries in 2006 following a steep decline in nesting seabird populations that began in the 1990s. Below, birds stand on the edge of Folly Beach County Park facing Bird Key. Kiawah Island can be seen in the distance, on the other side of the sanctuary.
From the 1980s through 1994, Bird Key hosted the largest number of nesting brown pelicans in the birds’ range. Though the species was thriving in 1989 with 7,739 nesting pairs noted in South Carolina that year, by 2002 fewer than half that number of nesting pairs could be counted in the state; only 3,001 were documented. In 2004, brown pelicans disappeared from Bird Key altogether, not to return until 2014. That year, 200 brown pelican nests were counted on the island; one year later, 1,299 nesting pairs were counted at Bird Key. In 2015, biologists documented 5,210 brown pelican nests in South Carolina, indicating that the protections afforded by seabird sanctuaries are indeed helping revive the population.
The absence of mammalian predators such as raccoons makes the island an ideal nesting ground. Nesting season, which beings on March 15th of each year and continues through October 15th, prohibits visitors from coming onto the island during those months. Because the birds create ground nests, eggs are vulnerable to disturbance by human visitors. Many nests are not obvious, which protects them from predators but also puts them at risk of being crushed beneath exploring feet. However, boaters may observe the birds from the water. Those viewing Bird Key by boat are asked to be mindful of reducing their wake, which can lead to erosion.
Dogs and camping are prohibited on the sanctuary at all times. Even the best-behaved dogs naturally frighten the birds, causing them to flee the island and leave their eggs to be scorched by the sun. Many migrating birds stop at Bird Key to rest and feed during the winter months, and dogs and campsites disrupt the visiting birds, endangering their journeys. Please be mindful of the strict SCDNR rules when visiting the seabird sanctuaries. Adherence to the standards set by wildlife biologists ensures that the populations of coastal birds will continue to increase, further magnifying the natural beauty that defines South Carolina.
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