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written by
Aaron Given

Birds of Kiawah

photographs by
Becca Barnet

Volume: 27

Over 280 species have been documented on Kiawah, with still more to be discovered. Given estimates that the program will soon hit the 300 species count.

Aaron Given’s banding program is in its sixth year. During fall migration the hours are long, the team exhausted. From mid-August until the end of November, Given directs five interns. The team spends sunup to sundown on Captain Sam’s Spit monitoring long mesh nets. Countless species of birds fly into the net, and Given’s team hold them long enough to band, determine the species, record the weight and, hopefully, age and sex of each bird. The program data is still nascent, but Given’s hope is that over time the Town of Kiawah Island and the Kiawah Conservancy will have a broad understanding of the migratory patterns of birds on Kiawah.

Kiawah Island boasts special scrubby coastal areas called migrant traps, perfect for birds flying south. Because many birds only stop over on the Island for a single day, Given and his team can’t miss a single day. Last year they worked 103 days out of the possible 108, and only missed those five days due to heavy weather. These scrubby areas are important because migrating birds often travel at night. The migrant traps are like rest stops—an opportunity for repose and to recover fat reserves. Such havens are harder and harder to come by in the Carolinas.

During the winter months, Given monitors birds on the scrubby, high ground of the spit. This part of the program only requires sporadic field work, as migration has slowed dramatically. Nearly 90 percent of the population are Yellow-Rumped Warblers, migratory birds wintering in the wax myrtle. Given’s data has shown that many of these winter inhabitants come back year after year after a full migration.

At high tide, five times a month, Given bands Seaside Sparrows, Nelson Sparrows, and the Salt Marsh Sparrow—all three presumably are declining. The project requires more active netting. The birds congregate along the water line, allowing the team to walk through the flock and flush them into the nets. This winter project is another opportunity to record the distribution of species.

During the summer months, Given bands Painted Buntings that frequent homeowners’ bird feeders. By banding a reasonable percentage of the Buntings, he can deduce a general population estimate.

Over 280 species have been documented on Kiawah, with still more to be discovered. Given estimates that the program will soon hit the 300 species count. Kiawah Island is a vital sanctuary for countless species of birds, and it boasts a great diversity of habitats in a relatively condensed acreage.

— A.G. & H.W.

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