The Brunswick News
BRUNSWICK — The 14-acre mesa of dredged sand piled high by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the middle of St. Simons Sound looks like nothing more than that — a pile of grayish sand and pebbles flanked by riprap to keep the grains from washing away.
But as the Carolina Skiff boat carrying Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologists Tim Keyes, Chris Depkin and invasive plant specialist Eamon Leonard pulls closer, it is clear there is much more to the six-year-old mound, known simply as Bird Island.
“We are going to pull ’round to the south side to get a look from here before we get out,” Keyes says as he uses a long zoom camera lens to photograph the thousands of terns, skimmers and pelicans populating the southeast corner of the island.
“A couple of those pelicans have bands from being released after the Gulf oil spill,” he says.
The pelicans are not the reason for the recent trip, though. Keyes has come to check on the nesting progress of the black skimmers, least terns, gull billed terns and royal terns for which the restricted island was made.
Leonard has come along to see the vegetation that grows there and assess how to control it in an effort to maintain the proper habitat for the beach-nesting birds.
As habitat destruction and human impact push many shore-nesting birds away from the natural beaches, islands like this one serve as valuable nesting spots, Keyes says.
“Hopefully this isn’t the entire future for these guys, but it is a viable option,” he adds.
For Keyes, the bird island trips are a regular occurrence. For the public, trips are strictly prohibited.
While the island may look like an attractive spot for boaters passing by to explore, Keyes says doing so disturbs the nests of the state and federally protected species by making the adults leave their young, leaving the chicks vulnerable to predation and heat exposure.
“In the state of Georgia, you can’t find a place where just walking around would do more damage to wildlife in such a short time,” Keyes says.
That is why there are dozens of signs posted around the perimeter of the island and in the water surrounding it, making it clear that going on land without permission will result in charges of criminal trespassing.
“It is very much on our law enforcement’s radar,” Keyes says.
He has the proper permission as the bird specialist who monitors and studies the progress of nesting season each year. There have been more nests this year than in any previous year since the island was built in 2007. Keyes says nearly 6,000 royal tern nests and thousands of each of the other species chose bird island to nest on this year.
With a telescope on a tripod resting on his right shoulder, Keyes, followed by Leonard, slowly makes his way up the bank after disembarking from the skiff. Each man is watching the ground closely to ensure he is not stepping on any of the tiny nests the birds make in the sand.
As they near the top, something on the other side of the island spooks the birds and sends thousands of them into the air, swirling above in a cacophony of squawks and calls that sound like something out of a nature documentary filmed in some remote location.
“I wonder if the eagle is back,” Keyes says of the bald eagles that sometimes come to take vulnerable chicks, a natural predator-and-prey scenario that plays out on the island from time to time.
Atop the sandy mesa, the smell of bird waste and the sounds of their calls nears sensory overload for the non-adjusted humans who are along for the ride. Keyes, however, is unfazed.
He sets up his telescope, trains it on a group of black skimmers and quickly finds his target.
“Look through this, see the black skimmer chicks,” he says.
On the other side of the telescope are three fluffy, grayish chicks, protected by the adults surrounding them.
“This is good, they seem to be doing well,” Keyes says.
He will come back again several times throughout summer to see how many of the young make it to maturity, the true test of how successful this nesting season will be.
Once on the boat again heading back to the dock, Keyes points to the right. On the northwest side of the island, standing tall in the morning’s golden light are dozens of massive white pelicans.
All in a day’s work.