Black Skimmers
Rynchops niger

Black Skimmers are 15- to 20-inch birds with long black beaks with a red base, black feathered tops, and white bottoms. They can be seen flying low to the water with their beaks open, searching for unsuspecting fish to scoop up. Although you may see black skimmers during the day, they’re highly successful hunters at night, in low light conditions. These graceful birds that glide across the water are quite social, nesting in groups with other black skimmers, and even laughing gulls and terns. Look for them year-round at the beach, ponds, and tidal creeks on Kiawah. 

Photo by Jack Kotz

Calidris alba

Look for flocks of Sanderlings, plump little birds about seven inches tall, scurrying across the shore on their tiny legs. Sanderlings are constantly in motion, running back and forth along the shore after receding waves foraging for horseshoe crab eggs, worms, small crustaceans, and insects on the beach. Notice their black beaks and black legs and feet with a light gray feathered upper body and white lower body. They migrate from their breeding grounds in the Arctic Tundra to Kiawah. Although they are very common on Kiawah’s beach year-round. Like many shorebirds, their numbers have been declining over the years. 

Photo by Pamela Cohen

Piping Plover
Charadrius melodus

Piping plovers, small sparrow-sized shorebirds, have pale gray top feathers, white bottom feathers, and orange legs. They are a highly endangered species of birds that prefer the more secluded areas of Kiawah’s beach and mudflats from August to May. During the summertime, they migrate to the northeast Atlantic coast and Great Lakes area of the US and Canada.  You’ll enjoy watching these chunky little pale colored birds, about six inches tall, as they run a few steps, pause, run a few more steps, then peck at the in the sand looking for sea worms, insects, or crustaceans. As you walk along Kiawah’s beach, notice the signs to avoid piping plover gathering grounds. 

Photo by Pamela Cohen

Red Knots
Calidris cantus

One of the most treasured shorebirds to Kiawah residents is the spring-time arrival of the Red Knots, a 9- to 10-inch tall, cinnamon colored Sandpiper. Although precise identification of Sandpiper species can be challenging, the tell-tale sign for the Red Knots is in the way they arrive on Kiawah, in large flocks. Red Knots have relatively small heads, tapered beaks, and chunky bodies.  These highly endangered birds summer in the Canadian Arctic Tundra and migrate to the Southern tip of South America for winter, over a 9,000-mile one-way trip. This is one of the longest migration distances of any animal on Earth. Kiawah provides a quiet, safe spot for the birds to rest up and refuel as they continue on their adventurous journey back and forth each year.

The population of Red Knots declined about 75% in the 1980’s due to the overharvesting of their primary food source, horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware Bay.  This is a critically sensitive area since 90% of the red knot population stopover in Delaware Bay in early May on their journey north.  As awareness about the plight of the Red Knots grew, steps were taken to fix this problem, mostly by protecting spawning horseshoe crabs and habitat. If you’re visiting Kiawah between March and May, you might find these birds sticking their beaks in the sand searching for horseshoe crab eggs and little clams. Enjoy watching them as you respect their space allowing them to find the rest and nourishment they need for their incredible journey.

Photo by Shauneen Hutchinson

Pimelometopon pulcher

Sheepshead, a fish marked by distinct black vertical stripes, is challenging to catch because they tend to nibble rather than swallow their prey. Sheepshead have unusual, broad, almost human-like teeth in the front of its mouth for chewing hard shelled animals like barnacle and crabs.  They grow up to about 20 pounds and live almost exclusively near pilings. Look for them in creeks near docks.  Sheepshead love to chow down on fiddler crabs, which are more abundant in brackish waters.