I am waiting on a sandy island along the South Carolina coast, on a late evening in May when the low light has gilded everything around me—the waving cordgrass where Marsh Wrens sing, the beach where plovers and sandpipers scurry, the flocks of Black Skimmers that row by with mothlike wingbeats and peevish calls. I have been told that if I wait here for dark, I will see a miracle…a word I use with careful deliberation.
With dusk, the miracle arrives.
Flocks of Whimbrels appear, a few dozen at first, then by low hundreds, then in such numbers that I have a hard time keeping any sort of count. Drawn shoreward from the distant, marshy horizons, they fly in ragged lines and loose clusters, untidy chevrons of big, strong shorebirds, nut-brown bodies and long, flashing wings, beaks curved like the crescent moon that will appear in the black sky a few hours later. A few circle, calling, but most land without preamble on a wide, flat expanse of overwash beach on the edge of the island, facing into the wind in dense-packed ranks. More, and more, and still more.
Explore Deveaux Bank and meet the shorebird biologists who documented nearly 20,000 Whimbrels in a single night—nearly half the entire Atlantic Flyway population—using this tiny island as a migration stopover site.
FELICIA SANDERS, SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES: I think most people just see a sandbar and maybe some birds flying over it…but they don’t realize the incredible birdlife that lives and roosts there. I’ve been going to Deveaux for decades and we go during the day to monitor the pelicans, the terns, some of the shorebirds that nest there. [DR. ABBY STERLING, MANOMET: oh my gosh] SANDERS: but it’s very rare that I go to Deveaux at night. [DR. STERLING: there’s so many…the point, it looks black, but those are actually all Whimbrel] SANDERS: I started realizing there’s maybe a lot more going on at night than we see during the day.[oh my gosh]
SANDERS: Deveaux Bank is a large sandbar. It’s actually shaped like a horseshoe. In the interior are broad marshes and some dunes, some grasses, some low shrubs. It has wide, fairly exposed beaches. A couple years ago I was anchoring the boat on the back side and I just happened to be there right at dawn. I could just hear swirls of birds passing over my head. Thousands of Whimbrel came off the island. I was just amazed and I thought: “how had I never seen this before?” I realized it needed further investigation and documentation.
SANDERS: A Whimbrel is a type of curlew. It has a long decurved bill for probing in the sand for crabs and invertebrates, and it’s a long-distance migrant.
DR. NATHAN SENNER, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA :They are spending six, seven months of the year down on the northern coast of South America, and then they’re making this jump up to the Atlantic coast of the U.S. From there, they’re making flights up to their Arctic breeding grounds. We’re talking days, sometimes even a week, without stopping, without food, without sleep. What that means though is that the places that they do choose to stop are really critically important.
SANDERS: On the northern migration a lot of the whimbrels stop in South Carolina for a month, a month and a half. That whole system of marshes and undeveloped coastline is critical to the survival of this species. They spread out all across the coast throughout the day to forage in the mudflats and then they come together to spend the night. And in South Carolina, that’s at Deveaux Bank.
SANDERS: It’s May 16th, and it’s pretty close to a full moon so the tides are extreme and the Whimbrel will be concentrated at a few spots, so it’s a really great time to count them.
MAINA HANDMAKER, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA: So Abby’s stationed at the southwest point of Deveaux kind of on the sand spit, the very tip. We’re kind of right in the middle looking for the birds coming mostly from northeast. Here comes our first big group, maybe about 80 just came in.
DR. STERLING: These birds could theoretically be coming in from a tremendous distance away. As the tide rises and night falls, they’re leaving those foraging areas where they’ve been eating all day and coming out to these areas that are a little bit more remote where they’re safe from predators.That was another 40 that just came in.
DR. SENNER: Curlews worldwide are a group of birds that we know is prone to extinction, and whimbrel are among those.
DR. STERLING: So this group here is like 180 flying over us right now.
DR. SENNER: Somewhere around 40,000 Whimbrel use the Atlantic flyway of North America.
DR. STERLING: Hundreds and hundreds of Whimbrels over the marsh.
DR. SENNER: That population already represents a decline of about half from where they were 20 years ago.
DR. STERLING: By now there’s literally thousands of birds all around us. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. 207…We won’t be able to count them much longer because it’s just too hard to see them but you can hear them calling still as they’re coming in. There’s another group, and another group. Oh my gosh, the entire the entire point all the way to those signs is covered in birds now.
DR. SANDERS: We were all tallying our numbers and it took quite a while to go through our notes.
64. 175. I remember I wrote down the numbers from all the parties [DR. STERLING: 140…700…] And could not believe it. [DR. STERLING: 65…400…750…207.] [HANDMAKER: Holy Moly] [DR. STERLING: that’s a lot of birds…a lot of Whimbrel. SANDERS: Yeah. It was about 19,500 birds.
DR. SENNER: That blew my mind because that’s half—literally half of estimates of how many Whimbrel there are on the Atlantic coast. For all of them to be coming in to roost on this one tiny island that just…that blew my mind. We’ve never encountered this many Whimbrel in any one spot anywhere else in the world. That is unique. That means that Deveaux is a really special place.
SANDERS: A discovery of this size really seemed impossible. How could there be a half of the estimated population at one place and personally in my backyard in South Carolina.
CHIP CAMPSEN, SOUTH CAROLINA STATE SENATE: There are certain things that we should refuse to destroy and those things that we should refuse to destroy are those things that really define us, that make us unique, that bring us together. And in South Carolina, by preserving those places, we have refused to destroy the best part of us. We’ve created good habitat for Whimbrel to give them a chance and we just have a responsibility to do what we can to keep them from becoming extinct. Because we know that the future of that species is in our hands.
DR. SENNER: We know how the decline of Whimbrel potentially ends. We know how that story could end. But their population size is still large enough at this moment, that we have the time to do something before it’s too late.
SANDERS: Seeing thousands of Whimbrel come in to roost at night, it kind of just gives you hope that you know so many birds exist. It’s one of the most phenomenal sights I’ve ever seen in my life.
DR. J. DREW LANHAM, CLEMSON UNIVERSITY: I don’t think there is anybody that doesn’t love a beautiful thing. You don’t even have to know what they’re called, what the birds are, and you watch them come in on that sunset and you have to be amazed, you have to be astounded, and you have to be proud to know that that’s here.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Departure: 6:00 A.M.
End of Transcript
A little before eight o’clock, a huge flock sweeps toward me out of an orange sunset. They move in a wide sheet, high at first and then spilling toward the ground like water flowing down a low hill, bunching and veering en masse to their left, following the beach on which I stand. There are perhaps a thousand of them. Seven-whistle calls ring like old brass sleigh bells. They surge around me like river water parted by a rock; there is a moment of wild mayhem, the air churned by motion and wings, and they are gone.
Whimbrels have, to me, always been the big game of shorebirds—large, powerful, wary, usually in small and scattered numbers. Like all of the world’s seven remaining species of curlews, they are in serious decline. In my experience, a big flock is half a dozen or so; seeing 40 or 50 makes for a red-letter day. And when I do encounter a decent-sized flock, I can’t help but mourn the vanished legions of now-extinct Eskimo Curlews.
Deveaux Bank is a crucial link in a hemispheric migration. It is a modest little barrier island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and it serves as a critical migratory stopover site for roosting congregations of up to 20,000 Whimbrels—more than half the eastern North American population for one of the continent’s fastest declining shorebird species. Map of eastern U.S. and Deveaux Bank from Google Maps; Whimbrel distribution map from Birds of the World; Whimbrels photo by Andy Johnson.
The Whimbrel spectacle I was experiencing on the coast of South Carolina in May 2021, on an ephemeral barrier island known as Deveaux Bank near Charleston, was something few people alive today have ever seen. Whimbrels congregate here for a month or more in spring, pausing in their migration between the coast of South America and the Canadian Arctic, to feed on fiddler crabs in the rich tidal marshes. Some 20,000 Whimbrels gather each night on Deveaux Bank during this migratory stopover, the largest such congregation known anywhere on the planet.
In this age of diminishment, when the rarest thing in nature today is sheer abundance, the Whimbrels of Deveaux seem like a glimpse of a vanished time when the continent surged with great shorebird flocks. This discovery, announced to much fanfare in June by a coalition of partners including the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is remarkably good news: a mother lode representing half of the Atlantic flyway population of Whimbrels and a quarter of all the Whimbrels in North America. That first night, I wept to see them—a reaction, I learned, which has been almost universal among those so privileged.
But think of those birds another way, and a panic may begin to rise. The discovery at Deveaux is a miracle, yes, but this is the eleventh hour for Whimbrels, a species that has declined by more than half since 1994 on a plummeting trend that shows no signs of reversing. The fact that so many birds gather on this one small island highlights a previously underappreciated facet of Whimbrel biology—and shorebird biology in general—that could reveal a key to any conservation strategy to save them: simply providing these birds a safe place to spend the night.