Coastal Birds in South Carolina - Seabirds

Seabirds, such as Pelicans, Terns, Skimmers and Gulls gather in large groups to nest together in colonies during the breeding season. Colonies can consist of hundreds to thousands of birds and are usually found on isolated coastal islands and inlets of barrier beaches. Isolated islands provide excellent habitat for nesting seabirds, are often free from mammalian predators, less disturbed by humans, and are usually located close to foraging habitat. Currently, seabirds only nest on a few coastal islands in South Carolina with the most active colonies located in Charleston County.

Seabirds such as Black Skimmers and terns nest directly on the ground creating depressions in sand or shell to lay their eggs. Eggs are camouflaged with speckles and blend into the substrate; chicks are cryptic and are mobile soon after hatching, often hiding in low vegetation. Pelicans build their nests out of grass, twigs and sticks and nests are sometimes constructed in low shrubs and small trees. Pelican eggs are white and hatched chicks are naked and remain in or near the nest bowl for several months. Seabirds are piscivorous and feed on schooling fish. Pelicans and terns typically plunge dive for food while skimmers have a specialized foraging strategy: skimming their bill along the water's surface to capture prey.

South Carolina has lost much of its historical seabird nesting habitat due to coastal development and erosion. Presently the majority of South Carolina's Least Terns now nest on gravel rooftops.

Seabird species that nest in coastal South Carolina

Common Name Scientific Name Conservation Status *
Black skimmer Rynchops niger Highest Priority, Species of Concern (SC)
Brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis High Priority
Common tern Sterna hirundo Highest Priority
Forster's tern Sterna forsteri High Priority
Gull-billed tern Gelochelidon nilotica Highest Priority, Species of Concern (SC)
Laughing gull Leucophaeus atricilla Not Classified in SWAP
Least tern Sternula antillarum Highest Priority, Threatened (SC)
Royal tern Thalasseus maximus Highest Priority
Sandwich tern Thalasseus sandvicensis Highest Priority

Kaitlyn Hackathorn/ SCDNR

* Conservation Status from SC State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) 2015