GEORGETOWN — Scientists from Clemson University’s James C. Kennedy Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation Center will begin aerial counts of waterfowl and waterbirds in mid-September.

Waterfowl survey areas

The study will include nine regions from Murrells Inlet to Savannah, Georgia, and the Cooper River and Santee Lakes System.

The bird counts will be conducted from Murrells Inlet to the South Carolina-Georgia coastal border and over the Cooper River and Santee Lake systems, and will continue in November through March. Fixed-wing aircraft will fly predetermined lines from the coast inland at altitudes of 150 to 200 feet.  A survey biologist will count all waterbirds that occur within 165 yards of the aircraft. The flights will not take place over densely human populated areas.

“These flights minimally disturb waterbirds because the plane will only make a single pass over wetlands during the survey months,” said Rick Kaminski, Kennedy Center director. “The surveys will estimate waterfowl abundance and diversity and plot their distributions among seasons and years.”

Kaminski and researchers at Mississippi State University developed the waterfowl and waterbird counting method in the early 2000s, but this is the first time the method has been used in South Carolina and the Atlantic Flyway along the coast and inland.

Each individual or group of  waterbirds detected within the survey area will be recorded with GPS. The researchers will then produce maps showing densities of birds by habitat type. This information will be valuable for waterfowl hunters and other conservationists.

Airplane flying over swamp

Researchers will count the birds from an airplane.

“The goal of the project is to estimate numbers and distributions of waterbirds so we can assess habitat use and inform future habitat conservation in the face of climate change, sea-level rise and human development. While not a complete count, the survey  produces results that are statistically sound and representative of coastal and inland landscapes,” said Molly Kneece, survey biologist and Kennedy Center research specialist.

Clemson researchers are collaborating with  the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to display survey results  on SCDNR’s website.

The survey project is sponsored by an array of private and public entities, including the Kennedy Center, Delta Waterfowl Foundation, Ducks Unlimited Inc., Nemours Wildlife Foundation, SCDNR, South Carolina Waterfowl Association and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

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