A multi-year project to restore a crucial wetland on Dewees Island has helped earned this unique spot the World Heritage Shorebird Reserve Network designation “of hemispheric importance” in the fight to protect migratory shorebirds. By Stratton Lawrence Photos by Hunter McRae
It’s not a surprise that Judy Drew Fairchild is a birder. On the porch of her Dewees Island home, a spotting scope is homed-in on a bald eagle’s nest a few hundred yards away, affording intimate views of a majestic mother feeding her hatchlings. Just below, in the recently restored lagoon, a Little Blue heron wades through knee-deep water, stalking its prey. Merganser ducks’ flit about nearby, unconcerned about hunters or humans in general. We’re counting bird species across the wide vista when a bright yellow pine warbler — a frequent visitor — flutters up to the bird - feeder just a few steps away.
For 60 miles north of Dewees, there are no houses or human inhabitants. Just across a narrow inlet, Capers Island gives way to Bulls Island and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, a vast protected wilderness that’s unparalleled on the East Coast in its array of critical habitat for birds, sea turtles and marine life. “We’re the end of the chain,” says Fairchild. Dewees is a transition into the heavily developed sea islands of Charleston — balancing sparse, single-family home development with environmental ethics that create a feeling of gently managed wildness.
Take a walk through the forest and you’ll encounter deer and raccoons everywhere and see signs of the coyotes that recently appeared. Here on Dewees, they are researching whether the canines will be allowed to integrate into the wild, playing the role red wolves once did in this ecosystem. It’s a place where humans are a part of nature, a balance that’s considered in every decision on Dewees.
Creating the Ultimate Bird Oasis
From Fairchild’s porch, the long-time Dewees resident is uniquely qualified to report on the effectiveness of the 2014 restoration of the impounded lagoon that her home looks out across. New wooden rice trunks, in the traditional, unique design used around Cape Romain for centuries, now allow the island’s stewards to control the lagoon’s water level, maintaining an ideal habitat for local wading birds and flocks of migrating shorebirds on their spring and fall journeys.
“The fish populations are healthier than before the project because dissolved oxygen levels are improved,” explains Fairchild. By allowing a constant flush of the lagoon’s water, the restoration eliminated “dead zones.” Dowitchers, Willits, black-necked stilts, Wilson’s plovers and gadwall ducks have reappeared in impressive numbers over the last half decade.
The success of the lagoon project helped propel a second goal — the restoration of Lake Timicau, on the island’s undeveloped north end. At low tide, the “lake” looks more like a marsh with a winding tidal creek through it. In the ’70s, six pipes were built into a causeway across the marsh, but they were placed too high to allow sediment to flow through. Since then, the vast wetland has slowly stagnated.
Fixing that problem required money, permits and determined gumption. Dewees residents and the community’s Environmental Program Director, Lori Sheridan Wilson, found the support they needed by partnering with Ducks Unlimited to acquire a grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. Maintaining healthy water levels in Timicau required moving a lot of dirt, including driving steel reinforcements into the causeway and replacing the six ineffective pipes with two bigger ones.
Malcolm Baldwin, a regional engineer with Ducks Unlimited, spent nearly three years negotiating permits. Even when the result is a healthier wetland, any project that disrupts a wetland faces heavy scrutiny, he explains. During a similar project he man - aged on Bulls Island, construction had to pause for the season when black-necked stilts descended in masse to nest.
That’s the nature of wetland reconstruction — there’s a constant balance between our efforts and nature’s will. Construction finally began at Lake Timicau in October 2016, just after Hurricane Matthew. A year later, Hurricane Irma caused a setback when the storm surge breached the lake at the causeway and the beach.
Dewees’ General Manager David Dew was standing on the causeway — an area long called “Six Pipes” by locals — when the rising tide washed over. “At that point, there was no marsh on the horizon — just water,” he says. When he returned to the island the next day, Dew saw a bald eagle sitting atop the World War II submarine lookout tower that serves as Dewees’ most notable landmark. “I thought, ‘We’ve gone through this storm, and he’s still here.’ We will recover.”
In February 2018, five months later, the water flow in and out of Timicau was finally under control, allowing water levels to be managed according to the season and weather events. And when another hurricane or storm surge approaches, Dewees will be ready. “We didn’t build a castle wall,” says Wilson. “You don’t want to keep all the water out — you need sacrificial points with lots of vegetation so that when the water comes in, it slows the energy and doesn’t wash out the banks. We can now control the water level to absorb the extra water and manage the over-wash.”
A Model for Coastal Restoration
Although many people associate Ducks Unlimited with hunting, no guns are allowed on Dewees Island. The only shots fired at the gadwalls, mergansers, and wigeons that land in Lake Timicau will be shutter clicks from the cameras of eager birders. “This project has the most benefits for birds that people don’t hunt,” says Wilson. “This will be one of the few sites along the eastern seaboard that has habitat available for fall migrating shorebirds.”
That’s due to the shallow water levels in Timicau and the lagoon. Because a natural creek flows through the middle, it provides three habitats — deep water for aerial fishing birds like ospreys and pelicans, shallower water for diving ducks, and flats that are perfect for wading birds like egrets and herons.
The effort to transform Timicau into an ideal haven has earned Dewees recognition with the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The island is deemed to be “of hemispheric importance” (eclipsing “regional” and “international” distinctions), meaning it’s a critical habitat for over half a million shorebirds each year.
Shorebirds aren’t the only wild animal that’s treasured on Dewees. The island also operates a model sea turtle monitoring program, hosts painted bunting research, and works to encourage native plant species and eradicate invasive. Grassy lawns and landscaping are not allowed, in favor of preserving the natural vegetation. “Our philosophy is that this island shouldn’t just be full of beautiful canopy trees,” says Wilson. “We encourage natural vegetation on the ground.”
To protect the fragile habitat and maintain the quiet of an isolated, private community, day trips aren’t offered to Dewees, but the public is able to visit the island by renting a suite at the Huyler House, a four-unit home at the site of the original homestead of the island’s previous private owners. Rentals include a golf cart and access to open beaches and a boardwalk and blind with sweeping views of the wildlife on the lagoon, just steps out the door.
Dewees is only a ten-minute ferry ride from Isle of Palms, but a day here is akin to slipping into another world — a 60-mile wilderness for which Dewees forms the incredibly valuable caboose. It’s a place where bird calls wake you at dawn, dinner can be harvested from healthy clam beds just off a walking trail, and engine noise from cars is nonexistent. “That’s what this place is for — peace and solitude,” says Dew. And, of course, it’s for the birds.