More than 200 species of birds call Hilton Head Island home, some permanently and some part time, in different seasons, when they stop here along their migratory routes.
Common (egrets, herons and gulls), uncommon (Baltimore oriole and white-breasted nuthatch) and rare (western kingbird and purple sandpiper) species have been sighted by Hilton Head Island Audubon Society members this year alone.
The local Society chapter, founded in 1974 and with about 500 members now, is the keeper of birding information and resources, promoter of public awareness, and protector of wildlife and ecosystems. It has always shared its knowledge about natural areas on the island with locals and tourists, with limited success.
Birders hope that’s about to change. Last month, the Society launched a smartphone application and a dedicated Hilton Head Island Birding Trail website in the hopes of attracting more interest and visitors to the island’s bounty of natural areas, especially birding habitats.
“How do they (the public) find out about the Sea Pines Forest Preserve?” asked Rick Riebesell, immediate past president of the local chapter. “How do they know they can take a walk in one of the most unique places on the face of the earth? Well, they don’t know.”
Birding enthusiasts and casual followers can know now by downloading the free app on their tablets and smartphones via Google Play for android products and the App Store for Apple products, or by visiting www.hiltonheadislandbirdingtrail.org.
“What this does is give us a way to interact with the entire community and have a dialog about the value of natural areas, and that’s pretty exciting for us,” Riebesell added.
Those who download the app and visit the website have access to information about 12 birding areas, directions to the sites, pictures, birding ethics, public parks, birding site histories, birding links, and local businesses that sponsor the trail. Society members provide all the birding content.
A $45,000 ATAX grant last fall from the Town of Hilton Head Island enabled the society to plan and finally launch the app and website in early June.
This effort is not the Society’s first attempt to share its birding expertise with the public.
About five years ago, the Society received a $5,000 ATAX grant from the town to place signs and markers at birding sites and publish birding pamphlets for sale to the public.
The pamphlet idea didn’t sell, Riebesell admitted, because the Internet was so prevalent as a source of information.
“We needed to re-evaluate,” he said. “We began to realize that the eco-tourist wanted to identify the birding trails as a way to get information about our natural areas.”
Coincidentally, the Society won a web-hosting contest that enabled the group to create its own website at the same time it received the grant.
The new app and dedicated trail website are important pieces in the Society’s big-picture effort to preserve natural wildlife areas on the island.
“As the Audubon Society, our primary concern is to help the community evaluate and preserve natural areas,” Riebesell said. “One of the things this community is known for is its preservation of natural areas.
“If we can help them appreciate the value of these areas, they aren’t going to want to pave them over or build on it; they will want to preserve them,” he said.
“When people get the opportunity to be in a natural area, they get it,” Riebesell said. “They realize this is something special, this is something that needs to be preserved, and this is a feeling I like.”
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer living in Bluffton.