Catherine Hickey, chairwoman of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Hemispheric Council, left, recognizes WHSRN site partners at a ceremony dedicating the Georgia barrier islands as a site of hemispheric importance.

The downpour began at 2:13 p.m., two minutes before the program was to start.

Surely, at least one of the hundred or so people gathered at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge must have thought, “This weather, it’s for the birds.”

The birds were why the people were there, celebrating the announcement of the Georgia barrier islands as the 100th landscape of hemispheric importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. There are presently 104 such sites within the network dedicated to shorebird conservation.

“So, 104 sites, about 15 million hectares of land being managed at some level for shorebirds,” WHSRN Director Rob Clay said. “If 15 million hectares doesn’t mean anything to you, it is the size of Tajikistan, which I’m sure means a lot. Very conveniently — and I discovered this just last night — the state of Georgia and the country of Tajikistan are the same size, essentially.”

He went on to add, discussing the rain and the event tent, “When things got nasty outside, you all flocked into this one little, dry patch. If we hadn’t conserved this, it would be particularly unpleasant for you at the moment. If we don’t conserve those WHSRN sites, things will be particularly unpleasant for the shorebirds, and for so many human communities that depend on those same resources.

“That’s really what WHSRN is about — it’s about trying to save those special places for shorebirds, and building the connections between the local communities at those sites.”

Because management of Georgia’s coast allowed it to remain relatively undisturbed — compared to the east coast of Florida — the significant tides and marshes provide prime areas for migratory shorebirds rarely seen anywhere else in the world. Hence, the reason for the designation.

Megan Desrosiers, executive director of One Hundred Miles — which, along with WHSRN and Manomet, a multinational environmental nonprofit, organized the event — said the goal leaving the designation ceremony is moving forward to considerably increase the number of protected sites, species and connections.

“If you lose any one of these 104 locations, that we know now, you lose the integrity of the network, and threaten species,” Desrosiers said. “(U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities Chief Operating Officer) Peter (Stangel) told us the tragic story of the Eskimo curlew, and Deborah Cramer, who is in the audience, wrote a book called ‘The Narrow Edge,’ about the red knot. All of these stories — what Rob had to say, Deborah’s book and Peter’s story about the curlew — remind us that we sit in a very precarious place on this planet.

“The choices we make, the investments we make, the connections we make, make a huge difference — one way or the other.”

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