Illustration that looks like a painting of two birds

5-minute history: For the birds

Hilton Head has long depended on the avian world

Story by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.

The modern era of Hilton Head Island is very much connected to the draw of its natural surroundings. That was the same centuries ago. The earliest habitation of the shores of Hilton Head Island was by nomadic hunter-gatherers who retreated from the harsh winters of the interior and uplands to hunt and fish in a more temperate climate. It was a climate where fish and game were plentiful, and where birds of the woodlands were augmented by the myriad species of ducks, marsh birds and shorebirds. The ease of providing food was an important factor to the people who stayed and settled in villages along the water.

When European explorers discovered Hilton Head, it was a place where freshwater springs were easily accessed from ships anchored offshore and where the game was abundant, meaning provisions could be easily replenished before they departed to cross the Atlantic to return home. Accounts of French and English expeditions in the 16th and 17th centuries cite the many forms of fowl considered delicacies that were found here: grouse, quail, dove, turkey, ducks, geese and other birds.

When European settlers came to stay here, they cleared only a portion of their lands for farming and left a stand of woods, usually along the water, to serve as hunting grounds. Drives through the woods would flush game into the marsh where they would make easier targets. Duck hunting from bateaux and flat-bottomed boats yielded meat that was a staple of their diets, along with the boar and deer that once freely roamed the island. After the Civil War hunting clubs from the Southeast, coming from North Carolina and Tennessee, as well as from Beaufort, bought land and built lodges here to partake in legendary bird hunts in the days before bag limits.

And in more recent times, with the founding of the Sea Pines Company, the role of birds in the island’s history became more prominent. After months of research in other locations of seacoast-oriented development, Charles Fraser recognized the value of mature trees and the sense of immersion in nature that would become a key feature of the retirement-resort community landscape. He preserved that environment in Sea Pines. Realizing the rich biodiversity of the island and its position on the Atlantic Flyway, Fraser sought to leverage the nature-preserve, wildlife-sanctuary quality of the Sea Pines experience. The Sea Pines Company even named many of the earliest streets in the ocean-oriented areas after bird species. Additionally the preservation of mature trees, rigid land-use and property improvement covenants, and protecting over one-quarter of Sea Pines’ land, marshes and oceanfront from development enabled Fraser to accomplish his objective.  

To take things a bit further, the Fraser family set aside 605 acres of prime Sea Pines real estate near the ocean for the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, allowing only recreational use of the land in perpetuity. This large maritime forest environment with three freshwater lakes within a quarter-mile of the beach hosts over 200 species of indigenous and migratory birds each season. The combination of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, the 4,000-acre Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and the planned Mid-Island Park — the only known remaining habitat of the red cockaded woodpecker on Hilton Head — sets aside nearly 5,000 acres within 5 miles to provide habitat and fresh and saltwater marshes for many rare and endangered species of migratory and native birds.

As birdwatching becomes more popular and often includes travel, it appears birds might again become a primary draw to Hilton Head. From food to fascination, birds might again become central to our economy and community.

Shorebird illustration with three birds

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