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Lowcountry Waterbirds

Environmental photographer Eric Horan captures beauty flying in and above local waterways.

Story and Photography by Eric Horan

March through November is my favorite time of year for birding adventures around the Lowcountry waterways. This stretch of time claims nesting season for wading and seabirds and one can experience the full repertoire of seabird behaviors. From courtship displays and building nests to birds fishing and raising their young, it is prime time on my wildlife photo safaris. While these nesting birds can be seen around the area by land, I enjoy taking birders and photographers around the waterways by boat on photo safaris. By boat, we travel away from the busy hubbub on land to witness large colonies of birds.

Birds that nest in colonies include many different species that share the same habitat. Wading birds like small islands surrounded by fresh or brackish water, isolated from predators. They begin nesting earlier than the seabirds but their seasons overlap. Wading birds include egrets, ibis, cormorants, anhinga, wood stork and most herons. The Great Blue Heron nests alone.

Seabird colonies include Brown Pelican, Laughing Gulls, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Gull-billed

Tern, Black Skimmer and Oystercatcher. They nest on sand and shell bank islands, with or without vegetation and isolated from the mainland – safe from most four-legged predators.

The scenic Lowcountry provides varied backdrops for our bird images, from the lush, muted colors of the salt marshes, crashing waves on a pristine beach, to puffy-white, cumulus clouds in blue sky behind wind-shaped sea oats.

If you like sitting and observing birds while they work, the Oystercatcher will steal your attention with their bright orange bill and matching eye on an otherwise black and white body. As the name suggests, raw oysters are their main food source. They usually nest alone and by April, their chicks are on the ground. Most Oystercatchers do not choose to nest in a place that’ll soon be overrun with other seabirds. They will search out isolated shell banks where they will be left alone. But if they chose badly, in May they find themselves surrounded by at least six other species competing for space, in what can look like total bedlam.

Black Skimmers stand out from other shorebirds, not only for their red bill on a striking black and white frame, but because of their athletic flying skills. They seem to float just inches above the water’s surface, as they fly along scooping up small fish. A pair of skimmers can suddenly take to the air in a type of aerial jousting as they chase, bite and bump one another in what appears to be an airborne “tag you’re it” game of high-speed turns and dives.

Laughing Gulls and the skimmers aside, all other colony nesters are diving birds. Beach goers can see them working the waters just offshore. The largest and most universally recognized is the Brown Pelican. They fly in a tight formation above the dunes or single file inches over the ocean waves. If you hear a loud splash on your beach walk, it likely belongs to the pelican diving for food.

Terns, a fraction the size of a pelican, hardly splash when entering the water. But if you are close enough to this action, you can hear the sound of their elongated body missile into the water. If you spin around in time, you might see the tern re-appear with a small fish. The largest of the terns is the Royal Tern and is easily identified by the black head crest and orange bill. After feeding one of their continually hungry chicks, the delivery bird leaves the deafening noise of the rookery, flying low over the water to wash his feet and bill before heading out again in pursuit of another fingerling or shrimp.

I’m often told how much patience I must have to photograph wildlife but I wonder; it doesn’t seem to carry over when I’m in traffic in a grocery line. I suspect wildlife observation has more to do with passion. If you enjoy witnessing bird behavior, in South Carolina there are several months to get outside with your binoculars and camera.


 

Eric Horan is an environmental photographer based in Beaufort County. Find more of his work online at horanphoto.com.