A little birdie told me… Where to flock for the best bird spotting in the Lowcountry
Story By Daisy Dow
Flanked by an ocean and marshes, the southern part of South Carolina is a refuge for birds of every kind, snowbirds included. Winding rivers and estuaries create a haven for eagles and hawks. Where seawater melds with fresh, brackish waters cultivate diverse habitats that attract migratory birds back year after year.
Life for birds is not all as idyllic as soaring through the skies. Millions of acres of bird habitat is affected by development, deforestation and agricultural practices. Glass windows, while they offer us humans an added luxury of being able to enjoy nature without being in it, pose a deadly threat for birds. Maintaining existing bird habitats is essential for sustaining avian populations, but instilling a love and respect for feathered creatures is as important to ensure that future generations continue the fight to protect birds. Luckily designated wildlife areas, state parks and wetlands keep birds from falling prey to any unnecessary accidents and make for great birdwatching. Check out some of the region’s most pristine natural getaways that preserve the future for our feathery friends and keep a bird’s-eye view of the area looking lush and green.
Hunting Island State Park
Of the refuges and wildlife management areas listed, Hunting Island State Park is by far the busiest and most popular spot. Anyone who has tried their hand at birdwatching knows that keeping quiet and still are the best techniques for getting your eyes and ears tuned into the birds around, but even the hustle and bustle of its visitors doesn’t deter birds from flocking to the park. Near the famous lighthouse, watch out for yellow-rumped warblers and northern waterthrush. Around the Johnson Creek inlet you will be able to spot black skimmers and American oystercatchers. A telescope would be the perfect tool to bring to spot painted buntings and other birds who might be enjoying the peace and quiet a little further in the distance. With opportunities to post up along fishing piers and on boardwalks along marshes, Hunting Island State Park is the perfect spot to sit back and relax on a bench, waiting and watching as birds pass you by and come to you.
If you go:
Don’t feel like you have to be in the park for the best birding. Check the tide charts, and head to Butch’s Island at high tide to get a glimpse of a marsh wren or a seaside sparrow searching for their dinner in the higher waters.
Cypress Wetlands and Rookery
Located in Port Royal, the Cypress Wetlands and rookery feature a wooden boardwalk and amphitheater, which make a prime location for someone to take a laid-back stroll through a secluded gem of the Lowcountry. For a quiet getaway perfect for tuning into the symphony of birds’ songs, the area has a 0.56-mile path – just long enough to take in an abundance of wildlife and the perfect length for a quick walk when the weather gets hot and muggy. This area encapsulates the birds of the Lowcountry. Little blue herons, black-crowned night herons, green herons, wood storks, great egrets, snowy egrets, moorhens, black-bellied whistling ducks and anhingas populate the rookery’s marshes and shrubs. April is the perfect time to visit the rookery, as many of these species begin nesting in early April. Further inland amidst the rookery’s wax myrtle trees and buttonbush, you might be able to hear the metronomic tapping of a downy woodpecker. Walking across the park you might see the state bird, the Carolina wren, zip by. Larger birds like the Mississippi kite, eastern screech owl, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle and osprey can be seen soaring overhead.
If you go:
One perk of visiting the rookery in the spring is that you might catch some of the larger birds performing their nuptial dances among the cypress trees.
Ace Basin National Wildlife Refuge
Encompassing 350,000 acres, the Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge is located 20 miles south of Charleston and features 16 archaeological sites. Named after the rivers that converge to form it (Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto), the refuge is considered one of the largest undeveloped wetland ecosystems on the Atlantic Coast. More than 290 bird species have been recorded passing through the area. Twenty species of waterfowls spend the winters here, including wood ducks, pintails, shovelers, mallards, widgeons and American kestrels. Bald and golden eagles make featured appearances now and again. At this time of year neotropical migratory songbirds ascend from the south, choosing to cross the equator to nest and raise their young. Prothonotary warblers, painted buntings and ruby-throated hummingbirds fill the refuge with sparks of bright color. While you think it would be hard to miss the bright red color of their feathers, the speed and size of some of these birds make them a truly spectacular sight to catch. On the other end of the spectrum, you might come across the black rail, a species of special concern in South Carolina for its sparse population numbers.
If you go:
Even if you don’t have time to hike and wander deep into the refuge, take a quick stop at the Dawhoo Boat Landing off SC 174 for a wide look at the refuge’s wildlife from across North Creek. Be sure to bring your binoculars for the best view.
Donnelley Wildlife Management Area
The area features two designated nature trails and miles of dirt roads for cyclists and hikers. Whether mobility or weather concerns put hiking on the backburner, there is an 11-mile driving tour of the property that winds through pine and hardwood forests and through marshes to Mary’s Island. Centered around Green Pond, the land that constitutes this protected area was once a rice field. Remnants of its water-level-control systems, known as rice trunks, can be seen throughout the property today. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources uses these floodgates to manage the water levels of the wetlands’ impoundments. Late winter through spring is the optimal time for birdwatching. Like many of the other nature preserves, a similar yet diverse variety of waterfowl and migratory songbirds pass through. On its 8,000 acres, be on the lookout for roseate spoonbills, Eurasian widgeon ducks, herons, egrets, ibises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, bald eagles, painted buntings and, on occasion, sandhill cranes. With live oaks draping curtains of Spanish moss across the trails, be sure to look up in their branches for birds roosting in their nests.
If you go:
Make note that on every Wednesday and Saturday in April, the area will be closed to visitors until noon. The area allows in-season recreational hunting, so those mornings are closed to the public for their safety. Mondays and Fridays might be your best bet for some undisturbed birdwatching.
Bear Island Wildlife Management Area
Named for the barrier island it’s located on, Bear Island Management Area features an array of birds native to the coastal plains. In the winter you can find a variety of ducks, herons, gulls, terns and sparrows. When temperatures turn a little warmer in the springtime, a trip to the area might bring you up close and personal with black-necked stilts, great horned owls, common nighthawks, seaside sparrows and painted buntings. If the conditions are right and you keep an eye out, you may spot a black-bellied whistling duck, a cinnamon teal, an American avocet, a short-eared owl or even a western tanager. The area features two observation platforms and miles of dikes that make it easy to find the perfect spot for birdwatching while keeping your feet nice and dry. The 5,385 acres of protected area features 27 impoundments dotted between tidal marshes and mixed forests. The area is brimming with birds even beyond the boundaries of the management area. The village of Bennett’s Point, while outside of the wildlife management area, is a great place to see Eurasian collared-doves and white-winged doves.
If you go:
The best spot for bird watching is along the unpaved road located off Bennett’s Point Road, named Titi Lane. If you find a safe place to park, wander up the unpaved roads on foot to take in the magnificent wildlife overhead.