Feathered visitors flock to colder water around Pinckney Island


Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is one of the area’s best places to explore the natural beauty of the Lowcountry. The refuge offers a variety of habitats that are home to diverse wildlife and beautiful vistas. The casual visitor and the avid naturalist can both enjoy the 13 miles of trails, fresh water lagoons and adjacent salt marshes year-round.

0215-Environment-SapsuckerDepending upon the time of the year, visitors to Pinckney Island can view a variety of wildlife, plants and scenery. While our area sees a downturn in the number of tourists to our resorts, beaches and golf courses in the winter, the opposite is the case for visiting birds.  Most of us consider the current water temperature to be unappealing; however, many species of ducks, wading birds and shore birds find it to be just right.

Except for mallards and wood ducks, all other 28 duck or geese species reported in the area are winter visitors. Four species of grebes and two different types of loons are only found here in the winter months. Visitors to Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge should look in the lagoons and the salt marsh areas to find these winter visitors. Some of the most common species to find in the salt marsh areas are the hooded merganser, bufflehead and common goldeneye ducks. Visitors can also expect to see blue-winged teals, green-winged teals and ring-necked ducks in the freshwater lagoons.

Be sure to look closely for other migrating shorebirds and songbirds along the marsh or in the maritime forest. Many species visit the Lowcountry in search of mild weather during the winter months. The mudflat areas of the salt marsh are a favorite foraging destination for wintering shorebirds. If the tide is low and the mudflats are exposed, it is possible to see large flocks of wintering shorebirds including: marbled godwits, short-billed dowitchers, ruddy turnstones and others. Visitors may see northern flickers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, cedar waxwings and hermit thrushes in the wooded areas of the maritime forest.

While most of our winter visitors move back to the north to breed, one of our most well-known species comes here to breed during the winter months.  Once nearly extinct, the bald eagle had practically vanished from South Carolina for many years.  Recently, bald eagles have had an astonishing recovery, and their numbers are increasing every year. Their population has bounced back to a point that they were removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants in 2007. Bald eagles have become a common sight in the coastal Lowcountry, and they are at home on undeveloped islands like Pinckney Island. On nearly any winter day, you are likely to see one of these majestic birds soaring overhead, fishing in surrounding waterways or perching on the power poles along the side of the bridge to Hilton Head Island.  

0215-Environment-BuffleheadIn addition to the great birding at Pinckney, you may also see one of the island’s many nine-banded armadillos during the winter. While they are typically most active at dusk and dawn, during our colder months it is not unusual to see armadillos out of their dens during the warmest part of the day. Because these animals originally come from the tropics, they avoid the coldest parts of the day and only come out to forage for food when the temperature is at its highest.

When visiting Pinckney Island, there are a few things to remember. There are no bathroom facilities on site and pets are prohibited from the refuge. The gates are open from sunrise to sunset. There is no charge for visiting Pinckney Island, but if you choose to join a guided tour with the Coastal Discovery Museum, the fee is $12 for adults and $7 for children and reservations are required. Please visit the museum’s website at www.coastaldiscovery.org or call 843-689-6767 ext. 223 to make reservations. Guided tours are held at 9 a.m. each Tuesday and Thursday year-round.