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Looking to the Birds

A GUIDE TO BIRD-WATCHING IN THE LOWCOUNTRY

Whether you’re experienced or a neophyte hoping to spot an elusive rare species or observe many birds in myriad ecosystems, resident or visitor, the Lowcountry offers rich opportunities for bird-watching year-round. 

With ecosystems ranging from maritime forests to freshwater ponds, streams, beaches, dunes and salt marshes, the area offers a diverse palette of avian life. Some 200 species make the area their home, while another 150 species have at least visited in recent years. 

“It’s a really easy place for birding,” says Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history for the Coastal Discovery Museum and field-trip coordinator for Hilton Head Audubon. 

Chacon has had his eyes and ears open for birds for most of his life. He trained as a tropical biologist in his native Costa Rica and began leading trips into the rain forest in his 20s before moving to the Lowcountry about two decades ago. 

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Observing birds in their natural environment is something virtually anybody can do, he says. 

“It’s really fun, regardless of age,” he says. “And it’s a lot more relevant to your life to know what birds are in your backyard than who Jennifer Aniston is dating.” 

Local birders may get lucky and see a colorful painted bunting — known as the bird of “siete colores,” or seven colors, in Central America, where they winter — a super-shy sora hiding in a clump of grass or a black-bellied whistling duck, a new arrival in the area since 2015. 

But Chacon stresses that even “common” birds are fascinating. For example, jays can remember where they’ve stashed 1,000 food items; crows recognize individual human faces; and the yellow-throated warbler nests in hanging clumps of Spanish moss. 

For new birders, Chacon recommends bringing binoculars; carrying a book or downloading an app to help with identification (Chacon suggests the Merlin Bird ID app); and wearing muted colors. 

birds3Also, stay silent. 

“The noisier you are, the less birds you are going to see,” he said. 

Chacon encourages people to practice “bird-friendly behavior” while visiting the area, such as staying off dunes, picking up litter and preventing dogs from chasing shore birds. 

“When shore birds are on the beach in a cluster, that’s when they are sleeping. Tonight, they may take off to fly 100 miles,” he says. Being chased by dogs, “is like you have a marathon tomorrow, and tonight someone is waking you up to make you run 100 meters every 15 minutes.” 

At home, bird lovers can encourage native-plant growth or grow “wild backyards” to provide habitat where a manicured lawn will not. 

“I always stress the importance of conservation,” Chacon says. “People are moved to preserve what they care for.” 

Among Chacon’s favorite Lowcountry bird-watching spots are:

HILTON HEAD ISLAND: 

  • Pinckney Island: Egrets and herons nest at freshwater ponds in the spring; eagles and osprey ride the wind in search of prey; visitors may see threatened wood storks and painted buntings (summer). 
  • Sea Pines Forest Preserve: Egrets, anhinga, woodpeckers, warblers, hooded mergansers and more inhabit fields, forests, marshes and ponds. Note: Fee required to enter Sea Pines. 
  • Fish Haul Park and Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park: Osprey, tricolored herons, Wilson’s plover, Marbled Godwit and other uncommon shore birds flourish in the mud flats, marsh, and forest ecosystems. 

BLUFFTON: 

  • New River Linear Trail: This 5.1-mile rails-to-trails route offers ample opportunity to see forest birds, notably migrating warblers. 
  • Victoria Bluff Heritage Preserve: Nearly 1,000 acres of pine-saw palmetto flatland habitat are home to yellow-throated and yellow-rumped warblers, white-eyed vireos, summer tanagers and other forest species. 

OKATIE: 

  • Widgeon Point Preserve: This just-opened, 170- acre park, home to numerous species of wading and songbird species, features a short trail and bird blind. 

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