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.
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.
“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.
- 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.
- 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.