The pelagic trip out of San Diego on August 19 this year has already been featured in one of my blog posts (https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/21064). As I wrote there, I had many frustrations, but there were many great birds including 4 Lifers, but for the purposes of this post, it was the great people – one in particular – that were more important. Among those on board were 8 birders doing Big Years of one sort or another. They include the top 6 ABA lists for 2018 with the other 2 being within the top 11. Another birder on the boat was Ken Scott from Beaufort, South Carolina.
We had only a brief intersection onboard that was interrupted by the appearance of a Red Footed Booby. But I remembered that he was from South Carolina, so when I was planning my visit there as part of my 50 States adventure, I hoped we might intersect again. I found an email address and contacted him and it worked out perfectly to be able to join him for a day of birding on the Christmas Bird Count in Beaufort County, South Carolina – midway between Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, GA the two cities I wished to visit birding near each as part of my project. Ken felt there was a really good chance to get 50 species on his CBC especially if I birded his area in the morning and then went with a different team to a different habitat area in the afternoon. So my plan was to fly into Charleston and combine some sightseeing with some birding before joining him. This area stretching from just north of Charleston to the Georgia border is called the “Lowcountry or Low Country” – a geographic and cultural region along South Carolina’s coast, including the Sea Islands with many resorts and beautiful sandy beaches.
Before the Count – Charleston to Beaufort
Charleston was founded in 1670 and grew as a seaport with a healthy economy from that activity and the cultivation of rice, indigo and cotton. The wealth brought the development of many historically and architecturally significant homes and buildings. In April 1861, Confederate soldiers fired on Union-occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, beginning the Civil War. The War brought significant damage to the City but the preservation and reconstruction of the old homes and buildings became a foundation for a thriving tourism – the major driver in its economy today.
My plans to spend a lot of time in the Old City were dampened – literally – when torrential rains and surface flooding came on my first day. Plan B was to do some birding in the morning and hope it would clear for tourism in the afternoon. I headed to Fort Moultrie (pronounced “Mool – tree”) National Monument dating back to Revolutionary War days and continuing as a fort in the Civil War. More than 3 inches of rain fell that morning and I made good use of both rain pants and parka. I was greeted by a flock of White Ibis on the grass by the Fort and found a number of passerines as I walked the grounds. The Fort was on the water and this produced a good mix of birds as well including a surprising Black Scoter. Even in the poor conditions, I had 35 species including hearing a Clapper Rail and seeing a pair of American Oystercatchers. I had picked up 5 other species before even getting to the Fort
White Ibis – Adult and Juvenile
It was 11:00 a.m. and still pouring. Coming onto Sullivan Island to get to the Fort I had crossed a causeway and had noticed some shorebirds. Having found many more species than expected at the Fort, I thought it might be possible to make a stop on the causeway and maybe one more spot and actually get to 50 species for the day and then hope it would clear for some time in the City. I added several shorebirds on the Causeway. Four to go. An Ebird Hotspot called the I’On Rookery was nearby and promised some ducks and maybe a few passerines so off I went.
It turned out to be one of my favorite stops. I added seven species to get over 50 for the day (removing any concern about doing so for South Carolina) including a Blue Headed Vireo, one of my favorites, and a very nice Orange Crowned Warbler. It was good that I found them because there were only two species of waterfowl and I had expected a few more.
Blue Headed Vireo
Orange Crowned Warbler
The birds were nice, but the real appeal was that the pond I visited was in the center of a beautiful planned community of lovely homes and beautiful landscaping. It was extremely well done and as attractive as any I have seen anywhere. I later found out that the homes were quite expensive – certainly for the area or for my preconceived notions of housing costs in South Carolina. Even without large lots, home prices began at $1.3 million and some were substantially higher including the ones in the photo below which were located on the pond. They would have been much higher still in Seattle.
I’On Village Pond and Homes
The rain had slowed and I headed into Historic Downtown Charleston. I did not go into any of the old mansions but walked through the Historic Market and enjoyed the streetscape. I did make sure to visit Christophe Artisan Chocolates. Earlier I had discovered this great chocolatier when Pat Lueders took her Naturalist Journeys group to Charleston. I arranged chocolates to be delivered to her while she was there as a thank you. It worked very well and I wanted to personally thank the folks there for their efforts. It also allowed me to get a wonderful almond croissant for myself, too. The shop was amazing – beautiful pastries and chocolates – yummy, too.
Christophe Artisan Chocolates and Cafe – Truffles
I did not have time to visit but wish I could have gone to Henry’s for jazz and food. Not so great on the outside but it was highly recommended. It seemed to me that there were restaurants everywhere. Many downtown but also in every neighborhood and historic area. Charleston has a reputation as a “foodie paradise”. I believe it. That night I did not go fancy but I went “excellent” with barbecue at Bessinger’s – basic, filling and very tasty.
The next day I headed to Beaufort (pronounced “Byoo-furt” in South Carolina as opposed “Bo-furt” in North Carolina with birding stops at two great places – Caw Caw Interpretive Center and Donnelly Wildlife Management Area. Beaufort was 70 miles from Charleston and the entire area looked like great birding habitat. But there had been so much rain that many areas were flooded and when I got to Caw Caw, many of the trails and paths were impassable. There is a terrific visitor center and an extremely friendly and helpful person there opened early and got me hooked up with a naturalist walk that was scheduled 20 minutes after I got there.
You know that you are not in Washington when the naturalist describes changes that will be made to the usual walk because of the flooded fields and explains that we cannot just go through the brush because while the probability is very slim for Coral Snakes that there is danger from Copperheads, Cottonmouths, and two or three kinds of Rattlesnakes plus Alligators. Easy decision — I will stay on the trails…
In just over two hours with an amiable group of birders, we saw or heard 39 species including some heard only Wood Ducks the only waterfowl of the trip despite habitat that looked good to me. The highlight was unquestionably the medium sized (6 foot) Alligator that was on the trail ahead of us with what appeared to be a rabbit in its fearsome jaws. It slithered backwards into one of the canals as we approached – carefully.
It was now almost 11:00 a.m. and I had another area to visit – and I also wanted to break away from the group and try to find a Sedge Wren – a species high on my photo wanted list as I did not have one for the ABA. I thought I had thought I may have heard one as we walked but our guide was not sure and felt it was useless to try to get it to come out. Not more than 5 minutes after separating from the group I stopped at what seemed to me to be good habitat and got an immediate clear response after a brief playback of Sedge Wren calls. (Which by the way the guide was not averse o using.) A small Wren came up into the reeds and remained hidden – but noisy. I grabbed a few miserable photos as it darted around never completely in the open. Even though its calls were dead on for Sedge Wren I am still not sure if the photo is of a Marsh Wren or a Sedge Wren and I got differing opinions from two locals. The supercilium and clear breast say Marsh to me despite the calls.
Wren – Sedge or Marsh?…Marsh
After Caw Caw, I moved on to the Donnelly Wildlife Management Area. In my early pre-trip planning I had identified this Ebird Hotspot as a great place to either find 50 species in a day or to supplement a list from elsewhere to do so. Since I was not sure that the Beaufort CBC would produce 50 species, I thought I needed a backup plan. The only problem was that the Hotspot name included the seemingly limiting “(partial fall and winter restricted access)”. What did this mean? When I asked Buddy Campbell – the compiler for the Beaufort County and some other Lowcountry CBC’s that Ken had gotten me in touch with, he said it was related to hunting and would probably not affect me.
It was a GREAT area – and another example of where hunters and birders share interests in habitat creation, preservation and management and where coexistence can be very positive. My first stop was on a dike along a wetland barely into the park. I expected many ducks and found many – well over 100 Wood Ducks but unlike our experience with them in the open in Washington, these ducks were hidden away in the wooded marshy areas, detectable only by their constant calling and then their flights when I got anywhere close. Buddy (and Ebird reports) said this was also a good Sedge Wren area. I heard at least one but got only brief distant glimpses.
I could write many pages about this place – really fun visit of almost 3 hours. It was mostly thin forest and wetland. A good mix of passerines and one spot with some shorebirds (both Yellowlegs and both Dowitchers). Ebird reports included many waders but other than a couple of Egrets, a Great Blue and a Green Heron, I had found none…until…I discovered the large pond/lake behind “the Lodge”. What a great spot!! In addition to other species there were 53 American White Pelicans, 6 Great Blue Herons, 18 Great Egrets, 11 Snowy Egrets, 4 Little Blue Herons, 1 Tricolored Heron, 1 Green Heron, 2 Black-crowned Night-Herons, 20 White Ibis, 5 Roseate Spoonbills, Forster’s Terns, an Osprey and a Wood Stork. A great way to pad a list.
Little Blue Herons (Juvenile and Adult)
When I tallied my list after this visit, it was 67 species. Added to Caw Caw and a couple of species on the highway (American Crow and European Starling), I had 84 species for the day (and over 100 for the trip) – and the planned big Day was yet to come – the Beaufort CBC on the 16th. I thoroughly enjoyed Donnelly. In addition to the great birds, it was the feeling of unity with the place. Very peaceful aided in part by the fact that for the entire time I was there, I did not see another human being – just me and the beauty and wonder of nature.
Beaufort and the CBC
Ken and his lovely wife Betty picked me up at my hotel that evening and we went to dinner at Panini’s on the Waterfront in Beaufort. I had been hearing about how great the oysters were in the area but Ken said we would have them at lunch the next day. I chose a Greek Shrimp Panini. It was exceptional. After the very short visit on the pelagic trip it was nice to spend relaxed time with Ken and with Betty. Both, like many people in the area, are transplants and their perspective on the area was very interesting. Definitely gave me a different take on preconceived notions of South Carolina to some degree. Like most places there are people of all sorts, cultures, beliefs and attitudes. This is not the place to go into these matters but it was easy to discuss politics, race, and the culture of place. Discussing birds was great too as Ken and Betty are well traveled and have many stories.
Panini’s on the Waterfront
The plan for the next day was simple. I would be meeting them at 8:00 and we would bird one habitat area on St. Helena’s Island and then I would join another group in the afternoon to bird a very different habitat on Harbor Island. The morning was steady good birding with a mix of passerines, waterfowl, waders, shorebirds and raptors. I particularly enjoyed a grassy field and trees that had numerous Palm Warblers, Pine Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds.
Raptors included both Black Vulture and Turkey Vultures (some consider them raptors), Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered, Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks, and American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon.
We finished the morning with 59 species, so I guess I needn’t have worried about 50 species in a day. We then met up with my “afternoon group” led by John Fisk and spouse Karen at a very unique restaurant, the Johnson Creek Tavern. It was “oyster time”. Tradition at the restaurant is for visitors to put dollar bills on the wall for good luck. Every inch of every wall was full. When the walls were last cleaned in May 2018 more than $17,500 was collected…and donated to charity…a veterans group. There was no room for my dollar … but I enjoyed the oysters!!
Johnson Creek Tavern – St. Helen’s Island – South Carolina
With Ken and Betty Outside the Restaurant
It was then goodbye to Ken and Betty and off with John and Karen and 4 others. John Fisk is a retired orthopedic surgeon and both he and Karen were interesting, excellent and avid birders. Our afternoon would primarily be at sand beach habitat on Harbor Island with a couple of wetland areas thrown in. We had good shorebirds including Black-bellied, Semipalmated and Piping Plovers, a surprise Marbled Godwit, Sanderling, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper and Willet. Hard to beat Piping Plovers as favorites.
I was not able to get on it fast enough for a photo, but we also had a flyby Northern Gannet and at the very end some Black Skimmers which are always a treat.
Much of the time was spent walking on a beautiful sandy beach. What was not as beautiful was the impact of storms and erosion on the beach and the homes built there. Many homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Mathew and other storms. Some have been torn down but there is a lawsuit underway to require removal of six severely damaged homes that are eyesores to say the least. We walked through some of the ruins as we birded. John had studied beach dynamics and I wish I could have recorded his discussion on how the beach was reforming.
Hurricane Destroyed Home on the Beach
We called it a day around 4 p.m. I made another stop on the way out of town and headed off to Savannah, Georgia where I would be birding the next day. We had 26 species on our count and I added a couple more on my last stop. This brought the species count for the day to 73 and for my visit to South Carolina to 116. It had been a great day for birds, people and places (and oysters) and a wonderful visit to South Carolina. I hope to get back sometime and spend more time in Charleston and to visit places like Kiawah Island and Hilton Head. Time with Ken and Betty was too short. Maybe our paths will cross again.