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Hilton Jr., B. 1993. Hot spots for birds. South Carolina Wildlife 40(2):40-47.

(Note: The draft below was submitted to South Carolina Wildlife magazine; the article that actually appeared in print may have been edited.)

"Four-Hole Swamp!"

"I'd say Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge."

"Caesar's Head in the fall, Orangeburg sod farms in spring."

"The Gulf Stream."

"Why, Huntington Beach State Park, of course. What could be better?

These were answers I got when I asked five experienced birdwatchers to name their favorite birding locales around South Carolina. Obviously, there was no agreement, and for good reason: The Palmetto State has so many special places and birds that birders have almost too many choices to make.

South Carolina's 46 counties cover 31,055 square miles of land stretching from the coast to the mountains, acreage that contains as diverse a set of habitats as you'll find in so small an area. There are swamps and streams, maritime hardwood forests and upland pine stands, urban areas and agricultural tracts, all with distinct complements of birds.

Hardcore birdwatchers who know every nook and cranny of the state return often to favorite locales where they hope to find just one more bird species. Each person bases his or her decisions about the "best places" to bird in South Carolina on an almost limitless number of factors. Perhaps the special spot yielded someone's first Painted Bunting in full breeding plumage, or it's where seeing the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a given. Or maybe it's simply a cherished place that stirs up thoughts of field trips long ago. These reasons are why an article about South Carolina's "HOTTEST PLACES TO BIRD" is almost presumptuous. I doubt that ornithologists would ever agree on the state's top ten birding spots, so this piece is about pleasant places that are accessible to the public and that are "guaranteed" to produce a reasonable variety of birds. The spots areen't listed in any particular order, but they do represent the state's physiographic and ornithological diversity. And, since they also reflect the personal biases of just one person, you're invited to send the name of your own favorite birding spot for possible inclusion in future issues of South Carolina Wildlife.

The Author's "TOP TEN" South Carolina Birding Spots
Many knowledgeable birders consider Huntington Beach State Park to be the best birding spot on the East Coast. Where else can you walk a causeway with a freshwater pond on your right (Great Egrets, Least Bitterns, Common Gallinules, and American Alligators), American Alligatora saltwater mudflat and marsh on your left (Long-billed Dowitchers, King Rails, Black Skimmers, and Fiddler Crabs), and a sky full of birds (Brown Pelicans, Ospreys, Rough-winged Swallows, and Painted Buntings)? The park, just south of Garden City on US 17, also has a long stretch of relatively un-strolled beach (endangered Piping Plovers winter here), plus a paved jetty that juts several hundred feet into the Atlantic Ocean. From Thanksgiving through early March, it's possible to stand on the jetty and see Gannets, all three scoters (Black, Surf, and White-winged), and-especially after hurricanes-a collection of pelagic bird species that otherwise are accessible only from boats that travel 40 miles or more offshore. Like most other state parks, there's a daily parking fee, but $3 is a paltry sum to pay for the privilege of studying any of the 276 species of birds recorded for the 2,500-acre park. Sid Gauthreaux, Clemson University professor and co-author of Status and Distribution of South Carolina Birds, takes his ornithology classes all the way to Huntington Beach each year because "there, per unit of time, you have the greatest chance of turning up something rare and noteworthy. In recent winters there have been such exotic species as Lesser Black-backed Gull, jaegers, Harlequin Duck, and Snow Buntings, and the adjoining woodlands can be particularly exciting during spring and fall migration."

2. Four-Hole Swamp was ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, but the loss of canopy trees has merely broadened the diversity of the sanctuary's bird species. The boardwalk has been re-built, and a spring field trip to this National Audubon Society facility may be the safest, driest way to see dozens of water-loving Prothonotary Warblers in breathtaking yellow breeding plumage. The mile-long boardwalk starts at a small nature museum and circles through the largest remaining stand of virgin/old growth baldcypress-tupelo gum swamp forest in the world. Northern Parulas are everywhere, building their nests among Spanish moss, and many other warblers spend a day or two gobbling insects during spring migration. Barred Owls are frequently seen in the all-day twilight of heavily wooded parts of the swamp, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and several species of egrets bankfish along Goodson Lake at the far end of the trail. In all, observers at the sanctuary have reported 140 species of birds, 39 mammals, 40 amphibians, 50 reptiles, and 39 kinds of fish! John Cely, nongame biologist with the South Carolina Wildlife & Marine Resources Department, says "Four-Hole is a great place, especially for folks who haven't ever birded in a swamp. You can get good looks at several bottomland species, especially Prothonotary, Parula, and Swainson's warblers. It's best to visit in spring before green-up so you don't have to look through foliage, but the tall trees may still require craning your neck and picking out warblers from the canopy." Four-Hole Swamp, part of the 6,000-acre Beidler Forest, is off I-26 near Harleyville; call sanctuary headquarters (803/462-2150) for information about admission fees and seasonal hours of operation.

3. The northwest corner of the state contains South Carolina's small but beautiful share of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, several state parks and adjoining lands lie at altitudes above 3,000 feet, providing nesting habitat for birds that otherwise are found much further north. The general area is called Mountain Bridge, a ridge-top region that starts along U.S. 11 at Jones Gap State Park and Sassafras Mountain and meanders west past Caesar's Head, Table Rock, and eventually to Oconee State Park. This is the only place in the state where Northern Ravens occur regularly-a species that seeks out the wilderness that abounds in this rugged mountain region. Caesar's Head, Sassafras Mountain, and the Walhalla Fish Hatchery are the only known South Carolina breeding sites for Dark-eyed Juncos-those northern "snowbirds" that occur commonly in winter at backyard feeders throughout the state. Red Crossbills, Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Blue warblers, and Sharp-shinned Hawks have also bred at Caesar's Head, and the last documented state record for a Scarlet Tanager nest was in 1964 at Sassafras Mountain. Intensive summer field work in the Mountain Bridge region someday might confirm South Carolina nestings for Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and several warblers including Blackburnian, Blue-winged, Canada, Cerulean, and Golden-winged, and it may be just a matter of time until Peregrine Falcons-reintroduced in the East after near-extinction from DDT poisonings-again nest in the area. With all this potential for new discoveries, it's no wonder serious birders spend a few days each summer at Mountain Bridge. Irvin Pitts, who did extensive field work with birds during his years as naturalist at Caesar's Head State Park, says the "whole Blue Ridge province is at the very southern edge of many species' ranges, so you never know what northern birds might be found breeding there. All in all, the South Carolina mountains are a fairly contiguous stretch of protected property, much of which is accessible to public birding."

4. It might seem odd to mention the Orangeburg sod farms in a list of South Carolina's hottest birding locations, but once you've been there between late August and early October you'll understand why they're included. Situated along U.S. 301 between I-26 and the Orangeburg city limits, the sod farms are an expanse of intensively managed turf grass. Shorebirds seem to like sod as much as mudflats, so on a good day during fall migration there may be big flocks of sandpipers and plovers of several different species. Sometimes there are choice birds not often seen elsewhere in the state, including Lesser Golden Plovers and White-rumped, Buff-breasted, or Upland Sandpipers, and there are breeding populations of Horned Larks and Killdeer. All these birds, which do the sod farmers a favor by eating grubs and insects, are best seen from the highway with a spotting scope. It's important to remember that these working farms are private property, so stay on the roads and don't wander onto the grass. Robin Carter of Columbia, author of the just-published [November 1992] Finding Birds in South Carolina (USC Press), remembers the "July day when we had probably 1,000 Pectoral Sandpipers at the sod farms, an incredible gathering of this species for the state. During winter there are good numbers of Lapland Longspurs and Water Pipits, and there was even a Sandhill Crane around for several days in March 1992. In essence, the sod farms are a little bit of shortgrass prairie plopped down in the middle of South Carolina. The site probably has been a great place for shorebirds for a long time, but we've just started to look regularly in the past few years. I can't stress too heavily that birders should stop at the Super Sod Co. office when it's open to ask permission to visit the farm. Continued access to this great birding spot depends on good manners and on not interfering with farm operations."

5. Although some first-time visitors find Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge (just north of McBee on US 1) to be a desolate spot for birding, there may be nowhere else in the state this far inland where you can easily observe so many species of wintering waterfowl. It's normal on Martin Lake, for example, to find a flock of several hundred Canada Geese and thousands of ducks, especially American Wigeons, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. Participants in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count held at the Sandhills since 1979 have reported plenty of other waterfowl, including Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Wood Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Snow goose (blue phase), Red-breasted and Hooded Mergansers, and Pied and Horned Grebes. The real reason for visiting the Sandhills, however, is that you're almost guaranteed to hear and see an endangered species-the Red-cockaded Woodpecker-on every field trip. This bird is doing well in artificially-maintained pine savannahs on the refuge, which has several scattered colonies. Perhaps the most accessible is at Lake Bee picnic area where the refuge auto trail crosses SC 141; there are even a few pairs nesting in the refuge manager's backyard! In the words of Jim Shuman, science education professor and veteran birder from New England, "A birding visit to the Carolinas wouldn't be complete for me without a trip to the Sandhills. The combination of wetlands and longleaf pine forests always provides plenty of action from many species that are difficult or impossible to see in my own part of the country. Red-cockadeds are THE bird to get, but I also enjoy the waterfowl and the marsh-dwellers. Where else can one do so well with woodpeckers, wood ducks, wigeons, wrens, warblers, and white-throats?"

6. If you're susceptible to motion sickness, you might not call the Gulf Stream off the Carolina coast a great place to watch birds, but if you try a Dramamine or a seasickness patch and venture 50 miles offshore, you'll find a fascinating new world of ornithology. South Carolina's pelagic birds-seagoing species that almost never come to the mainland-have strange, exotic names like Sooty Shearwater, White-tailed Tropicbird, South Polar Skua, and Leach's Storm-Petrel. The Gulf Stream where they hang out varies in width and exact location from day to day, but its relatively warm waters promote greater plant growth that supports more fish that, in turn, provide abundant food for pelagic birds. Deep-sea charter boat captains often let birders tag along on a fishing trip, and some tour operators rent boats by the day specifically for birding groups. Usual cost for bird tours is about $40-$50 per person per day, but the 65-foot Carolina Clipper out of Mt. Pleasant (803/884-2992) allows birders to ride up on the pilot deck for half price ($25) during all-day fishing trips. According to Nathan Dias, an avid bider from Charleston, "Off the South Carolina coast, I think May/early June and August/September are the best times to catch pelagic migrants. The main difference between pelagic birding and birding on terra firma is that ocean trips are much more 'hot-and-cold'-most pelagic days are either fantastic or a bust, so one has to be prepared for the possibility of a long excursion with few birds. The good days, however, make it all worthwhile!"

7. North of Charleston on US 17 lies Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, a critical coastal habitat for many migratory birds. The refuge contains one of the state's finest environmental gems, an expanse of forested barrier sand called Bull Island. Despite having been covered almost entirely by a ten-foot-plus tidal surge during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Bull Island is still one of THE great places to go to watch birds and other wildlife in South Carolina. The island is accessible only by small boat, but the easy 45-minute trip provides a good chance to view a variety of terns. American Swallow-tailed Kites sometimes soar gracefully above the western edge of the island, while the seaward side holds its share of sandpipers, plovers, and Brown Pelicans. Ospreys nest in snags along the beach, and Bald Eagles work the area for fish during all seasons. Many experienced birders venture onto Bull Island hoping for one of those rare peak days when migrating songbirds "fall out" of the sky and it's possible to see nearly every species of warbler that nests in eastern North America. Steve Compton, compiler for the annual Charleston Christmas Bird Count, also visits Bull Island each December. "In recent years," he says, "we've spotted big rafts of Brant, all three scoters, Tundra Swans, and tamest flock of Wild Turkeys I've ever seen. I like birding Bull Island because it's about as close to a wilderness feel as any place I've ever been. You can walk all day, be undistracted by civilization, and really concentrate on birds. Once the impoundments on the island are filled again with freshwater and the vegetation grows a bit, it will be just as good as it was pre-Hugo. For the time being, the canopy has been replaced by lots of edge habitat; there are still plenty of birds, but now there are Yellow-breasted Chats instead of Red-eyed Vireos." Capt. Lyle Finnell is one person who will meet you at Moore's Landing and ferry you to Bull Island and back; call 800/528-2041 (toll-free) for information about fees, schedules, and group rates.

8. At the very southern tip of the state lies Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, whose waters provide important stopover and wintering spots for waterfowl. A real attraction at the refuge is the spoil site formed from years of dredging to keep the Savannah River navigable. As the U.S. Corps of Engineers dredges the channel, they pump up tons of wet sand and bottom muck containing worms and other invertebrates, forming a sandflat that is a smorgasbord for shorebirds. Lex Glover, an active field birder from Lugoff, visits the spoil site with the hope of spotting a rare sandpiper or plover. "However," he says, "it's not just a matter of going there to find something unusual. We also try to get a feel for last year's shorebird breeding success and population trends. Eventually, you can see just every about shorebird to be found in South Carolina, the most common being Least, Semi-palmated, and Western Sandpipers, Dunlins, both yellowlegs, Willets, and both Dowitchers. I've also seen Stilt Sandpipers in good numbers, Wilson's Phalaropes on regular basis, and a Ruff was spotted there. In winter, if there is standing water, there will be huge numbers of Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teal, but the biggest drawing card in cold-weather is a flock of several hundred American Avocets." The spoil site is accessible from U.S. 17-Alternate by turning left on the dirt road just before the main bridge across the Savannah River; park outside the gate and walk in for a few hundred yards with your spotting scope and shorebird guide.

9. Yet another important location for migratory waterfowl is Santee National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles north of the intersection of I-26 and I-95 on the shore of Lake Marion. The Santee area, known far and wide as a great place to fish, is also one of the best places in the state to see birds. The refuge includes 15,000 acres of mixed woods, old fields, croplands, and a variety of aquatic habitats that since 1941 have been at least a temporary home for nearly 300 species of birds (and at least 45 kinds of mammals). Up to 100,000 ducks and 12,000 Canada Geese overwinter at this inland site, taking advantage of open water, abundant natural food, and hundreds of acres of cornfields planted by refuge personnel. Because of the varied habitats, 80 kinds of birds breed on the refuge or nearby within the Santee-Cooper system. It's not uncommon at most times of the year to see immature or adult Bald Eagles gliding over the backwaters of Lake Marion, and there are several active nest trees of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Some noteworthy "accidentals" have appeared at Santee NWR, including Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Wood Stork, Barnacle Goose, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Cinnamon Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Ruff, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Bewick's Wren, Sprague's Pipit, and Yellow-headed Blackbird; it's best to be on the alert for the unusual while birding the Santee! In the words of Russell Rogers Jr., a bird artist from Fort Mill who now lives in Seattle, "I remember the first time I went to Santee NWR in the winter of 1978 on a high school field trip. I was astounded by the diversity of bird life there and was astonished further by the Black Skimmer that had somehow wandered inland from the coast. Santee is just one of the many places that make the whole state of South Carolina one of the best kept secrets within the birding world."

10. No list of birding hotspots in South Carolina would be complete without mentioning what may be the very best place in the state to watch birds: Your Own Backyard. Many birders will drive for hours to visit a distant locale or to add a new species to their state list, but the hottest spot to watch birds might be just outside your dining room window. Although there are tens of thousands of hardcore field birders in the U.S., they are outnumbered at least a hundred-to-one by folks who take great pleasure from watching hummingbirds or House Finches at backyard feeders. Many "armchair" birders also hang nesting boxes and take time to watch bluebirds, titmice, or wrens as they court, mate, and raise their offspring, and there's certainly nothing wrong with spending countless hours studying such birds close to home. Since 1982, I've seen 156 bird species on my property near York, in part because I have nine acres of land and a two-acre pond. Perhaps more important, however, are the numerous brushpiles, berry bushes, and nest trees I've placed around Hilton Pond, all of which are important when you're trying to attract birdlife. Even people who live in apartments or on small lots can provide appropriate habitat and food to attract a variety of birds to the neighborhood. Too often, serious birders become blasé about "just another" cardinal or robin, but we all need to remember that there's plenty to be learned from whatever birds frequent Your Own Backyard-one of South Carolina's hottest birding spots.

Bill Hilton Jr. is a science education consultant, writer, naturalist, and Macintosh computer enthusiast who lives in York, South Carolina. He believes birdwatching in South Carolina is as good as it gets.

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