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A birder's Paradise

"Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny"

-C.S. Lewis

The first Carolina Safari of 2023 is in the books and it wasn’t without it’s challenges. Bear Island is still a very new property to me with many more expeditions to be had here moving forward. I remember having friends tell me I needed to check this place out. That it was the best birding they’ve experienced in South Carolina. That there’s plenty of photo opportunities for me there. On Labor Day weekend 2020, I missed out on getting into Kiawah’s Beachwalker Park to go see the Stranding Dolphins and since I was somewhat close Bear Island, I figured I’d finally go and check it out. It was my first time there and I figured I’d wander around on trails and see what it produced, only problem is I went at the worst time of year and worst time of day to go to Bear Island. It was sunny skies and sweltering heat. Needless to say I didn’t see much aside from some gators in the impoundments. It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day weekend 2022 that I went back and tagged along with my friend Jay Keck of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation that I got to see and really understand how to birdwatch in Bear Island. He showed me all the ponds where the Waterfowl liked to hangout versus the Shorebirds, as well as locating the White Pelican & Tundra Swan flocks. It was that trip that I could see how much of a birdwatcher’s paradise this place really is. Knowing that Bear Island is the southern most location to consistently see Tundra Swans, I knew I needed to bring a group down here.

Fast-forward to January and I formally announce to the world about Carolina Safari’s existence, and Bear Island is our first trip of the year. I’m excited to see people sign up and we manage to sell the trip out weeks in advance! A burden was definitely lifted off my shoulders when I saw we had a full trip on our hands, then the week leading up to the original Safari date happened. The weather forecast was calling for heavy rains that whole weekend: crap. I noticed that at the beginning of the week and began to sweat a little hoping that the rains would push back and arrive a little later into the following week. It did not. By Thursday I had to make the call and we had to delay our trip by a week. My guides that I had hired for that date couldn’t make the make-up date and of the 9 people set to go, only 3 could make it to the new date giving me just over a week to refill this adventure. Needless to say I was angry with no one to be angry at. That night I sent out an email blast in hopes to rally a new group of folks to join us. To my surprise, it was filled by Monday. Phew!

My alarm goes off the morning of the trip bright and early at 4am and I immediately jump out of bed. After having a week with so much anxiety building up for this trip and I ready to go and get this baby underway. I grabbed my coffee and supplies needed for our group and hit the road from Lexington to get down to Green Pond, SC (I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve never heard of this particular town before). Racing the sunrise was nice with no cars on the road I managed to get to Bear Island in a short 2 hours.

Naturally I arrive over an hour early, so I get a little bit of birding in while I wait for everyone to arrive. Our target bird for the day was the Tundra Swan. This is a species that summers and nests up above the Arctic Circle and they are MASSIVE. In SC we get a handful of Arctic residents that move through or winter in the state, but they’re typically smaller in size resulting in faster flight speeds. The Tundra Swan on the other hand has a 7ft wingspan and can weigh over 20lbs. These birds are so heavy, they have to get a running start to be able to generate lift as they take flight. Certainly an impressive migration for the hundreds of individuals that spend the winter in SC as they’re flying 3,000 miles one way. That’s the same distance across the Lower 48 states from East to West Coast.

The swans, during Duck Hunting Season, typically hang out in the first pond of this property, Mary’s Pond, that’s still open to the public, but the rest of this property is a wildlife management area that closes during the season. When the season ends, they move back into the property. When I first arrived, I had seen they were not in Mary’s Pond at the entrance to Bear Island and figured they were hanging out in one of the impoundments deeper in the property. Scanning Mary’s Pond I could see all kinds of little shorebirds, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, White Ibis galore, and a couple of White Pelicans were all making use of the mud flat in some way, shape, or form. The shorebirds and ibises were probing the mud looking for any crustaceans or worms they could get their bills on. The egrets and herons were making use of the shrinking pools in the impoundment that still harbored fish. Before I knew it, guests were beginning to arrive.

After a brief introduction and a little bit of birding around Mary’s Pond, we all loaded up and headed into the property. This was the first good weekend that Bear Island was open, so every birdwatcher & their mother was there, like us, chasing the Tundra Swans. Our first stop was at a lookout platform in the middle on an impoundment. I was surprised to see this wetland was pretty quiet. We could hear Pileated Woodpeckers Yellow-rumped Warblers calling off in the distance, but that was about it. The odd Pied-billed Grebe had popped it’s head out from some reeds only to go right back into the thicket. I was getting nervous we’d strike out on some great birdwatching then one of our guests called out “Eagles!” There were two adult Bald Eagles flying way off in the distance, almost impossible to tell from the naked eye. That was a sighting you’d need some giant binoculars to get a good look at them, but we could see enough of the black coloration on the wings & body with white heads & tails to feel comfortable with the ID.

Leaving viewing platform, we noticed a lot of trucks lined up alongside the road with dog kennels in the back as we drove deeper into the property: Rabbit Hunters. SC Dept of Natural Resources still allows for Rabbit Hunting on Wildlife Management Area Properties up until March 1, so it was a little unsettling knowing we were walking around as there was an active hunt going on. Thankfully our next stop wasn’t near the hunters. We arrived at the Pecan Tree impoundments where the bird life was booming. There were Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers, Northern Shovelers, Ibis, Egrets, Herons, and the occasional White Pelican hanging out in these ponds, but my favorite of the Shorebirds was well represented in number, the American Avocet. Just about every bird group has a “James Bond” species because their

plumage is usually black & white like the MI6 agent’s trademark tuxedo. Even cooler than their plumage, is the fact that their bill curves upward instead of most shorebirds that traditionally have a downward curve to them or their straight. They, along with other shorebirds, will place their bill in the water close to their feet in hopes of kicking something up from the bottom and snag a quick meal. While watching all of these birds, I can hear an alarm call from one of the many shorebirds in the pond and we see a large flock of birds all lift up and fly around the pond. I start looking around for a hawk, but we had yet another Bald Eagle flying directly overhead of us! Whether it was trying to snag a bird or just riding a thermal, the shorebirds weren’t having it but us birdwatchers were quite excited to have another, much better look at an adult Bald Eagle. After watching Pecan Tree pond for a bit we headed further down the trail to another impoundment where we saw our Surprise Bird of the Day.

The trail we were walking was a loop. As we rounded a corner, I see a flash of pink fly up out of the water, “Spoonbill!” I shout to the group. Shortly after this initial observation a whole flock of about 30 Roseate Spoonbills erupted from the pond and circled overhead. I was surprised to see such a large flock of “Spoonies” all together yet as we’re watching, I can hear one of my guests say, “That’s the bird I wanted to see most on this trip.” I got a little warm feeling inside knowing I was able to provide this person that experience. The Spoonbills landed but not in the pond we first flushed them from. Instead I saw them land on the opposite side of a trail on the backside of the pond we were currently on. Deviating from my original plan, we decided to chase the Spoony flock for a better look. After a short walk around the pond, I began talking to one of my guests about photography then about 20 yards from the edge of the water, I could see the Spoonbill flock through the reeds. I froze and went silent. With all my guests coming up not far behind, I made sure to slow them down and keep them quiet as we got closer to the water’s edge. Roseate Spoonbills are quite goofy-looking birds as their pink coloration comes from the invertebrates they eat, adult birds are completely bald, and that spoon-shaped bill of theirs looks otherworldly. Interestingly enough all the Spoonbills we were looking at were juveniles who still retained feathers on their heads. This group of individuals were hatched probably in the Spring prior. 20 years ago, it was considered a rarity to see a Spoonbill in South Carolina but climate change is seeing their range expand northward from the subtropical Florida climates now into the Lowcountry. We spent a good 20 minutes with these birds before departing to our final destination.

As we were walking up to our cars, there was another birdwatcher taking a look at all the shorebirds in the Pecan Tree impoundment. We got to talking and I asked her what all she had seen. No mention of Swans. Then when I asked, she told me she hadn’t seen any when she check both of their favorite spots on the property, our final destination being one of them. That was a bummer to hear. Driving away from the Pecan Tree pond, I had a little bit of optimism left. We stopped at an impoundment where I thought they might be, but turns out we were on the edge of the hunting zone for the Rabbit hunters. As we were looking over impoundments, we didn’t see much but we could hear voices and dogs barking in the woods not far from us. Dodging a bullet (literally), we got back in our cars and left the area. Driving down to the road where Old Trunks Pond is where the Tundra Swans like to be, I could see more trucks and hunters hanging out in the area, so I decided to nix visiting that pond and not risk anything. On our way out we did get lucky and see an American Kestrel and big Red-tailed Hawk on the telephone wires & trees along the roadside.

We arrived back to our cars with a good amount of sightings, 45 species counted, and lots of happy faces. While we didn’t get Swans, some folks walked away with “Life Birds” to add to their lists and an eagerness for the next adventure with Carolina Safari Co. As I look back at it, the week leading up to our trip was particularly warm for February which may have caused the Swans to migrate further North where it’s a little cooler for them. I was able to walk away from our trip able to take some deep breaths and a little more confidence heading in to March’s Fossil Hunt. Until next time, I’ll see y’all out there.


Captain Zach

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