We arrived at our campsite after a 12 hour adventure traveling America’s eastern Appalachian highways, a few pit stops, a dozen or so on and off naps, and many interesting conversations. The day was very late, and instead of starting off the ornithology field trip looking at birds, it was decided that it’d be best to set up the campsite and start dinner. The mosquitoes were the immediate part of the south I noticed- this trip would be the furthest this far down of the United States I ever experienced, and I wasn’t expecting the bugs to be as bad as everyone said. Before bed however and after dinner, we decided to get our feet wet by exploring the area and looking for the curious sound we kept hearing: owls. However it was dark, and even though we tried, the owls could not be spotted.
The next morning, on October 15th, 2010, we started off the day with binoculars around our necks and field guides in hand as we followed Dr. Miles around Francis Marion national Forest to warm up our bird watching skills. We were in a post rain but there were no clouds, and the brisk (50 degrees Celsius) morning air at 7:45 A.M. disagreed with my sleepy eyes. In our beginning moments, we saw many local species of birds, including:
- Eastern Screech Owl
- White Breasted Nuthatch
- Red Bellied Woodpecker
- Downy woodpecker
- Common Grackle
- Northern Mockingbird
After our warm up, we all loaded into the vans and headed down the road. We came upon forest road 211, still within the Francis Marion National Forest, and stopped along the road to observe the white rings around several of the trees- markers for the birds that live there, and home to the birds we were searching for. We got out and observed one of the old woodpecker nesting sites. White sap was flowing out and down the tree, and the nest as well as the holes in which the parents drill in circles to protect the nest could clearly be seen.
Further down the road, we arrived at a site that Dr. Miles knew to be a very good spot for viewing a colony of Red-cockaded Wood Peckers. We were able to identify four individuals, as well as a White-Breasted Nuthatch. Other birds sighted in this area were a warbler on a pine tree, small Golden-crowned Kinglet, and an American kestrel.
The time was 9:20 A.M. and we left for a rest stop to refuel the vans, however on pre-departure we all were met with the luck of seeing many (up to 10) turkey vultures resting on trees directly behind the stop. After a prolonged stay spent viewing these very large birds so close, we left for the South Tibwin Wetland Complex.
We arrived at the South Tibwin woods at 10:07 A.M. and the temperature was 62 degrees Fahrenheit. This part of the trip I would have to say was definitely the least enjoyable for me, due only to the massive amount of mosquitoes present from the moment we arrived. There was almost no defense from them other than the bug spray and bandanas, both of which I failed to bring. However, half way through the trip I realized the best way to conquer the flying attackers was with wind, so I figured I could use my folder I carried in my backpack in order to fan my face and thus disrupt an from attacking. With this method, I was able to spot a good few birds along the way, including a Blue jay, cormorants, common yellow throated warbler, and even a juvenile bald eagle. Right when I thought my wrist would fall off and the mosquitoes could get no worse, we arrived at the highlight of the day: the bird watching station overlooking the wetlands. It is hard to describe just how ecstatic our class went over the amount of birds seen and heard at this one small area of bird watching paradise. Over the course of over an hour, we saw looked through the rectangular viewing ports and saw a great amount of wildlife, including a bobcat, crocodile, and a massive amount of birds, including:
- Pie-billed Grebes
- Great blue heron
- Red-tailed hawk
- Fish crow
- 2 belted kingfishers
- Wood storks
- Great egrets
- Bald eagle
We later went around the wetlands and to the dam separating the marsh from water to observe closer where the bobcat and crocodile were sighted, however were met with only more amazing birds. We trekked our way back out of the mosquito jungle back to the vans, and headed to one my favorite parts of the trip, the Sewee visitor center.
We arrived at exactly 3 P.M., and the weather was sunny. We started off by going in the center itself and admiring the diverse displays of wildlife that exist in the forest, including models of owls, foxes, and beavers. After some time, the class was informed that the endangered red wolfs that are kept there were being fed soon; an opportunity we could not pass up. The wolfs were very interesting and looked as exotic as I imagined them too, and over time the feeder explained to us of their life history and current conservation status. As they were being fed, I couldn’t help notice of their resemblance to my dog, and in fact I later learned that one was actually named the same as my dog Tippy.
Before leaving the wolfs, Dr. miles explained to us one of our major assignments for the field trip we were to be doing soon, a mapping exercise of cataloguing birds in a radiated area. I was put on a team with fellow classmates Scott, Clayton, and Paul. We waited around at one area of forest for ten minutes, one member facing each direction, and wrote down on a circled graph any birds sighted in the area. In our area, we located a warbler, 3 turkey vultures, and an osprey. Regrouping with the rest of the class back at the lake outside the visitor’s center, we were met with an unexpected surprise: birds flying high. We were able to identify 3 peregrine falcons and a bald eagle!
We closed off this perfect day with a visit to the most beautiful boardwalk I have seen: The Cape Romain National Wildlife refuge. The time was 4:59 P.M. and the skies were completely clear, with a temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The boardwalk was long and beautiful, and the warm sea air was welcomed after a long day of bird watching. Being here was definitely meditative and therapeutic, causing serine feelings of relaxation as I scanned the skies for birds. I both stayed with the main group that followed Dr. Miles as well as broke off to identify birds with a small group of fellow students. On our own we were able to use the field guide “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America” by David Allen Sibley to identify the following amazing birds:
- Snow Egret
- Belted kingfisher
- A great many barn swallows
- Laughing gull
- Sea gulls
- Great black-backed gull
- Fosters tern
- Tree swallow
- Double crested cormorant
- American Oystercatcher
- Juvenile double crested cormorant
- 7 Wood Storks
- Fish Crow
- Tri-colored Heron
I later rejoined the group who at one point was using a scope in order to see some close up. It started to get dark, and it was decided at this point it’d best to call it an end to this epic day of bird watching, and head back to camp for some amazing food and company.
The night before Day 2 (10/16/2010) we moved the campsite to a more accommodating location, which served us much better for casual campfire games and magnificent campfire meals, prepared by Dr. Miles himself. We started the next day out early with a strong cup of coffee and warm clothing. Today we would be getting straight to the point: no more need for warming up our bird watching and journal taking skills. The first destination was a big one, sought after by many experienced bird watchers we would later realize: Huntington state park beach in Georgetown. We arrived at 9:00 A.M. and it was 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The skies were clear, and the wind felt amazing in the warm weather. There was a long road going through two separate bodies of water; one salt and the other fresh. The first thing I noticed was 11 Northern harriers high in the sky, along with two ospreys. As We walked along the sidewalks lining the roads, I also saw the following:
- American Crow
- Many Willets crawling in the mud
- Barn Swallow
- Little Egret
- 11 Great Blue Herons
- Clapper Wails
- Greedy Grit
- Nelson Sea-side Sparrow
- Pine-Billed Grebes
- Common Grackle
The Highlight of the experience occurred when we arrived half way through the walk at a viewing station, with the most number of birds seen here. It started off slow with watching some tri-colored herons, Ibises, and common grackles feeding around in the shallow water. It was the most interesting thing to me watching these birds feed, all of which used the method of opening their mouths and skimming around in the water for fish. Many of the birds were passively fighting every now and then, but most of the time feeding was peaceful with moderate signs of territorialism, however this didn’t last long.
A wood stork decided to visit and try its luck, followed by a couple more. Suddenly, a massive flock was seen in the distance flying to the north, which took perch on a bunch of trees. Somehow, they knew the eating was good where the small group was feeding near us, and slowly the pack of more than 100 wood storks drifted in and down upon the marsh. It was a spectacle too see so many birds fishing around and competing for food, let alone so many near each other. The wood storks themselves were huge with long bills, and the highlight of this whole show was seeing a pair use their bills as weapons and clap at each other, making the sounds of horse hooves against the ground.
After spending an hour or so watching this mass feeding ground, we all left and headed further down the road, crossing the street and heading back the other way. A Belted kingfisher was seen, as well as some black billed plovers, but nothing compared to the show we just left. Indeed, the images of all those wood storks would not leave my head for a long time to come. However, something was about to come across us that would certainly make me forget about it for a little while, in reptilian form. A baby alligator was seen floating across the water which made everyone in our class tweak out. A little further down the road: two gigantic crocodiles, both nearly 6 feet in length. We were on a birding field trip however, so not much attention could be spared for the reptiles. Instead, my attention went too the American coot above, and the purple gallinule in the distance.
We made our way back to the vans and took a breather for a second and ate some gorp, but not much time could be spared as there were birds to be seen. Our next destination: a education right down the road. On our way over, a curious sight occurred. On the side of the road, a king rail jumped out from a cesspool and ran across the road into the forest. He quite startled us.
At the education center, we all enjoyed the indoor attractions as well as the restrooms. On the outside, a nice little habitat was situated so that many beautiful birds could be seen at close proximity. Of the ones seen, the painted bunting was my favorite. There was also a morning dove present, as well as 2 cardinals, eastern screech owl, and a blue jay. Outside of the education center, there was a pathway which led to a boardwalk going through extensive marshland which must have extended for a mile in every direction before a tree could be seen. By the time we reached this point, it was 11:55 A.M, and the temperature was 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite all of this open land though, not many birds were seen here. The ones that were: Wilson’s Plovers, Snow Egret, Black Vulture, and some Clapper rails.
As we left this part of the trip, I was wondering where we would spend the rest of our day. It was barely noon, and I knew we had half of the day ahead of us still. Not surprisingly, I was about to love every second of it. I never saw the ocean before in my entire life, let alone feel the warm waves and salty sea water. After a satisfying and prolonged lunch, I found out that our final destination was the beach, and that was literally all I could think about till we actually arrived. As soon as we did, one of the first things I was able to see was a Bald Eagle dive into the ocean for a fish- an astonishing thing for the first time viewed. As we made the long walk down the beach, most of it I spent walking through the ocean, there were a great number of birds doing the same, such as the hungry Ospreys. One of the most breathtaking moments was when a family of dolphins appeared on the horizon, obviously chasing a school of fish. I say obviously because a big group of birds were also following the same route as the dolphins, diving periodically to catch the fish, consisting of Ospreys and Brown Pelicans, and sea ducks were also in the sky.
Along the path another interesting bird I viewed was lone sanderlings playing in the sand, running along the beach and away from incoming waves. We finally reached a long paved walkway on top of very large rocks, separating the ocean from low laying wetlands. Two different types of plovers were identified, the Black Bellied Plover and the American Golden Plover. In some of the taller grass along this pathway, we saw curious sparrows perching atop single blades of grass. The ones identified were the Nelson's Sparrow, Seaside Sparrows and Saltmarsh Sharp Sparrows.
At the end of our long trek down this walkway and more beach, we finally ended up at our final bird destination for the day and trip altogether: a resting place for many shorebirds. In the mix were Royal Terns, Caspian Terns, Sandwich Terns, and American Oyster Catchers. However, the prize bird, at least it seemed for our T.A. Susan, were the massive group of black skimmers, a majestic bird which fly very fast along the surface of the water and opens its mouth to skim the sea water for any prey that happens to cross it’s path. A long time was spent observing this interesting mix, especially through the scope.
Afterward, we walked back to the place where we entered the beach. I had been waiting all day to swim in the Atlantic Ocean; it was so big and majestic. At the age of 21 (my birthday being just days after), I finally got to experience the feel of the ocean, the roar of the waves, the being of the biggest thing on our planet. Like the trip, the experience was life changing.