Birdwatching on Hunting Island
The Carolina Bird Club (carolinabirdclub.org) gives good details about birding on Hunting Island.
As you drive to Hunting Island, you will come to a causeway through a salt marsh leading to the bridge over Harbor River. On the right (south) side is a road to a boat ramp that leads you to Butch’s Island. At high tide, you may see many shorebirds, and there may be a Seaside Sparrow or a Marsh Wren in the marsh.
Once in Hunting Island State Park, start at the Lighthouse and take the Lighthouse Trail that leads to the beach and a swampy slough. In the winter the slough may have lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Also, look for the Northern Waterthrush. When you reach the beach, turn left and you are headed to Johnson Creek Inlet. You may see Painted Buntings in the brushy thickets just inland from the dunes. (When birdwatching on Hunting Island, be careful to stay off the fragile dunes.) Once you reach Johnson Creek Inlet you may see many shorebirds, including gulls, terns, sandpipers, and plovers. The Black Skimmer is frequently seen here and occasionally Oystercatchers are seen in the winter.
From the Fishing Pier on the south side of the island, you should see lots of shorebirds. And at the Nature Center, there are often Painted Buntings near the feeders. The Interpretive Trail that leads from the Nature Center takes you to the lagoon where you may see a Red-breasted merganser, Brown Pelican, and some shorebirds. Continue on and the trail leads to the beach.
The Marsh Boardwalk on the west side of the road running through the island is an excellent place to spot the Clapper Rail, Marsh Wren, and Seaside Sparrow, as well as various herons, egrets, gulls, and terns. There may be Yellow-rumped Warblers on the pine island.
Spring and fall are usually the best times for birdwatching on Hunting Island, which is part of the Beaufort Barrier Islands. These Barrier Islands were designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Audubon Society in 2014 based on a very large number of shorebirds, seabirds, and wading birds that winter and migrate to their Caribbean, Central, and South America wintering grounds. Included in the IBA is 10,000 acres of pristine salt marshes surrounding the barrier islands.
Photo courtesy of Andy Stephens
Photo courtesy of Kate Hudson
Description: As the US national symbol, the iconic Bald Eagle is readily identified by its white head and tail. It has a large yellow hooked beak. The immature Bald Eagle does not have the white head and tail until it attains breeding age at 4-5 years. As it matures, it may be mistaken for osprey because of similar coloration. Bald Eagles build the largest nest of any North American bird and the largest tree nests ever recorded for any animal species—13’ deep, 8’ wide. It feeds on fish and carrion. Females are about 25% larger than males. In the last half of the 20 th century, the Bald Eagle was nearly extinct in the US because DDT in the environment thinned the bird’s shells by affecting its calcium metabolism. Oil, lead, and mercury pollution, as well as hunting, power-line electrocution, and in-flight collisions also kill Bald Eagles. Declared an endangered species in 1967, DDT use was banned and mating pairs were imported from Canada to repopulate the US. In July 1995, it was officially reclassified as threatened.
Range: Rare sightings. Intense recovery programs have increased the numbers of Bald Eagles and over half of the contiguous states have at least 100 breeding pairs. They live near seacoasts, rivers, and lakes.
Description: This large, gregarious bird can be seen skimming over the surface of the water or information (lines or Vs) soaring over trees along the beach. It is most identifiable by its very large bill and a gular pouch below the bill, through which it drains water after scooping up its prey. It is very buoyant because of internal air sacks under its skin, and can be seen floating far out at sea. It feeds by diving straight down into the water like a kingfisher. Its body is primarily brown, and its head is white. Although comparatively large, it is the smallest of the Pelican family. The Pelican was one of many birds threatened by DDT use, which weakens the shells, and it appeared on the US Endangered Species Act list from 1970-2009. Now it is common in our area.
Range: Common. The Brown Pelican lives on both coasts of North America, as far north as Nova Scotia. However, they are uncommon north of the Carolinas.
Description: The Carolina Chickadee’s call is a higher, faster version of the Black-capped Chickadee. They are very similar visually, except the Carolina lacks the broad white edgings on the wing. This little black- capped bird of the tit family lives in deciduous forests and at feeders in suburban areas. They nest in holes in trees, sometimes using an old woodpecker nest. They forage for insects in the fall and winter often with groups of titmice, nuthatches, and warblers. These mixed flocks stay together because the chickadees call out whenever they find a good food source. This creates a cohesive group allowing efficient foraging.
Range: The Carolina Chickadee, like other chickadees, is a permanent resident and does not migrate. So they are often visible in the winter months. They range from New Jersey west to Kansas, and south to Florida and Texas.
Thryothorus ludovicianus or Sylvia ludoviciana
Description: One of the larger wrens, the Carolina Wren is deep rusty brown above and buff-colored below, with a white throat and bar over the eye. They have a slightly hooked bill and a tail that points up most of the time. They prefer dense cover in forests, farms and, suburbs, and remain inconspicuous. Carolina Wrens are socially and genetically monogamous, raising multiple broods each year. Males are larger than females and only the males sing. When the male sings, which occurs year-round, the tail is pointed down. They also have been shown to increase their song repertoire by learning new songs during the first three months of life. The songs of the Carolina Wrens as well as those of their enemies and “dear enemies” (non-threatening enemies) exist in complex linguistic patterns about territory and threats. They feed near the ground on beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, ants, bees, and wasps, as well as some vegetation.
Range: Carolina Wrens do not migrate, but their territories expand and contract based on the severity of the winter. They live as far west as Texas and northeast Mexico and as far north as Ontario, Canada.
Great Blue Heron
Description: Large, gray-blue heron, with a black stripe above the eye. The Great Blue Heron has a wingspan of up to 72” and stands 42” tall. The breeding male has ornate plumes on head, neck, and back. It makes occasional deep croaks.
Range: Common. Often seen in statue-like position on piers, ponds, and in marshes, poised to grab its prey. Lives near wetlands and open water over most of North America and the Caribbean.
Description: Largest of the egrets, it has a heavy yellow bill, blackish legs and feet. In breeding, long plumes trail from the back beyond the tail. Occasionally makes deep croaking sounds. Stalks prey slowly. Once hunted for its feathers to adorn women’s hats, the Great Egret was nearly wiped out in the US in the late 1800s. Conservationists put a stop to the slaughter and protected its colonies. Now it is the symbol of the National Audubon Society.
Range: Common. Covers southern part of North America mainly near shores but also in interior, wetlands, damp fields, even roadsides.
Great Blue Heron
Description: Sometimes mistaken for an eagle because of its white head, the Osprey is actually smaller and more mottled in color than a mature bald eagle. Its length is 21-24.5”, and the bald eagle’s length is 31-37”. The female is larger than the male, and they mate for life. Both sexes tend to the offspring. It is also called the fish eagle or sea hawk because its diet consists primarily of fish. The osprey hovers over the water, then when it spots prey plunges down and dives feet-first into the water to capture it. It will arise with a small fish in its talons. The osprey has a reversible toe, which, acting like our thumb, allows it to grip slippery fish. This may be what makes is possible for the osprey to carry a fish aligned with its body front to back. This makes it more aerodynamic to compensate for its wingspan (50-71”) that is shorter than an eagle’s (70-90”). An eagle, on the other hand, carries the fish perpendicularly which causes it more drag. An osprey’s shorter wingspan gives it an advantage over an eagle when an eagle wants to steal its fish. Osprey are more agile and can fly circles around eagles.
The osprey builds a large prominent nest on trees, poles, or special platforms, near a body of fresh or brackish water, sometimes along the side of a road. There is one on the left side of Highway 21 as you approach Hunting Island from Beaufort and another at the foot of the Fripp Island Bridge at the south end of the island. These nests have held babies every year since 2003. Rangers have observed that just after the osprey babies fledge (which means they have the feathers to fly and therefore are capable of flight), the parents disappear and leave the hungry young to fend for themselves. The fledglings will “cry” for two or three days, until they figure out they need to fend for themselves and get out of the nest and find something to eat. A tough love kind of parenting.
Some ospreys overwinter in the southernmost parts of the US, and there are a few on Hunting Island in the winter, but most migrate to Central and South America. Ospreys are the only member of its family, but it is widely distributed throughout the world. The name osprey probably derives from “bird of prey” and its preferred pronunciation is ah-spree rather than ah-spray.
Range: Relatively common thanks to conservation efforts. Widely distributed worldwide near fresh and salt water. Hunting Island osprey usually winter in South America, although some may remain in warm areas of the US, including Hunting Island.
Description: We are most familiar with the coloration of the male Painted Bunting. It is one of the brightest and most flamboyant of local birds and has been called the most beautiful bird in North America. The male gains its colors after two years and can live over ten years. The females and juveniles remain a less flamboyant green or yellow-green, but it is one of the brighter greens in the forest. They are sometimes secretive and hard to observe, but in mating season the males will perform antagonistic displays to mark their territories. They are mainly monogamous and produce 3-4 white-gray eggs spotted brown. They feed on the ground eating grass seeds and sometimes small spiders, snails, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. Large snakes and hawks are their main predator. At one time Painted Buntings were used as caged birds, but that is now illegal. They are classified as “near threatened” and are protected under the U.S. Migratory bird Act.
On Hunting Island, many Painted Buntings return in the spring to the same location year after year. One banded male has been seen at the same Nature Center feeder three years in a row. He was banded in 2011 at the Nature Center when he was three, so he will be at least eight years old if he returns in 2016.
Range: The painted bunting lives in maritime hammocks, which makes Hunting Island an ideal home for them. But it has a widespread habitat including suburban areas and gardens with shrubby vegetation. They breed along the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, then winter in South Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. They migrate at night over short to medium distances.
Description: About the size of a crow, the Pileated Woodpecker inhabits deciduous forests across the U.S. It is the largest woodpecker in the U.S. since the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The southeastern Pileated Woodpecker is a subspecies (D. p. pileatus). Preferring habitats with large, mature hardwood trees, they also live in smaller woodlots with some tall trees. They eat carpenter ants, wood-boring beetle larvae, fruits, nuts, and berries. They chip out large square or rectangular holes in tree trunks searching for insects. (One square hole can be seen in a palmetto tree along Hunting Island’s Nature Trail near the pedestrian bridge.) In the spring, a male attracts a female by making a hole in the trunk of a dead tree, enticing her with a charmingly rustic abode. Once the brood is raised, the hole is abandoned and often reused by forest song birds. This is one reason it is essential for forests to retain dead trees; they have multiple uses. Pileated woodpeckers remain as a pair and do not migrate. Drumming is a territorial claim and hollow trees make the largest sound. The cartoon character “Woody the Woodpecker” was based on an acorn woodpecker, but he shares many similarities with the Pileated Woodpecker including the laugh.
Range: The Pileated Woodpecker ranges across Canada, the Great Lakes, and the northeastern seaboard to as far south as the Florida Keys. It also exists in parts of the Pacific Northwest coast.
Description: Pine warblers are hard to spot because they prod clumps of pine needles in high branches of pine trees. However, you might hear them because they make a steady, musical trill. They are stout, long-tailed yellow and olive warblers with white bellies and thick, short black beaks. Males are the brightest and females and immatures can appear gray. They eat insects, seeds, and berries.
Range: Common in eastern pine forests and rarely seen away from pines. They range throughout the eastern U.S. and are permanent residents of southern Florida. Some migrate to Mexico and the Caribbean.
Description: Named for its plaintive bell-like whistles, you may hear the Piping Plover before you see it. These small, stout, sand-colored shorebirds have yellow-orange legs and a black band from eye to eye across the forehead as well as a black band across the chest during breeding season. The male’s chest band is thicker and is the only visual difference between the sexes. They eat marine worms, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They are typically not seen in large numbers but in pairs or groups or 3-4 birds. They run when approached. Although the population has been increasing since 1999, there are still only several thousand individual Piping Plovers in the U.S. Like other shorebirds, they were hunted in the 19 th and early 20 th centuries for their plumage. Then with dwindling numbers, human development and encroachment (including renourishment) of their shoreline habitats further reduced their numbers. They are globally listed as threatened or endangered, depending on location. In Massachusetts, full beaches have been closed to protect the Piper. In other places, limiting access to nesting areas by pedestrians has helped.
On Hunting Island, Piping Plovers may be seen at the northern beaches and near Johnson Creek. They use this area as a “stop over” for refueling on their migratory route. The Department of Natural Resources has roped off areas of the beach to protect them. Because of the presence of the Piping Plovers and other migratory shorebirds on Hunting Island, no dogs are allowed beyond the last groin by the campground. Few visitors and campers at Hunting Island are aware of this, because it is difficult to place signs that are visible to everyone venturing in that direction. With so few Piping Plovers left, it is really important that visitors to Hunting Island help preserve them.
Range: Most of its life, the Piping Plover lives on open sandy beaches in the higher, dryer sections away from water. They winter in the south Atlantic coast and the Caribbean, so they are most likely spotted on Hunting Island during the winter en route. Their summer range is from Southern Canada to central and northeast U.S.
Description: The Sanderling’s Latin name, Calidris alba, includes “alb,” meaning white, from which we get albino and albumen. The Great Egret’s Latin name also includes alba because it also is a white bird. The Sanderling is the palest of the tiny shorebirds. In the fall and winter, you may see large flocks of them dashing in out and of the surge at the water’s edge snatching tiny mollusks and crustaceans. The Sanderling is only 7-8 inches long, and from a distance, they look like a flock of pale little chicks running madly about.
Range: For such a tiny bird, the Sanderling travels great distances. It breeds in the Arctic, nesting in tundra, and winters on sandy beaches like Hunting Island all along the North American coasts.
Description: Very small, with dark gray body on top and white underneath. Head and neck are a little
Range: Abundant. Long-distance migrants, the Semipalmated Sandpiper winters in coastal South
America, although some stay in the southern US.
Description: Smaller than the Great Egret, the Snowy Egret stands 24” tall and has a wingspan of 41”. It has black legs, bright yellow feet, and a black bill. It is most noted for its beautiful plumes on the back of its head, neck, and back. Like the Great Egret, the Snowy Egret also was hunted for plumes to decorate women’s hats. Its population was greatly reduced, but it is now protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It makes a low raspy note at the nest.
Range: Common. Lives in wetland habitats mainly along coasts.
Description: Smaller than the Great Blue Heron (46”) and the Great Egret (39”), the Tricolored Heron has a length of 26” and a wingspan of 36”. It has a white belly and fore neck and dark blue upperparts with shades of brown or rust. It is often seen with its neck in an S-shape and can sometimes be seen wading alone in shallow water, running after prey. It has a long pointed yellow bill with a black tip; its legs and feet are dark. The Tricolored Heron was formerly known as the Louisiana Heron because it resides and breeds in the Gulf States. It breeds in colonies in sub-tropical swamps on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs, often with other herons.
Range: Inhabits salt marshes and mangrove swamps of the east and Gulf coasts. Rare inland.
Description: One of only two storks that reside in North America, and the only stork to breed in the U.S., the Wood Stork was downgraded from endangered to threatened status on June 26, 2014, after thirty years of conservation efforts. The Wood Storks are large birds, standing 33-45 inches with wingspans of 55-71 inches. Exceptionally large males can weigh up to ten pounds. The Wood Stork appears all white on the ground, with blackish-gray legs and pink feet. In flight, the trailing edge of the wings are black and the bare head is dark brown with a bald spot. It has a long, thick down-curved bill which helps distinguish it from other large waders. It flies with its neck outstretched and legs extended, looking a little like a wooden marionette.
Range: The Wood Stork breeds in much of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The primary breeding population in the U.S. is on the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The Hunting Island area is a good place to see them. The Wood Stork favors cypress trees in marshes, swamps, lowland wetlands with trees. It builds a large stick nest in the trees.