Comprised of Appalachian highlands, Atlantic coastlines, and midland forests and marshes, South Carolina is a state that is rich not only in its history, but in its wildlife as well. The state contains eight national wildlife refuges, six national parks, and just over 800,000 acres of designated Important Bird Area with recorded sightings of more than 430 bird species. One of the best parts about the state? It’s small enough to hit many of these spots in a single day! Here are five of the best birding hotspots in South Carolina.
Caesars Head State Park
Located just 20 miles from Greenville and situated on the border of South and North Carolina, Caesars Head State Park is a designated Important Bird Research Area and sees up to 163 bird species during the spring. Pieces of the state park were acquired from their respective owners by the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism between 1976 and 1986, and today the park consists of dense forests and rugged mountains make it a popular destination for hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing.
If you visit between September and November, you’ll catch the fall hawk migration in action, as well as have the chance to see up to ten bald eagles during this time. Nesting birds you’ll likely spot include Blue-headed vireo, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Scarlet Tanager, Common raven and Peregrine Falcon.
Francis Marion National Forest
Northeast of Charleston, Francis Marion National Forest (named for American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion) has been designated as an Important Bird Area by both the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy. A few of the most sought-after birds include Anhinga, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler, Bachman’s Sparrow, Barred Owl and Brown-headed Nuthatch.
Two of the best spots in the national forest are the South Tibwin Hiking Trail system and the Little Hellhole Reservoir Birding Area. South Tibwin is known for sightings of Bald Eagle, Mottled Duck, Red Buckeye, Osprey, Clapper Rail and Painted Bunting, while Little Hellhole has reported sightings of Black-throated Green Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Chuck-will’s Widow, Northern Parula and Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Although widely believed to be extinct, sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker have been reported, though none of these sightings have been officially confirmed. Be sure to keep your eye out though!
Santee National Wildlife Refuge
Moving closer to the coast, Santee National Wildlife Refuge is a 13,000-acre refuge located on the north shore of Lake Marion, South Carolina’s largest lake. The refuge was established in 1941 and has protected the numerous wetlands in the area that support thousands of migratory birds every year. Santee consists of four separate units, which makes wildlife viewing and birding a little different than your average wildlife refuge. The largest, Cuddo Unit, features a 7.5-mile wildlife drive and several hiking trails. However, we recommend starting in the Bluff Unit first as it houses the visitor center where you can grab maps and see which areas of the refuge might be closed. From there, you can set out on the unit’s one mile nature trail and make your way to the observation tower. While the Dingle Pond Unit has a wetland boardwalk and observation tower, the Pine Island Unit is accessible by walking trail only, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Visiting the refuge from fall through spring will yield the most waterfowl. Bald Eagles nest on the refuge in the winter, particularly around the lake. Sandhill Cranes can also be seen during the winter. Migrants that flock to the area during the spring include Wild Turkey, King Rail, Pine Warbler, Bachman’s Wparrow, Wood Duck and Painted Bunting. If you happen to visit during the late summer months, you might even spot a Wood Stork.
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge
Located on the border of South Carolina and Georgia, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is a 29,000-acre refuge that was established in 1927 as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. The popular four-mile Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive winds through areas of the refuge that used to contain rice fields during the plantation era. Be sure to stop at the tidal marshes and freshwater impoundments along the way for a chance to see Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Red-necked Grebe, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Cave Swallow and Groove-billed Ani.
The best time of year to visit is from October through April when up to ten different species of duck move into the area, including Blue-winged Teal, Pintail and thousands of Ring-necked Ducks. Other species you’ll likely spot during this time include Purple Galinules, Bald Eagles, Anhingas and Swallow-tailed Kites.
Huntington Beach State Park
We’ve saved what many consider to be the best birding spot in South Carolina for last. More than 300 species of nesting birds, shorebirds, seabirds, and migrants can be spotted in the park year-round. We recommend visiting the park’s education center before you get started so you can grab a bird checklist to follow along with.
Most birding in the park takes place from September to May before beachgoers and tourists swarm the area during the hot summer months. You can choose from nature trails, marsh boardwalks, or the three-mile stretch of beautiful Atlantic coastline for your birding adventure. Visiting during the winter is the best time to spot Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, and Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers near the salt marshes. Other species you might come across during this time include Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, King rail, Black-necked Stilt, Black Skimmer, Wilson’s Plover, and Painted Bunting. Bald Eagles also breed in the park during the winter.
If you’re up for a bit of a stroll along the beach, there is a 1.2-mile walk to the man-made jetty, where Razorbills, Black Guillemots and Horned Grebes frequently hang out. Purple Sandpipers can also be seen, though they blend in very well with the jetty rocks, so keep an eye out! If you’re walking near or along the beach, however, watch out for the endangered piping plover, as they build their nests in the sand and feed along the coast.
South Carolina is a beautiful state, and with such a diverse variety in habitat, it’s no wonder that The Palmetto State offers countless opportunities for birding, from the mountains to the ocean, and everything else in between. If you get out to any of these hotspots, tag us in your photos on Facebook and Instagram @hawkinbirding for a chance to featured!