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Lowcountry SC

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

With fall weather settling in, my wife and I spent an active 4-day weekend visiting friends near Charleston, SC and exploring the surrounding lowcountry.

We departed the piedmont well before dawn on Friday, and arrived at our first destination by mid-morning: Donnelley WMA. Situated in the ACE Basin, this 8000+ acre property features diverse habitats, including some well-managed former rice impoundments, where we spent most of our time. We hiked just under 5 miles of dikes and hardwood forest and encountered lots of interesting wildlife along the way. Bird highlights first (of course): Mottled Ducks, Wild Turkeys, Common Gallinules, Anhingas, a Black-crowned Night Heron, a Roseate Spoonbill, and American Kestrels. The reptiles were represented by a sole member: American Alligator, but they were plentiful, and we saw at least a dozen. Despite a steady breeze, the insects made a good showing, too. I got two lifer dragonflies: Roseate Skimmer and Marl Pennant (!), plus a dozen Four-spotted Pennants and over 300 Eastern Pondhawks, among others. I also got a lifer butterfly: Long-tailed Skipper (finally), the first of dozens seen on this trip—plus other cool leps like Zebra Longwing, lots of Gulf Fritillaries, and others. And a three-inch Obscure Bird Grasshopper made for an interesting sight. I could see myself getting into grasshoppers in the not-too-distant future…

After Donnelley, we arrived at my friends’ place by mid-afternoon, where we caught up and took a stroll through a nearby neighborhood. Along our walk, we spotted a Roseate Spoonbill foraging in a small tidal creek not 10 yards from the road! Our main event for the evening was Folly Beach, where the four of us enjoyed a sunset picnic while the Brown Pelicans streamed down the beach.

We spent much of the day Saturday exploring Kiawah Island, biking from Freshfields Village all the way to the Ocean Course at the island’s east end. Kiawah is way bigger than I realized, and it was a long 24-mile ride on our single-speed beach cruisers (well worth it). The wildlife along our ride didn’t disappoint, including a couple gators, lots of birds (e.g., Common Gallinules, a Wood Stork, both Black- and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, an Anhinga, etc.), and dozens of Long-tailed Skippers, Ocola Skippers, and other butterflies. After arriving at the Ocean Course, we grabbed cocktails and took a short stroll on the beach. A Bald Eagle and a Glossy Ibis soared by overhead while shorebirds, gulls, and terns (including some Black Skimmers) rested on the sandflats. Perhaps most surprising were the dozens of dragonflies (Carolina Saddlebags and Blue Dashers) hanging out on some sparsely vegetated mini-dunes.

After Kiawah, we headed into downtown Charleston for excellent raw oysters and fried food at Leons, followed by a skyline view and drinks at a bar near my friend’s office. Although we only spent a few hours living the city life this trip (largely due to COVID), it was time well-spent.

On Sunday, we enjoyed a leisurely morning and a big breakfast at home. Then, we ventured out to walk another waterfront neighborhood near my friends’ place, which featured big houses and even bigger live oaks. We grabbed lunch on Folly, then launched our kayaks for a nice 5-mile paddle around the marshes and tidal creeks between Folly and James Island. Paddling saltwater marshes and mudflats is near the top of my list of favorite activities, and this trip was no exception. We hit the creeks as the tides were falling and arrived at a nice 1-acre mudflat just as the oyster shells began peeking out of the water. Over the next hour or so, the landscape transformed before our eyes, and 7 species of shorebirds took advantage of the habitat. Throughout our journey, numerous Clapper Rails and Marsh Wrens called and sung from the marsh grass. And at one point, a Merlin, a Wood Stork, and a Bald Eagle soared by within seconds of each other. The real treat came as we began our paddle out of the tidal creek towards the main channel: a pair of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins put on quite a show foraging for fish escaping the falling tide. Repeated breaches, tail slaps, and other boisterous but clearly well-coordinated behavior was a thrill to watch, and they occasionally came within 10 yards of our motionless boats.

After a low-key Sunday night, we headed home first thing Monday morning. On the way (sort of), we made one last stop at Santee Coastal Reserve. On our previous visit (June 2016), the place was overrun with mosquitoes; this visit wasn’t quite as bad. We hiked a bit of swampy hardwood forest before spending most of our 6.34 mile journey walking dikes between expansive former rice impoundments. The impoundments were full of life. We got great looks at a group of 14 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks near the trailhead and also saw 20 Wood Ducks, ~25 Mottled Ducks, and well over 300 Blue-winged Teal flying over the impoundments. The latter two species were routinely flushed by a helicopter spraying herbicides to control invasive plants (presumably Phragmites). We were upwind of the spray, but the birds weren’t—yikes! There were lots of other good marsh birds, including two dozen Common Gallinules, a few Soras, a mystery rail (possibly a King Rail, but Clapper is more likely), and a Least Bittern. In addition to the normal waders, we also had a Glossy Ibis fly overhead. The reserve also held a decent variety of other birds (55 species in total for the morning), including Red-cockaded Woodpeckers on the entrance road, a few Painted Buntings, and hundreds of Tree Swallows and Common Grackles. In addition to the birds, the insects were plentiful (both the desirable and the not-so-much). I got great looks at another Roseate Skimmer, some photo-cooperative Four-spotted Pennants, and at least 580 Blue Dashers, which were everywhere (there were undoubtedly thousands present)! Butterflies were also reasonably abundant, including more of the same species seen throughout the trip. My wife—who sometimes walks at my side, often in front of me, and never behind me (I get distracted easily)—found some great reptiles. She first spotted a mid-size gator and two babies; they were 2 feet long and adorable. Then, she saw what turned out to be a good sized Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin) that had, sadly, just been hit by a car (undoubtedly by one of the staff at the refuge, as this area is closed to other vehicles). It was still alive when we found it, but barely. Certainly not the most ideal way to get a lifer reptile….

All in all, a great trip to lowcountry SC, with a good mix of socializing and adventuring (by foot, bike, and kayak). I saw 90 species of birds, 9 dragonflies (including 2 lifers), 15 butterflies (including 1 lifer), 4 reptiles (including 1 lifer), and 2 mammals.


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