By Catherine Watson
South Carolina’s Lowcountry would be incomplete without the sights and sounds of its many birds, and I’m not referring to cardinals and finches, although we have those, too. I’m talking about what I mistakenly called “water birds,” until just a few short weeks ago.
I grew up in the Lowcountry, and gulls’ cries on the beach, long-legged birds standing absolutely still on the edge of the lake in my neighborhood and majestic creatures with huge wing spans soaring over the many bridges I cross every day have always been part of my life. Until now, however, I honestly couldn’t identify many of them (accurately anyway), much less say much about them.
The first important lesson I learned was that not all of these birds can be lumped into a single category. There are three distinct varieties of coastal water birds – shorebirds, seabirds and wading birds – each with important differentiating features.
Shorebirds appear in many sizes and shapes with bills and legs that vary in length depending on how the bird feeds. They prefer to inhabit mudflats or wetlands, and most of them are migratory, traveling long distances (sometimes up to four days without stopping!) to reach their seasonal homes. They nest alone and have cryptic, or camouflaged, eggs.
Seabirds are gregarious and nest together in large groups on coastal islands and barrier beaches, feeding on schooling fish. They also have special glands that excrete salt, allowing them to drink salt water.
Wading birds have long legs, and their bills may be pointed or dulled, depending on their hunting style. You can also distinguish them by their curved necks and ability to stand completely still while hunting in shallow water. They form large rookeries, of which there are more than 100 in South Carolina, and they often cohabitate with other species of wading birds.
It’s important to remember that all of the birds discussed in this article are very sensitive to human disturbances, so if you do discover some on your adventures, please appreciate them from a distance.
These large shorebirds, with spindly pink legs and sharp orange beaks, spend their days hunting oysters, clams and mussels. They comb through the mollusks to find those that are partially open and then pry the shell apart with their beaks to enjoy their feast. The American oystercatcher has a romantic side: When a pair is preparing to mate, they walk or run side by side while singing notes in the same pitch. Oystercatchers are particularly wary of humans and tend to settle far from heavily populated areas.
Willets are large, gray shorebirds in the sandpiper family. In flight, they transition from drab gray birds to spectacular beauties, displaying a bold black and white wing pattern. They nest on the ground, often among tall grasses. Willets usually hunt alone, spreading far from the other birds of their flock, but they re-band when taking flight. Male and female willets are similar colors, but females can be distinguished by their slightly larger size. If you find them difficult to differentiate from other shorebirds, listen closely for their well-known “pill-will-willet” cry.
Wilson’s Plover is a smaller shorebird, easily recognized by the broad brown or black band on its chest. The band can be used to distinguish between gender, with mating males having a black band and females, as well as non-mating males, bearing a brown band. The bird takes its name from a 19th-century ornithologist who discovered the first specimen in New Jersey. They usually prefer the warmth, clustering along the southern part of the Eastern Seaboard and migrating farther south for the winter. Wilson’s plovers enjoy dining on small insects and crustaceans – fiddler crabs are their favorite! In South Carolina, Wilson’s Plovers are a state threatened species due to the loss of coastal breeding habitats.
Royal terns are primarily white, although they are easily spotted by the tufted black band around their heads and their bright orange bills. With a wingspan of more than 3 feet, they are the second largest tern on earth. They use the plunge-dive hunting technique employed by a variety of other birds, although they tend to make their dives more shallow and from a closer distance in order to avoid predators. A pair of royal tern parents will make their nest on low ground, surrounding it with their own droppings, which harden into a barrier. Once the chicks hatch, they leave the nest almost immediately and join the often hundreds of other newborns. Ever the watchful parents, however, tern couples manage to spot and feed their own young amongst the melee of other chicks.
The brown pelican is a large gray-brown bird with a skinny neck and a broad beak. It uses an elegant, although somewhat startling, plunge-dive technique to capture its prey. The brown pelican can spot fish from far away and then dive into the water from up to 65 feet in the air, expanding its throat and gulping as many as three gallons of water to collect its meal. This is not always the best system – while the pelican attempts to drain the water from its beak, other birds often come and steal the fish straight from its mouth! Brown pelicans reached near extinction 40 years ago due to pesticide use. After tremendous conservation efforts to revive the population, the birds were taken off of the endangered species list in 2009.
There’s a reason that a group of gulls can be referred to as a “screech” or a “squabble” – they are often the loudest animal on the beach! This seabird’s sharp cry stands out among other coastal birds. Imagine how loud it must get in their colonies, which can consist of up to 25,000 pairs! Laughing gulls eat virtually anything, from the typical insect and crustacean diet to restaurant trash and fishing-boat garbage. They also enjoy stealing food from other birds and are known to snatch fish directly from the mouths of pelicans! If you happen to be strolling the beach during the winter, don’t be fooled. The distinct black hood of the summertime laughing gulls dulls almost completely in the winter.
The black skimmer flies just above the water with the lower part of its bill cutting through the water’s surface, scooping up prey as it goes. They have large lower mandibles that enable them to do this. In fact, they are the only seabird species with a lower mandible that is larger than their upper mandible! They are medium-size seabirds, with an average weight of 11 ounces, and their primarily black and white bodies are contrasted by their shocking red bills. Pointed wings allow these birds to make sharp turns along the surface of water, and their eyes have vertical pupils that help reduce glare from the water, making it easier to hunt. Black skimmers are quite social birds, and you can often find them in flocks, even outside of mating season. Human disturbances and loss of nesting habitats have placed the species in danger, and recent population studies suggest that their numbers continue to decline, making this bird an exciting find and an important natural treasure in need of protection.
The least tern, so named because it is the smallest of the terns at an average of 9 inches long, is found mostly near beaches in the southeastern United States. They tend to hunt mostly in lagoons or estuaries, aerial diving into the water to capture small fish. They are very protective parents; if an intruder approaches their nest, the chicks freeze in place and the parents proceed to defecate on the foreigner’s head! Least terns nest in small groups, normally on inlets or accreted shell mounds along bays, and their chicks move out of the nest after only a few days – although their parents continue to seek them out and bring them food for many weeks. In South Carolina, more than 60 percent of the least terns now nest on gravel rooftops due to the lack of suitable beach habitats. If you see or hear them overhead, there may be a nesting colony on a nearby building.
These seabirds are named Sandwich terns, not because sandwiches are their favorite food, but because the first known specimen was officially described in Sandwich, Kent by John Latham, an ornithologist in the late 1700s. This differentiates the tern from many other birds with the word “sandwich” in their name, as most of these specimens originated from Hawaii, an archipelago formerly known as the “Sandwich Islands.” You can spot a Sandwich tern most easily by the yellow tip of its bill, although the shaggy feathers protruding from the back of its head, which become a deep black during breeding season, are also an easy target for bird watchers. They are plunge divers, performing high velocity aerial hunts to find fish. Sandwich terns often incorporate their trophies into their mating displays, offering the captured fish to prospective mates.
The great egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society and is commonly seen standing perfectly still in the marshes and lakes of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. While these wading birds can be found in both saltwater and freshwater environments, they tend to nest in colonies, making their nests in shrubs along the water. Indubitably eye catching at all times of the year, great egrets become particularly splendid during breeding season, when their plumes elongate and their faces develop a neon green patch to attract mates. These white birds do have a dark side, however; if a breeding season is particularly difficult, chicks will compete for resources and have been known to kill each other, an act referred to as siblicide.
Great Blue Heron
The largest of the North American herons, the great blue heron has a striking appearance, with a wingspan that can extend up to 6 feet and extensive plumage sprouting from its head, neck and blue body. These birds can be found by saltwater or freshwater, and they nest together in elevated colonies called “heronries,” that can include hundreds of members. Elaborate gift giving and exciting dancing are part of the mating rituals of these birds. In flight, their necks curve forward in an “s-shape” to achieve greater ease with flight, and their feet stick straight out behind their bodies. Great blue herons are capable of both diurnal and nocturnal hunting due to the high number of rods in their eyes, and they eat fish, insects, small mammals and reptiles. Interestingly, there is a subset of the population that resides almost solely in Florida and is entirely white. In places where the two populations cross paths, there are hybrid birds that share the head of the white heron and the body of the blue heron.
Little Blue Heron
Little blue herons are a smaller, but still stunning, example of a wading bird. Younger little blue herons are easy to identify, because unlike their all-blue adult counterparts, they are entirely white. Snowy egrets are more amenable to helping these young, white birds catch fish, which is the primary theory for their prolonged youth plumage. Thus, the white little blue herons can often be seen fishing next to their grander white counterparts, helping to ensure the young heron’s survival through the difficult first year. Many scientists also believe that their coloring allows them to fly in mixed flocks of herons, which supports their protection from predators. Little blue herons nest in sub-tropical swampy areas, often with other wading birds.
The bodies of these elegant birds are entirely white, and they have long black legs and electric yellow feet, thought to be distinctly colored to attract underwater prey as the birds stalk through shallow water. Younger snowy egrets can be differentiated by their legs, which are a murky green color rather than black. The species has paid a high price for its beauty. Its easily recognized white plumes fetched an extraordinarily high price in the late 19th-century fashion market, particularly for women’s hats, and the population was on the brink of extinction when the burgeoning 20th-century conservation movement made bold efforts to protect it. The mating and breeding habits of the snowy egret are unique: The yellow upper bill area of the birds becomes a brilliant red during mating season, and males often engage in displays of impressive aerial acrobatics to impress their future partners. Once paired off, the male and female take equal turns protecting the nest, often passing sticks to each other as they trade posts.
Black-Crowned Night Heron
The black-crowned night heron has a noticeably different physique from its long-legged heron cousins, with a smaller body and shorter, yellow legs. Their favorite time of day to fly around the shore is dusk, as they head out to the wetlands to forage for food. While they may not be the easiest heron to spot, these light gray birds inhabit wetlands and marshes in many different countries, making them the most widespread heron in the world. Perhaps their success in the wild comes from their generous parenting: Black-crowned night herons will take care of any chick that finds its way into their nest, regardless of its parental origins. The chicks themselves have an interesting defense mechanism against strangers – they are known to vomit whenever a potential predator approaches their nest! These birds can live for many years, with the oldest known specimen found to be more than 21 years old.
The wood stork is the only species of stork that breeds in the United States. It is an endangered species, making a sighting of one of these large, lithe birds very exciting! With a wingspan of up to 5 feet, they are the largest species of wading bird that breeds in South Carolina. They have white bodies with dark heads, necks and tails. Storks differ from other wading birds, such as herons and egrets, in several ways. In flight, for example, they fully extend their neck and legs, and they hunt using tactolocation, or feeling, rather than vision. This allows them to feed in darker water and at night. Wood stork chicks must be kept warm and fed in their nest for three weeks after hatching, and it can take up to three months for them to be able to feed themselves.