I joined the Charleston Audubon's Field Trip to Bulls Island this past Saturday. Bulls Island is the largest of four barrier islands within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge spans 22 miles along the South Carolina coast and encompasses 66,000 acres of saltwater estuaries, barrier islands, and maritime forests. Over fifty percent of the refuge is designated as Class I National Wilderness Area. Here is a link to learn more about this incredible refuge: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/cape-romain
The Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge covers eBird Hotspots #3, #18, #19, #33, #39, #44, and #46! Bulls Island ranks #3 in Charleston with 273 species of birds recorded.
On this field trip we explored just a small portion of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The day started at Garris Landing to pick up the ferry to Bulls Island. Garris Landing itself ranks #18 on eBird with 218 species of birds recorded. As the field trip participants began to arrive and prepare for the day ahead a few of us began looking for birds around the parking lot. The lot has some great scrubby brush and wooded habitat. As we looked over the scrubby brush a bright flash of yellow caught my attention, I quickly moved in that direction to get a closer look. The bird popped back up higher in the tangles of brush and I could see a bright yellow throat and breast with a heavy dark bill and white spectacles around the eyes. The first bird of the day was a wintering Yellow-breasted Chat on the edge of the parking lot! Chats are typically a summer resident and are notorious skulkers. To see a rare wintering Chat was a fantastic surprise and a great way to start this exciting day!
As the group enjoyed viewing the Chat a very friendly Orange-crowned Warbler fluttered around the edge of the scrubby brush providing great pictures in perfect light.
This section of brush was full of great song birds including, White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Tufted Titmice and a House Wren. We also had a brief look at a Field Sparrow atop a bare tree adjacent to the scrub. As 10am approached we all headed to the dock to board the ferry, the tide was low revealing mud flats and oyster beds. The exposed beds attracted hungry shorebirds looking for breakfast. We found American Oystercatchers, Willet, Dunlin and a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers feeding with their sewing machine like movement. We counted a whopping 48 species of birds at Garris Landing!
My name was called and I boarded the Coastal Expeditions ferry. The ferry ride is another eBird birding hotspot named Bulls Island Ferry and is ranked #39 with 170 bird species recorded. The weather was just beautiful with sunny, clear skies and low wind. As the ferry entered the tidal creeks we passed a large oyster bed with shorebirds hidden in the dull grays and browns of the oyster shells and mud. Looking closely we found Short-billed Dowitchers, American Oystercatchers and a couple of well hidden Ruddy Turnstones.
Enjoying the views I met several super nice birders who shared the same excitement for the special day ahead. As we navigated through the tidal creeks we were able to get some close looks at Buffleheads and Horned Grebes. The ride covered just over 4 miles and took 25 minutes.
The ferry arrived at Bulls Island and the group headed to the truck and “hay wagon” like trailer to travel 2.4 miles to the fresh water impoundments at Jack’s Creek. Arriving at Jack’s Creek we could immediately see a vast number of ducks and coots on the water of the impoundments. We slowly walked to the edge of the nearest impoundment and set up our spotting scopes while trying not to spook the birds. With over 20 pairs of eyes on the water we were sure to find all the different species of birds. Within a few moments David McLean, our leader for the trip, spotted some great ducks including Greater Scaup and Canvasback. Both of these species of ducks are not very common in the Charleston area so they are always a noteworthy sighting.
We continued cautiously walking along the dike to get better looks at the numerous ducks in the distance. As the group was observing the distant waterfowl an intense sound of air movement was closely approaching the impoundment, it was sizable flock of ducks that sounded like a squadron of jets in formation maneuvers. It reminded me that even though I mostly see ducks on the water, these good looking birds are very skilled aviators migrating hundred of miles twice a year. The group found a total of 14 different duck species throughout the impoundments. However the most numerous bird of the day were American Coots, they are duck-like birds with black bodies and stubby white bills. Coots are winter residents spending their summers in the Northern US and Canada. There were high numbers of American Coots in every impoundment, we estimated about 4000 Coots!
After surveying the diverse flocks of ducks it was time for lunch so we headed toward a lookout tower to enjoy some nurishment outdoors. To get to our lunch destination we had to cross through an area surrounded by massive, prehistoric reptiles. American Alligators were sunbathing everywhere and they were huge Alligators!…there were about 40 or more Alligators in the immediate area. We walked within a dozen feet of these amazing toothy beasts. Most would scurry into the water with a few staying put and offering an intimidating grin. After this "national geographic" encounter with the Alligators we made it to the lunch spot for a well deserved rest.
After Lunch we headed down Sheepshead Ridge Road. It was an easy walk as we had plenty of time to make the 3:30pm ferry ride back to Garris Landing. The walk back was mostly quiet aside from a few groups of Yellow-rumped Warblers and buzzy notes from some nearby Pine Warblers. We made it to the picnic grounds and Dominick House, a 1920's residence that now serves as a base camp for weekend guests. While sitting under the majestic Live Oaks and Spanish Moss we reviewed the birds of the day and took a brief rest before walking the final stretch back to the ferry. So far we tallied 67 bird species on our Bulls Island eBird list and were hoping to add a few more on the walk to the ferry.
On the last section of the trail we encountered an active flock of song birds along the maritime forest edge, the majority of birds were Yellow-rumped Warblers, with a few Cardinals and sparrows mixed in. We heard a scolding call and a fellow birder quickly recognized it as a Blue-headed Vireo. Making it back to the dock for the ferry ride home, you could not help but gaze upon the long pristine views of salt marsh.
The ferry ride home was a bittersweet end to a special day. As we packed our gear and said our goodbyes at Garris Landing one of the birders relocated the Yellow-breasted Chat from the morning! It was an amazing day with great bird sightings, unbelievable scenery, and wonderful people. I want to thank our Guides, David McLean and Andy Harrison for leading and organizing this one of kind field trip. I also want to thank the super nice and knowledgable Coastal Expeditions staff for the ferry ride and transportation to Jack’s Creek. The day yielded 93 species of birds with 5,587 individual birds! The trip took 6 hours, 25 minutes and we covered over 12 miles by boat and foot.
eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/tripreport/104554