Jack Frost arrives late and departs early on Hilton Head Island and the South Carolina Lowcountry. The coast rarely braces for hard frost until late December, and that threat slinks away under the balmy breezes of early March. Winter is an 8-10 week span when the nights are long, “wet-chill” on the coast wends into the downiest overcoat, and tree foliage turns into hues of gold, maroon, and red. But bundle up: your reward is that Island wildlife is more active and easier to see when times get nippy.
Premier places to explore
Hilton Head Island is a big place—over 34 square miles of beach, dunes, dense “maritime” forest, manmade ponds and lakes, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, and tidal waterways. What’s more, developers, communities, and the Town of Hilton Head Island have preserved hundreds of critical habitat in preserves, parks and open space. But there are 5 GREAT sites to explore for a premier wildlife-watching experience. Let’s go!
1. Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Located in the in the lower (northern) end of the The Sea Pines Resort and community, the 605- acres, permanently protected Sea Pines Forest Preserve has vast hardwood and pine forest, a series of freshwater lakes, secluded wetlands (including a gem named “Boggy Gut”), prehistoric and historic sites, and miles of trails for walking or horseback riding. Check out the lakes to see migratory ducks, like bufflehead, ruddy, and goldeneye. You’ll have a chance to see the Hilton Head whitetail deer—a unique subspecies (hiltonensis—no kidding!) that is smaller than its mainland brethren. And if cloud cover rolls in, listen for the barred owl: its “who cooks, who cooks for you” muffled call may signal rain.
2. South Beach. Pick a warmer day to walk to the Island’s southern tip named South Beach. This is a dynamic strand, subject to strong currents and churning waves. Watch for flocks of double-crested cormorants in V-formation (the look like skinny geese), loons (common and red-throated), and bottlenose dolphin cavorting close to shore. Beachcombing is productive on South Beach: watch for big knobbed whelk snails (relative to conchs) and colorful, branchy seawhip corals
3. Fish Haul Creek Park and Beach. Follow Beach City Road for about two miles and turn in to the entry to Fish Haul Creek Park. This site is the epicenter of the historic Mitchelville, where freed slaves lived in the first African-American, self-governing community in America. The village stands no longer, but interpretive exhibits introduce the story, and lead you to a salt marsh an observation deck. Trails wend through dense oak forest, home for great horned owl, raccoon, gray fox, bobcat, and migrating tree swallows. Follow the main trail, which leads you to the dynamic Fish Haul Creek beachfront. This is THE beach to see migratory shorebirds: curlew, dunlin, dowitcher, godwit, red knot, willet, and lots of “peeps” (small sandpipers). This is an eroding beach, so check a tide chart and visit during the low cycle—that’s when the birds feed in the mosaic of tidal pools.
4. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Drive across the bridge leading from Hilton Head Island and make the first right-turn into Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. This 4,000-acre gem offers miles of trails through every habitat found in the Lowcountry, plus managed fields and forest. Simply follow the main path and you’ll encounter freshwater ponds, of which one hosts colony of egrets and herons. The fields are home to bluebirds, countless sparrow species, kestrels and harriers (small hawks), and perhaps a bluebird or two braving the cool weather.
The refuge salt marsh supports a huge population of wading birds, including white ibis, wood stork and snowy egret. It was in this marsh that I watched a Carolina cougar (a.k.a. mountain lion) saunter across the vast sand flats that lead to secluded hammocks (tree islands rich in migratory birdlife).
5. Calibogue Sound. Join a kayak eco-tour or a cruise in historic Calibogue Sound. The name Calibogue comes from the Cusabo Indian word meaning “deep water.” The kayak allows you to follow herons and oystercatchers into shallow marsh creeks. Only here will you catch hyena-like call of the clapper rail, locally called “marsh hen.” Some cruises trawl (pull nets) and harvest shrimp and many other oddities of sea life. You haven’t lived until you’ve met a dogfish shark or a stingray up-close. They’re all part of bountiful marine menagerie that is nature on wintertime Hilton Head Island. Come explore!