The Wings of Autumn

WHEN SHADOWS GROW LONG and the temperature cools, you will see a flurry of bird activity on Hilton Head Island and throughout the Lowcountry. By September, many species of birds begin migration—their mass exodus to wintering grounds. They will wing en-masse thousands of miles to exotic climes like the Yucatan or Paraguay. Other species migrate to the Island’s beaches and wetlands from faraway climes such as the Arctic tundra.

marbled godwit

Rare marbled godwits eating in the shoal. Photo by Marianne Ballantine

Birds migrate in order to eat. When their supply of nutrients in their summer territories dwindles, they must find new feeding locations elsewhere. For instance, avian species that consume invertebrates, such as insects, spiders, worms and crabs in Canadian marsh mud or tidal pools often show up on Hilton Head Island by late October. Warblers, vireos and other bug-and-berry-eating birds depart the Island and migrate south this time of the year.

This pageant of exodus and survival is a spectacular sight to see.


Between September and late November, hosts of shorebirds arrive on our beaches and salt marsh creek banks and mudflats. This group of thin-legged, quick-footed busybodies ranges from sandpipers, snipes and stilts to plovers, dowitchers, and ruddy turnstones. The most rare species to see is the red knot. This stocky little wader is a Migration World Champion: its migration route stretches 9,300 miles from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America. And it makes the trip twice a year!

The best place to see shorebirds: Visit Fish Haul Creek beach, a quiet strand of tidal pools mud flats adjoining a big salt mash bay. Access: park at Fish Haul Creek Park and follow trails and signs to the shore.


As shorebirds migrate to Hilton Head Island, another avian group migrates south from the Island. It’s an avian version of Saturday checkout, check-in times at our resorts. Departing in autumn are the hummingbirds and songbirds—warblers, buntings, vireos, finches and other melody-makers. These are called Neotropical migrants because they fly south to the Caribbean islands, Central America and South America for the winter. That’s where the food is: insects, in particular. One migration power-bird is the purple martin, which wings up to 6,000 miles south to Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina.

Autumn, with cooler weather and clear air, is a great time to grab your camera or binoculars and watch this epoch, urgent drama of wildlife survival.