Perfect weather not required to enjoy Mitchelville Beach if you seek birds

Posted by JEFF KIDD on December 10, 2013 

Sunday was the sort of day most beachcombing tourists would loathe -- dull and foggy, with chilling cut of wind to boot. The snowbirds of a more literal sense on Hilton Head Island's Mitchelville Beach didn't seem to care, however.

One of the area's best birding spots, the beach on the island’s heel opens to Port Royal Sound. The Fish Haul Creek area, with separate park access, is just south. Both areas include mud flats that are prime feeding and resting habitat for all sort of shorebirds -- gulls, terns, sandpipers, herons, pelicans, plovers, you name it. Some of those species, including the great black-backed gull, are seasonal visitors that Mitchelville Beach hosts in high number, which means you get fairly easy access to birds you do not typically see elsewhere in the Lowcountry or at other times of the year.

Binoculars or a telescope are recommended, though -- depending on the tide, a lot of water and mud can separate you from the birds. Sunday, I walked the beach for about an hour with my camera, equipped with a 500-mm lens, and took about 200 photos, a dozen or so of which are included in the accompanying gallery. Low tide is the best time for bird-watching because they tend to be present and active. I caught the tail end of the incoming tide Sunday morning, arriving at about 8 a.m. to a beach full of birds but left as the advancing water just about cleared everything out.

The timing probably explains why I didn't spot one of the more interesting characters at Mitchelville Beach, the American oystercatcher, a year-round resident with a distinctive, orange bill. I've seen them there before, but always near full low tide, when they can forage exposed oyster and clam beds. Those beds were nearly covered by the time I arrived Sunday and out of sight by the time I left.

Although I didn't see one species I expected to find, I was rewarded with a few unexpected ones.

Shorebirds are Mitchelville Beach's calling card, of course, but don't overlook the surrounding brush and forest. Sunday, for instance, I paused to take a few photos of cardinals popping in and out of a tangle of vines and scrub right next to the beach when I noticed a white-faced sparrow that was unfamiliar to me. (So unfamiliar, in fact, I'm not sure I properly identified it. I'd be much obliged to anyone who took a look in the gallery and could tell me what I saw.) I also saw -- but failed to identify or photograph -- a small hawk or falcon, possibly a sharp-shinned hawk, with a high-pitched call. It flew directly over my head as I got out of my vehicle in the parking lot and perched on a dead branch about 40 yards away. It took off again before I could get my camera poised and focused through the limbs.

The sighting was both exciting -- new birds greeted me as soon as I was out of the car -- and a bit disheartening -- I was reminded how lousy I am at identifying birds by their calls. Still, it was the start of a pretty good day at the beach, weather notwithstanding.


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