Bear Island winter flocks can warm birdwatcher's heart

Posted by JEFF KIDD on February 24, 2014 

Warmer temperatures this past week -- in the midst of what has been an unusually cold winter -- might have whetted your appetite for spring.

But not so fast.

If you enjoy birdwatching, as I do, there is at least one good reason to hope winter lingers just a while longer: Many species of birds not seen here at other times of the year make the Lowcountry their temporary home.

Great and lesser black-backed gulls are among the many species you can see in wintertime at Mitchelville Beach and Fish Haul Creek on Hilton Head Island. Northern gannets, which spend most of their lives at sea, feed at the mouth of the Savannah River and can be viewed from the north end of Tybee Island, where you'll also find purple sandpipers this time of year. Chris Marsh of the LowCountry Institute tells me he saw a female goldeneye duck at a pond in Donnelley Wildlife Management Area and a lone Eurasian wigeon at another impoundment at Donnelley this past weekend.

But for my gas money, I like a spot near Green Pond in Colleton County, just down the road from Donnelley -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area, which offers great birding during all of the nine months in which it is open but particularly unique viewing opportunities during the winter.

On a recent trip a few weeks ago, I saw dozens of tundra swan, which breed on the tundra in the northernmost reaches of North America. American white pelicans also are regular winter visitors to our coastline before returning inland to breed. Both are massive birds and difficult to miss, but Bear Island also attracts birds that are smaller and just as interesting -- greater and lesser yellowlegs, American avocets, American bitterns and Bonaparte's gulls among them.

Although the weather is warming and many of the seasonal birds will be migrating out soon, there are still quite a few of these species about, according to eBird.org's hotspot listing for Bear Island -- one birder alone reported nine white pelicans, nearly two dozen tundra swans, 250 gadwalls, 200 northern shovelers and 100 ruddy ducks on Feb. 23.

And if you can't make it to Bear Island before the weather turns and these birds depart, the wildlife management area also is the year-round home to bald eagles, many species of rails, herons and egrets, and wood storks.

Bear Island Wildlife Management Area is owned by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and features 12,000 acres in Colleton County to explore. However, visitors often need go no further than the large pond at the property’s entrance to see something unique -- the swans and pelicans and other aforementioned wintering birds congregate there, for example.

With its large pines and abundant water sources, Bear Island is located in the center of the most important eagle nesting region in South Carolina, according to the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Raptors and passerines are also commonly associated with marsh impoundments on Bear Island, according to the reserve’s website. Passerine species, such as the painted bunting and eastern kingbird feed on insects and seeds from the grasses that grow along the dikes there. Shrubs provide nesting and perching sites, as well as cover. Roseate spoonbills, black-bellied whistling ducks, common goldeneye, eared grebes, Hudsonian godwits, short-eared owls, western tanagers and LeConte’s sparrows are among the other species that can be seen at Bear Island.

Bear Island WMA is open from sunrise to sunset, Feb. 9 to Oct. 31, except during special hunts.

Follow editor Jeff Kidd on Twitter at twitter.com/insidepages.

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