Untamed Lowcountry

6 reminders why Hunting Island should not be taken for granted

This is South Carolina's favorite barrier island

Hunting Island State Park manager Daniel Gambrell talks about the allure of the park and the erosion that is a day-to-day occurrence at the state's most popular barrier island.
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Hunting Island State Park manager Daniel Gambrell talks about the allure of the park and the erosion that is a day-to-day occurrence at the state's most popular barrier island.

It might be weeks, or even months between trips, but when my wife and I hike at Hunting Island State Park, we almost always take the same path, which we usually walk in the same pattern, typically at the same time of day.

Up before dawn. Out to the island’s south end shortly after daylight. Along the trail out to the beach, then back again.

Yet no matter how familiar the routine, no matter how often we retrace our steps, Hunting Island and Mother Nature always show us something new. We walked there again Sunday morning, and again this little patch of paradise delivered. Here are six sights that reminded us how fortunate we are to live so close to this gem.

1. A Worthingon’s marsh wren. Usually, we head straight to the pier parking lot, the last left-hand turn before the bridge to Fripp Island. But on this morning, we decided to make a quick stop at the Marsh Boardwalk, a quarter-mile path that extends across three hummocks, to a dock on a finger of Johnson Creek.

We are avid birdwatchers and were pleased to spot a summer tanager high in the treetops, as well as a pine warbler low on a pine bough near the path. But what turned this quick side trip into an hour-long diversion was the little marsh wren we heard chatting away in a patch of spartina grass just beyond the dock. We could hear it from 30 yards away, but despite the conspicuous racket, it required our patience to catch a glimpse of the bird that remained clutched in the thick grass. Finally, it briefly stuck its head into the sun, allowing for a couple of quick photos.

We’ve seen marsh wrens before, but they are not an every-time-out species for us. And this particular specimen was part of the subspecies Worthington’s marsh wren, which is a bit more drab and less buffy than typical marsh wrens. Worthington’s live almost exclusively on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, according to the Sibley’s Guide to Birds.

2. A curious, little fawn. We tore ourselves away from the wren and drove down to our usual destination. The trail from the Hunting Island nature center and pier leads across a foot bridge over the lagoon, and to the beach. Just a few steps in, we heard loud rustling to our right. A pair of deer stood and looked at us for a few moments before bounding away yet deeper into the woods. I didn’t get much of a photo through the thick brush.

But further down the path, across the foot bridge, we again heard scurrying, this time on our left, and in this instance were treated to a good look. A fawn had been bedding down right next to the path and was startled by our approach.

There were no adults around, and I’m not sure if the young deer, still showing its spots, was petrified or too naive to be petrified once over its initial start. Whatever the case, it crept gingerly through the tall grass between the path and the lagoon, watching us as we walked. We stopped and lock stares for what seemed like several minutes, then the fawn dropped its head and slowly walked away, apparently more bored with us than we were with it.

3. Little Blue is still standing. The last cabin on Hunting Island’s eroding south end still stands silent sentry over the surf roiling beneath it. Dunes, trees and other structures have long since been toppled. Seeing the cabin, up on its pilings, always makes my wife a little sad, as if decades of good times and warm memories have been washed away by the tide.

To me, though, it’s simply a consequence of an exciting, dynamic environment. Hunting Island is doing what barrier islands do. They erode in one place, accrete in another, in a constant cycle of creative destruction. Little Blue stands in the crease, a reminder of why we love Hunting Island and how long we’ve loved it. I’ll be sad when it’s no longer there. The cabin is slated for demolition sometime this year, park managers say.

4. Gulls and terns. Talk about taking something for granted. Laughing gulls are the background static of a trip to the beach. At certain times of the year, terns seem only slightly less ubiquitous. But have you ever stopped to watch them fish? Or beg for food? We did, for nearly a half hour. Pay attention to the shrimp and small baitfish in their bills, the mooching of the juveniles, and the high-speed dogfights as one adult tries to pilfer the catch of another. These birds offer all the intrigue of a soap opera, without the brain rot.

5. Lots of warblers. Honestly, the mosquitoes were on our last nerve as we walked back to the parking lot, nearly three hours after first pulling in there. Just when we were ready for air conditioning and lunch, we noticed rustling in the trees. Lots of rustling. A dozen or so prothonotary warblers were in the canopy above us. These bright yellow birds are not exactly rare here, but I tend to associate them with late winter and early spring, and with the swampy areas where they make their nests in the lowest cavities of cypress trees. I had never seen a prothonotary warbler on Hunting Island, let alone this time of year.

And that wasn’t the last of the warblers we spotted in the final 20 minutes of our hike. My wife spotted a lone black-and-white warbler, and we both spotted a prairie warbler for the first time in two years. Both are species we tend to see a lot more of in the fall migration or wintertime. These birds brought our count to 35 species — I’m an old sports editor at heart; I’m always keeping score — which is not uncommon for a trip around one of the Lowcountry’s 10 Best Spots for Birding.

6. Racoons. They’re a lot cuter when they’re robbing bird seed from the feeders outside the Hunting Island nature center than they are when they’re stealing from my trash cans. At first sight of us, the racoons scampered into the safety of a tree, where they waited beneath a cover of foliage for our departure. All except one straggler, that is. He paid us no mind and continued to eat seed that had spilled below one of the tray feeders. He glanced up at us from time to time, seed stuck to his nose, as his mother and siblings waited in the tree nearby.

His meal was much like our hike: Neither to be rushed, nor taken for granted.

Hunting Island erosion

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Jeff Kidd/jkidd@beaufortgazette.com

This animated image shows erosion over time on the southern tip of Hunting Island.

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