Santee Delta Birding - a chapter in The Birding Guide to Coastal South Carolina

Highlights: raptors, waterfowl, wading birds, rails, migrating songbirds.

Non-bird highlights: Dragonflies (incredible numbers), Alligators, River Otters, Bobcats, Foxes, Butterflies

Reliable Specialty Birds:

Year-round: Anhinga, Mottled Duck, White Ibis, Wood Stork, Barn Owl, Boat-tailed Grackle

Spring and early summer: Year-round, plus Least Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Swallow-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite, Least Tern

Winter: Year-round, plus Bald Eagle, King Rail

Possible Specialty Birds:
White Pelicans (year round), Golden Eagle (winter), Short-eared Owl (winter), Dickcissel (fall migration).

Figure 1 - Map of the Santee Delta Wildlife Management area, with access points marked.
(click for larger image)

The Santee Delta is one of the best locations in the southeast United States to reliably see numbers of Swallow-tailed Kites.  It is also a difficult place to bird after May, due to hordes of biting insects.  But it is the biting insects which attract huge numbers of Dragonflies, which in turn attract Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites in good numbers.  One can sometimes see kettles of 20+ Swallow-tailed Kites hawking Dragonflies over the delta.

Despite the mosquitos and Deer Flies, by using insect repellant and making short strategic forays into "The Delta", one can enjoy good success at finding some special birds.

Most visitors choose to explore the Santee Delta via the Santee Delta Wildlife Management Area, which abuts US Highway 17 north of McClellanville, South Carolina. Please note the Santee Delta WMA is closed to the public during the winter, since it is a waterfowl hunting area.

The Santee Delta is a good place to spot soaring Wood Storks from midmorning until late afternoon, any time of year. Other soaring birds easily seen over the Delta are winter raptors like Eagles and Harriers, year-round Anhingas, Mississippi Kites (sometimes in large kettles like the Swallow-tailed Kites) and all manner of wading birds. During spring and fall migration, the small groves of trees amid the vast marshes of the Delta attract migrating songbirds. In fall migration, the numbers of Bobolinks around the Delta are impressive.

A winter strategy local birders often follow is to bird elsewhere in the Georgetown - McClellanville region, then in late afternoon head to an overlook to scan the Delta for large numbers of waterfowl, wading birds and other birds gathering in flocks and heading to their roosts. Quite a show of raptors takes place just prior to dusk - Eagles and Harriers get in a last bit of work before bed, often flushing large numbers of waterfowl and wading birds. * See the bottom of this web page for directions to the overlook, as well as an overhead image of the location.

To reach the Santee Delta WMA from southern South Carolina, drive north on US-17, passing through McClellanville. Soon afterwards, you will reach the South Santee River; beyond this is "The Delta".
From northern South Carolina, travel south on US-17, passing through Georgetown. 6-7 miles past the Sampit River, you will reach the North Santee River. Either bird the following route in reverse, or drive a couple of miles to start the route from its southern end.


Suggested route during spring and early summer:

Figure 2 - an aerial image of the beginning of this route. (click for larger image)

.9 miles past the South Santee River bridge, there is a road leading down to the right. It crosses a short dike to an island where the trail ends. By standing on the dike, you can get a decent field of view - between late April and mid-July, scan the sky for Swallow-tailed Kites, Mississippi Kites, Wood Storks and other soaring birds. The best time for observing Kites is from 11:30am until 3:30pm

** Begin slowing and signaling well before making your right turn and parking. Also be very careful backing out when you are leaving - it is best to post a lookout up on the highway shoulder to spot clear spaces in traffic.

1.2 miles after the South Santee River bridge, there is another road on the right leading down to a gate. Beyond the gate is a system of dikes and trails leading around an impounded corner of the Santee Delta. Two loop trails - a long outer loop and a short inner loop - lead around to the parking area at the base of the US-17 bridge over the North Santee River.

** Begin slowing and signaling well before making your right turn and parking. Do not stray out of earshot of your car, in case SC DNR staff need to open the gate.

At the north edge of the Santee Delta, beside the US-17 bridge over the North Santee River, is the parking area / visitor's lot for the Santee Delta Wildlife Managment Area. The tree-lined dike near the parking area can be a spring treat for migrating songbirds. Warblers, Vireos, Orioles, Tanagers and other neotropical migrants find refuge in the trees along the trail near the parking area. These trees are some of the only 'cover' that migrating songbirds can use during their crossing of the wide marshy expanse of the eastern Santee Delta.

Depending upon the insect activity, proceed as far as possible down the trail from the parking lot.

When done, you can access some different habitat to the west of US-17. It has more Cypress Trees (and Prothonotary Warblers) than the section of The Delta east of US-17.

Exit the main parking lot (beside the North Santee River) and head south on US-17.  Proceed .3 miles and begin slowing. .4 miles south of the parking lot, turn right onto a pulloff that leads down to a gated dike. Be sure to use your parking brake here.

Proceed through the gate on foot and explore the area. Near US-17 is a swampy section with a few large Cypresses and smaller trees and shrubs like Black Willow, Wax Myrtle and more. This can have migrating songbirds and breeding birds like Yellow-throated Warbler and Northern Parula. A bit further on the dike, you reach more open habitat - this is a good place to find Eastern Kingbirds and Orchard Orioles.

If you have time, the dike leads to the far treeline which consists of bottomland hardwood forests.

Kites are seen in this section of the Santee Delta WMA, but they are more reliably observed over on the east side of US-17.


Late afternoon / early evening observation point (best in winter):

Figure 3 - an aerial image showing parking places (X) and a nice overlook (O). (click for larger image)

A great place for observing the Delta in the evening is just north of the US-17 bridge over the South Santee River. However, parking can be tricky. There is a turnaround lane just north of the US-17 bridge over the South Santee River. There are bare dirt areas beside the paved turnaround - room for 1-2 vehicles to park safely. There is also a little paved pulloff leading west of US-17, across the highway from the turnaround lane. There is room for 1-2 cars to park there.

After carefully parking, carefully cross US-17 to the eastern edge, just north of the US-17 bridge over the South Santee River. Step over the guard rail onto the side of the US-17 causeway. There is plenty of room to set up a scope and other gear.

From here, you can watch a marvelous expanse of the Delta, as well as the South Santee River. This location is best at dawn and dusk, when all manner of birds crisscross the delta on their way to/from their night roosts. These flights are most impressive in winter, when we host many more waterfowl and raptors. In the late afternoon, many types of waterbirds use the South Santee River as a highway to commute home from work. On a stakeout during late afternoon in winter, be sure to look to the right (toward the North Santee River) to see Wood Ducks, Black Ducks and Mottled Ducks pouring in to a night roost. This roost is close to the parking area where US-17 crosses the north Santee River.

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