Birding Bulls Island

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

Non-bird highlights: Alligators, Sea Turtles, Bottlenose Dolphins, Fox Squirrels, butterflies, dragonflies.

Specialty Birds:

Mottled Duck, White Pelican, White Ibis, Wood Stork, Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer (absent some winters), Common Ground-Dove, Seaside Sparrow, Boat-tailed Grackle.

Year-round birds plus: Least Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Piping Plover, Wilson's Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, White-rumped Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Red Knot, Long-billed Dowitcher, Gull-billed Tern, Black Tern, Sandwich Tern, Least Tern, migrating songbirds, Painted Bunting.

Year-round birds plus: Roseate Spoonbill (present during entire summer-fall seasons 2004 + 2005), Reddish Egret, Painted Bunting, Orchard Oriole.

Year-round birds plus: Waterfowl (increasing duck variety), Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Northern Gannet, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Bald Eagle, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Piping Plover, Wilson's Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Red Knot, Long-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Empidonax Flycatchers, Sedge Wren, migrating Vireos, migrating Warblers, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Painted Bunting, Bobolink.

Year-round birds plus: Tundra Swan, Canvasback (1,000+ in late December-January), Redhead, Greater Scaup, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Common Goldeneye, White-winged Scoter, many other duck species, American Bittern, Northern Gannet, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Bald Eagle, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Piping Plover, Wilson's Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Long-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sedge Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Ipswich Savannah Sparrows.

Regularly occurring rarities
Eurasian Wigeon (each winter from 2003-2005), Long-tailed Duck (winter), Red-necked Grebe (winter), Golden Eagle (winter), American Avocet (spring/fall), Ruff (Spring), Wilson's Phalarope (fall), Parasitic Jaeger (fall/winter), Short-eared Owl (winter), Cave Swallow (winter), Western Kingbird (winter), Lapland Longspur (winter).

Map of Bulls Island with added reference markers (map courtesy of Coastal Expeditions):

Suggested Birding Route from the Bulls Island Ferry dock:

Walk from the ferry dock towards the Dominick House / picnic area. In September and October, the Middens Trail to the left can be a good place to find migrating Thrushes, Vireos and Warblers. The wooded road between the ferry dock and the picnic area is one of the best portions of the island to see migrating songbirds in Spring and Fall. However, like the rest of coastal South Carolina, spring migration action is rather patchy compared to the heavier flow of migrants in the fall.

When you reach the picnic area, you will see many tall snags and bare perches around this clearing. Raptors favor these perches during all times of year. Fall migration can be especially productive - there will almost always be a Merlin, Kestrel or other small raptor perched around the workshed area.

Work the edges of the large clear area for Flycatchers, Warblers or Sparrows, depending on time of year. There is a small wetland between the picnic tables and the Dominick House - it is good for freshwater marsh birds such as Common Yellowthroats and other Warblers, Sedge Wren in winter and fall, flycatchers in spring and fall, and several Sparrow varieties in winter.

After exploring the headquarters / picnic area, you have two choices - heading north or south.

Suggested Southern Route:
If time is short or you desire a shorter walk, turn right (south) on Summerhouse Road. This will take you down to the southern impoundments - Upper and Lower Summerhouse Ponds. There is a Heron/Egret rookery on the south end - the area around the rookery may be closed during the breeding season.

During Spring (April) and some years in the Fall (September), refuge staff lower the water levels in the Summerhouse Ponds. This attracts good numbers and variety of shorebirds and wading birds.

Normal water levels in the Summerhouse Ponds attract wading birds, waterfowl, shorebirds, swallows and other water-loving birds.

A good route for birding southern Bulls Island is to walk down Summerhouse Road and then turn left where the 'Turkey Walk Trail' crosses a dike that bisects Upper and Lower Summerhouse Ponds. Midway along the dike (marked 'A1' on map), you can view waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds through gaps in the Salt Bushes and Wax Myrtles growing along the dike.

After birding this area, turn around and backtrack to Summerhouse Road. Turn left on Summerhouse Road and proceed (through the nice oak-dominated Maritime forest) to the vantage point at the south end of Upper Summerhouse Pond. This vantage point is marked 'A2' on the map. Here the dike separates Upper Summerhouse Pond from the marsh and a tributary of Summerhouse Creek.

End the southern route by returning to the Picnic area. You can return either via Mill Road, by the Turkey Walk Trail or back the way you came on Summerhouse Road.

Suggested Northern Route:
From the Dominick House / picnic area, proceed a short distance on the beach road and then turn left (north) onto Sheep Head Ridge Road. Head down Sheep Head Ridge Road, keeping alert for birds as well as Fox Squirrels. After 3/4 of a mile, you will come to the area marked 'B12' on the map. A nice clearing of grasses and broomsedge is maintained here by refuge staff. This clearing is known for attracting Empidonax Flycatchers in Fall migration, migrating and wintering Sparrows, as well as Western Kingbirds in late Fall and winter.

After birding the clearing at B12, proceed a short distance further on Sheep Head Ridge Road and then take a left towards the area marked 'B1'. This is where a dike separates a freshwater pond/marsh (left side of dike) from the Jack's Creek impoundment complex (brackish water). From this dike you can observe one of the 'finger' extensions of Jack's Creek; there should be waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds visible. The freshwater area on the left of the dike hosts Sora, King and Virginia Rails in winter. It also hosts waterfowl, American Coot, Moorhen and American Bittern.

After birding area B1, backtrack and proceed across Sheep's Head Ridge Road to the area marked 'B2' on the map. This area is known as "Alligator Alley'. There are usually several large alligators basking here, but do not be afraid - they present no danger to humans. Area B2 is also a dike that separates the brackish Jack's Creek complex from a freshwater marsh (labeled B11). This is an excellent vantage point to look for waterfowl, wading birds, soaring Raptors and Storks, shorebirds and Rails.

Then proceed to the junction with Lighthouse Road. Take a left at this junction and head north towards Bulls Bay. During Spring (usually in April), refuge staff draw down the water levels in the Jack's Creek impoundment complex. This attracts vast flocks of shorebirds, as well as numerous Egrets, Herons, Wood Storks, White and Glossy Ibis, White Pelicans and more. If water levels have been drawn down, the adventurous should consider heading off-road towards area 'B3' on the map. Walking through the woods from Lighthouse Road towards B3 will allow you to approach the shorebirds in an area they favor while keeping the morning sun at your back.

Area B4 is best during the fall and winter, when thousands of ducks and other waterfowl will be feeding and resting in Jack's Creek. This dike along the northeast end of Jack's Creek provides the best publicly-accessible waterfowl viewing opportunity in South Carolina. During late December and the first half of January, there are invariably hundreds (usually 1,000+) Canvasback ducks present. The waterfowl here also attract Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles and the occasional Golden Eagle. There are often Tundra Swans, White Pelicans, rare ducks and other interesting birds present during late fall / winter.

Area B5 is eroding quickly - it used to consist of a small spur road that led to the beach. Now the spur has almost vanished - instead there is a small bluff overlooking a portion of the 'Boneyard Beach'. This is where the skeletons of ancient Live Oak trees stand or lie on the beach, forming a huge driftwood collection. This vantage point is a good place to scan the ocean for Loons, Gannets, Jaegers, Sea Ducks and Grebes in the winter. During Spring and Fall, the beach a bit southeast of B5 is a favored roosting spot for Terns.

Area B7 is the best place on the island to find Reddish Egrets in Summer and Fall (and sometimes in the spring). This area consists of a small creek that winds among tidal mudflats and salt marsh. At mid-to-low tide, the shallows here also attract Roseate Spoonbills, shorebirds and wading birds.

The dike between B4 and B7 is one of the best birding locations in the southeastern United States. It is strategically located on the northeast corner of a barrier island and it overlooks a vast pristine area which includes: salt marsh, open ocean, Bull's Bay, front beach, dune/scrub habitat and an outstanding waterfowl impoundment. No matter what time of year you visit, this dike will provide great birding.

-- Please note that areas B7 - B10 are a long way from the dock. This makes for a long and nearly impractical hike if you ride the ferry (which only makes trips from 9am until 4pm). The best ways to visit this section are by Mountain Bicycle or by using a personal boat to reach the island.

The area marked 'B8' designates a special stretch of beach. Here one can find Piping Plovers during Spring and Fall migration and Wilson's Plovers year-round. This area is also where the Bull's Bay shorebird roost takes place. During the hour before and the hour after high tide, hundreds (often thousands) of shorebirds come here from miles around to rest and feed. They do so because almost all the mudflats and sandbars for miles around are submerged at high tide. Since shorebirds need wide expanses of mud or sand that are free of vegetation (to keep predators from sneaking up), their options are limited at high tide. B8 also hosts roosting flocks of Gulls and Terns, depending on the time of year that you visit. In October and November, this is a particularly good location to find Lesser Black-backed Gulls around high tide.

Please do not approach the roosting shorebirds or gulls too closely!  Stay well back in the dunes and back off if you notice birds beginning to take flight or become agitated. High-tide roosting locations are few and far between and it would be a shame to lose this great birding spot because of frequent human disturbance.

The dune scrub habitat around the northeast corner of Bull's Island is the best area to look for Common Ground-Doves.

B9 is a good place to visit from half tide to low tide. The mudflats here attract shorebirds and it is a good place to find Reddish Egrets.

B10 is a nice area of Salt Marsh. This is a good place to see Swallows (including Cave Swallows in late Fall / winter). B10 is a very good area to look for Seaside, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows. For the best results, use hip waders around high tide to look for the sparrows by walking the marsh. Otherwise, be patient and silent and try and 'pish' them up into view.

The quickest way to return to the dock is via Old Fort Road. This section can be rather slow for birding, except during fall songbird migration. During September and October, this section of the island can see good warbler "fallout" when cool fronts or rain showers pass through.

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