Charleston Birding

Breeding, migrating and wintering seabirds.
Migrating songbirds (especially warblers and sparrows).
Migrating and wintering shorebirds.

Specialty Species (breeding birds denoted by *):
Anhinga*, Wood Stork*, White Ibis*, Yellow-crowned Night Heron*, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Least Tern*, Sandwich Tern*, Clapper Rail*, Piping Plover, Marbled Godwit, Peregrine Falcon, Common Ground-Dove*, Painted Bunting*, Seaside Sparrow*, Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

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The best birding in the Charleston Harbor area occurs during fall migration and winter birding is also quite good. Spring and summer are when to find specialty breeding birds such as Terns, Night Herons, Painted Buntings and others. Charleston Harbor is a vast barrier to migrating songbirds; during fall migration they like to stage, rest and feed at certain "migrant trap" locations on the northern rim of the harbor before continuing their southward journey. Some of these locations are described below.


Mount Pleasant and Sullivan's Island:

Patriot's Point:

Best during fall migration (late August - early November), fantastic in some years. Decent in spring. Slow in winter and summer.

Patriot's Point is accessed via Patriot's Point Blvd, which intersects Coleman Blvd across from the WCBD television station, near the foot of the Cooper River Bridge.

The nature trail entrance (with parking) is across Patriot's Point Blvd. from the Shrine Lodge, to the left of the baseball stadium. The trail runs all the way to the observation tower after crossing the paved road near the golf course entrance. The observation tower gives a view (spotting scope required) of Crab Bank (seabird breeding colony), Castle Pinckney and other features in Charleston Harbor. During late spring and summer, one can use their song to locate Painted Buntings around the edges of most wooded areas of Patriot's Point.

The power line right-of-way that begins at the pumphouse between the Hilton entrance and golf course parking area is a great birding area during fall migration. The other end of the right-of-way leads to the golf course driving range. When you get here, turn left and stay close to the wooded edge (DO NOT WANDER ON THE DRIVING RANGE). Follow the treeline to the back edge of the driving range, where brush and debris is often piled. This area is good for Sparrows in October-November and can produce good Warbler/Vireo/Flycatcher action on fall days (especially after a passing front).

Please do not interfere with or annoy the golfers. The golf course management has been very kind to birders over the years and we want to stay in their good graces. Please do not wander the golf course - keep to the wooded edge along the back half of the driving range and the brushpile scrub area on the far end of the driving range form the golf tees.

The brushy freshwater canal running from the Hilton entrance towards the USS Yorktown is very good during fall migration. Sparrows, Warblers, Buntings and other birds are attracted to this area.

The woods across the old entrance road from the USS Yorktown are very good for fall migrants. The power line rights-of-way give access to this area.

As of this writing, the "sparrow field" has not yet been developed. This could change at any time, as the area is slated for luxury condos and a hotel. The "sparrow Field" is great for fall migrants, especially sparrows from mid-October-November. The entrance to the Sparrow Field is marked by a metal gate (OK to walk around) that is on the right just past the Hilton entrance.


Pitt Street Causeway:

Best in fall, winter and spring. Visit from 3 hours before low tide until 3 hours after low tide for best birding.

To reach the Pitt Street causeway, come down Coleman Blvd from the Cooper River Bridge / Patriot's Point area. Cross the bridge over Shem Creek and go straight at the stoplight (instead of bending around left on Coleman Blvd.). This will put you on Whilden Street. Go down Whilden and take a right after 6-7 blocks, then a quick left. This will put you on Pitt Street. Continue to the end of Pitt Street, cross the steep speed bump beside the gate and park on the right.

The Pitt Street Causeway has some of the tamest Clapper Rails anywhere. They are quite used to people and one can get excellent views (and photographs) of Clapper Rails stalking the marsh edges, coming out to bathe or feed and sometimes chasing each other across the mudflats.

In fall, winter and early spring, Pitt Street is the best place near Charleston to observe Marbled Godwits. The mudflats and sandbars at Pitt Street are also excellent for other shorebirds, gulls, terns and wading birds. Wood Storks can usually be spotted, except during the winter.

In recent years, Reddish Egrets have often been spotted at Pitt Street. Immature Reddish Egrets in particular seem to favor this location. July-September is prime time for spotting Reddish Egrets at Pitt Street.

Seaside Sparrows are year-round residents in the marshes at Pitt Street, as are Marsh Wrens. In winter, Sharp-tailed Sparrows can be seen on days that are not too windy.

Common Ground-Doves are also often spotted at Pitt Street. Early morning and late evening are the best times - watch for the birds flying along the causeway as they travel from Mount Pleasant to Sullivan's Island. They can also be spotted around the brushy margins of the sand flats around the marsh edge.


Fort Moultrie area:

Note: Refer to the aerial photo (with location markers) below when reading the following text. The photo shows the western portion of Sullivan's Island.

Fort Moultrie is best in fall, winter or spring. Being on the beach beside the fort at first or last light in winter can produce good Gulls and Terns as they move between their feeding grounds outside the harbor to their roosts on sandbars and islands inside the harbor. Best location for catching this movement is to park at location (A) and watch from the beach (or the fort grounds at high tide). From here one can look across at Fort Sumter and at the tip of Morris Island to the left of Fort Sumter.

A good starting point for Fort Moultrie birding is location (C). Park at the corner of Station 16 and Atlantic Ave. One can often see Common Ground-Doves here early and late in the day. They like to eat grass seeds and gather grit for their crops at the edge of the brush here.

One can either cross the ditch and bird the grassy field towards location (D) and the rest of Fort Moultrie or one can proceed down the trail towards the ocean. The edge of the woods and field can produce very good birding during migration, especially early in the morning. A resident colony of Field Sparrows lives around area (D) - it is one of the last such colonies in the Charleston metropolitan area. Eastern Meadowlarks, Loggerhead Shrikes and Eastern Bluebirds can also be found in this field year-round.

If one enters the trail system from location (C) - halfway down the path towards the ocean, a trail system leads off to the right. Exploring this trail will lead you through the "accreted land" - a public area that consists of scrub forest and vine tangles growing on old accumulated sand deposits. There are also a couple of wet areas that are miniature swamps. This section can be very productive during fall migration, especially for October-November Sparrows. Beware of Poison Ivy along these trails!

A good fall strategy is to park at Station 16 & Atlantic Ave (location C), take the trail system west (between the beach and Fort Moultrie) and use paths and openings to duck over to the grassy field to check for open-country birds. Then finish up with a beach walk / harbor watch for waterbirds and shorebirds.

8-9 blocks east of Fort Moultrie (location (E) on map image), the area around the Sullivan's Island lighthouse can produce good birds in fall and winter. Park on I'On Ave near the intersection with Station 18 1/2 and walk the open field bordered with dune scrub and brush.


James Island and Folly Beach:

Fort Johnson:

The Fort Johnson complex is located at the end of Fort Johnson Road on James Island. The following entities have facilities on the Fort Johnson grounds: South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration), College of Charleston and other shorter-term tenants. Various portions of the grounds have something of a trail system and though degraded by Hurricane Hugo, the forests still offer productive birding.

Fort Johnson is only accessible during business hours Monday-Friday. Best birding is in fall and winter. Half-to-low tide is good for shorebirds and wading birds along the harbor. Half-to-high tide is good for Loons, Grebes and Ducks in the harbor and back in the cove. The grounds at Fort Johnson are best during fall migration, when Fort Johnson can act as a migrant trap. One of the primary migration routes for birds traversing Charleston Harbor is to pass from Patriot's Point in Mount Pleasant to the Fort Johnson area of James Island.


Folly Beach:

Folly Beach birding is best in fall and winter. Spring can produce some shorebirds and breeding birds such as Painted Bunting, but spring is a slow time in general. During summer, birding is poor on Folly Beach, with the exception of the occasional Shiny Cowbird at someone's millet feeder.

As one begins nearing the end of James Island on the way to Folly Beach, there are some nice mudflats along the left side of Folly Road. They are especially productive beginning 3-4 hours before low tide until shortly after low tide.

Middle Section of Folly:
The fishing pier at Folly Beach is best in winter. It is a good spot to see Loons, Gulls, Grebes, Gannets and Sea Ducks, among other waterbirds. Going in to Folly Beach on Folly Road, the fishing pier is just to the left of the stoplight in front of the Holiday Inn.

Taking a left at the stoplight will take you up towards the north end of Folly Beach. If you have time, go 1 block over towards the ocean and check the ocean from the beach overwalk platforms that occur at regular intervals.

Halfway up the road (E. Ashley Ave), you will see a long pile of rocks lining the right site of the road. This area is known as "The Washout" and it is where surfers hang. During winter, there are not many surfers around and this is a good spot to check the ocean for birds. At the beginning of The Washout, there is a house across the street that almost always has a bird feeder deployed. Since they use a mix with millet, this can be a spot to find Shiny Cowbirds in summer, Buntings and Sparrows in winter and the occasional rarity at other times. At the far end of the washout, there is a roofed shelter that makes an excellent place for a seawatch.

North end of Folly:

At the north end of Folly Beach, there is a public parking area on the right just before the end of the road. If the lot is full, one may also park along the road edge between there and the gate. After parking, head in to the Old Coast Guard Station beyond the gate. This area is now owned by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission.

There are trails leading off the entrance road in to the vine-covered brush. During fall, these side spurs can be good places to find migrating songbirds. Depending on weather, fronts and the like, the birding can be very hot or cold. The best strategy is to get there early (or on a rainy day) when crowds are not making the birds more difficult to spot.

As you come to the big concrete foundations of old buildings, there is a partially hidden old dirt road leading left through a grove of Live Oaks. Follow this trail slowly and quietly. Pishing should cause Warblers or other songbirds to pop up. As the dirt track bends right, look for a trail down and to the left. This leads to a wet maritime forest that can be good for Thrushes and ground Warblers such as Worm-eating Warbler and Ovenbird. The trail ends at a spot where one can scan the marsh for raptors, swallows and marsh sparrows.

Return to the dirt track and follow it in to the small grassy clearing. Be very still and quiet for several minutes and the birds will start coming out of the brush around the edges of the clearing. This grassy clearing can be great for Sparrows in the second half of October and early November. It is good for Warblers and Vireos in September and early October. During spring and summer, once can usually find a Painted Bunting around this clearing.

Hidden along the north edge of the grassy clearing is a path leading to the north tip of the island. This maritime forest can be very good for migrating songbirds in September and October.

After taking the trail system or the paved road to the northern tip of Folly Beach, scan the sand bars around the Morris Island Lighthouse for shorebirds, gulls and terns. During late fall and winter, one can often see a Peregrine Falcon perched on the railing of the Morris Island Lighthouse. Peregrines also like to perch on driftwood logs and old trees over on the Morris Island side while they eat their prey.

Walking around the shoreline to the left leads past a maritime forest to an area overlooking the vast marshes behind Folly Beach. This can be a good spot to see Short-eared Owls (at sundown) and Seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows in winter. In spring, this is a good spot to see Whimbrel. Well down the bank, there is an oyster bar out in the water that is favored by American Oystercatchers.

The northeastern tip of Folly Beach has a couple of rock groins extending a short way into the ocean. This is a good winter spot for seeing Sea Ducks, Loons and Grebes.

The dune scrub along the eastern edge of the old Coast Guard station can be good for winter sparrows, Kestrels, Common Ground-Doves and vagrants like Western Kingbird.

South end of Folly:

When coming in to Folly Beach, take a right at the stoplight in front of the Holiday Inn. Continue down to the south end of Folly Beach to Folly Beach County Park. Birding here is best in winter, which is also when admission is not charged. If you want to bird here during spring or fall, you can park for free on the ocean side of the street, 100 yards or so before the county park gate. Forget birding here during summer, due to the heat and crowds of people.

The southern tip of the park overlooks Stono Inlet - across the water one can see Bird Key Stono, Skimmer Flats and the north end of Kiawah Island. Best birding here is early in the morning or on cold or damp days. Sea Ducks like the ocean off the south end of the park and shorebirds like the southern tip of the park from 3 hours before low tide until 3 hours after. Piping Plovers like this spot in winter if there are not too many people and dogs in the area. At low tide, one can scan Skimmer Flats with a spotting scope and pick out nice gulls, terns and shorebirds. This is a known hangout for Lesser Black-backed Gulls.


Downtown Charleston:

In May and June, one can see breeding colonies of Yellow-crowned Night Herons in Washington Park (East Bay & Meeting Streets) and White Point Gardens (beside the Charleston Battery).

Two adjacent graveyards between Archdale Street and King Street offer good birding during fall migration. These graveyards belong to the Unitarian Church and Saint John's Lutheran Church. Saint John's was the church where Reverend John Bachman was pastor for 50 years.

The Waterfront Park offers views of the Cooper River and one can spot Marsh Wrens and Seaside Sparrows in the Spartina marshes here. Occasionally one can catch a glimpse of a Clapper Rail here. Boat-tailed Grackles are present year-round.

Sadly, the shorebirding at Brittlebank Park has been ruined by the construction of a marina next to the park.

Magnolia Cemetery and the adjoining marshes and creek can produce good birding, especially during fall migration. It is located on Cunnington Ave, off of Morrison Drive on the northeast portion of the Charleston peninsula. Cunnington Ave is 6-7 blocks up Morrison Drive from Romney Street.

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