Suggested Spring (April-June) Loop Tour of the Francis Marion National Forest
Specialty birds: Swallow-tailed Kite, Bachman's Sparrow, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, southeastern Warblers.
Note: A map of the Francis Marion National Forest is indispensible when touring the forest. The following web page has information on how to order maps online or where to purchase them in person: www.fs.fed.us/r8/fms/forest/maps/
This route begins at the intersection of US-17 and I'On Swamp Road. At a normal birding pace, traversing the route should take roughly 5-6 hours.
To reach this point from the Charleston area, head north on US Highway 17 past Mount Pleasant, SC. I'On Swamp Road is the dirt road to the left 11.3 miles north of the intersection of SC-41 and US-17. Roughly 10 miles past the intersection of SC-41 and US-17, you will see Mount Nebo AME Church on the left. I'On Swamp Road turns off to the left exactly 1 mile past Mt. Nebo Church.
To reach this point from Georgetown or McClellanville, come south on US-17 and pass through the town of Awendaw. Approximately 5 miles south of Awendaw, you will see the Sewee Visitor Center on your left. Just a bit farther (around the bend in US-17), you will see I'On Swamp Road (a dirt road) leading off to the right.
While traveling on I'On Swamp road (in April-June), always keep an eye to the sky for SWALLOW-TAILED KITES. Broad-winged Hawks are also frequently sighted perched in dead snags along the road.
From the intersection of US-17 and I'On Swamp Road, proceed a short way up I'On Swamp Road and the first road to the left is Clayfield Road. Clayfield Road is one of the better spots on the SC coast for spring migrant Warblers - it is nearly the first substantial section of hardwood forest along the coast north of the greater Charleston sprawl. After a short way on Clayfield, a gated road leads right. Park here and continue down Clayfield on foot (the road often becomes too muddy for conventional vehicles shortly after the gated road to the right). As you near the end of Clayfield, there is a clearing to the right. Pay special attention to the dense forest along this section for migrant birds - it also usually has a Hooded Warbler (after April 1-5) and there is often a Kentucky Warbler about. CAVEAT: the clearing near the end of Clayfield is sometimes used by locals for skeet shooting, so if you hear shooting when you first turn onto Clayfield, you might want to skip this area.
After checking out Clayfield, return to I'On Swamp road and turn left. After a short while, you will come to a Cypress/Tupelo swamp along both sides of the road. Park before the concrete bridge (known as the first I'On Bridge). Walk down the road and use your eyes and ears to identify / locate birds. The area around (or just past) the first bridge should produce: Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Northern Parula, Acadian Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Red-shouldered Hawk and Pileated Woodpecker. If you are lucky, you may spot a Barred Owl, Mississippi Kite or a SWALLOW-TAILED KITE.
Continue up I'On Swamp Road. Road FS 228-A leads off to the left after a short while. If there have been recent rains, this road can be tricky, so proceed with caution. SWAINSON'S WARBLERS and WORM-EATING WARBLERS may be found along this road in some years and not in others.
Returning to I'On Swamp road, turn left. After a short while, you will see a parking area for the I'On Swamp trail on the left. If you have plenty of time, this trail and the old forest service road (just before the parking area) are well worth exploring. The trail leads along old ricefield dikes which have reverted to hardwood swamps interspersed with blackwater Cypress-Tupelo areas.
Continue up I'On Swamp road and park at the "second bridge". This area is a great spot for seeing Barred Owls and southeastern "swamp" warblers.
Continue up I'On Swamp road to the T-intersection with Willow Hall Road. Park here and explore the Longleaf Pine habitat. BACHMAN'S SPARROWS are possible (listen for their beautiful song), as are Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Wood-Pewee and perhaps foraging Red-cockaded Woodpeckers from a nearby colony. After exploring the area, turn left on Willow Hall Road.
Drive slowly, with the windows down listening for BACHMAN'S SPARROWS. You should be able to pick up a singing male in April, May or June. Soon you will see a "borrow pit" pond on your left. Shortly thereafter, you will see road FS-202A leading left. Park at this intersection. The Longleaf Pine trees with the double white bands painted on them are a RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER colony. To be assured of seeing a RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER (RCW), be there near dawn or dusk. An exception: when the RCW are feeding young, it is possible to see them near the nesting trees any time of day if you spend a while. Otherwise they spend the day scattered in the surrounding pines feeding. Knowing the RCW's call is crucial to locating them. The call is a high-pitched "zeeet".
All throughout the Francis Marion National Forest, RCW nest trees are marked with double white bands painted on them. So work the surrounding forest to find the birds. Also: anywhere there are RCW colonies is good BACHMAN's SPARROW habitat. Rather than list all the RCW colonies along this route, we advise the reader to note and explore these colonies using the double white bands as a marker. Open Longleaf Pine Habitat is also a good place to look for Red-headed Woodpeckers.
The following map depicts the I'On Swamp Road portion of the suggested route:
After exploring the intersection of Willow Hall Road and FS-202A, turn around and head back the way you came. Pass I'On Swamp road, continuing down Willow Hall Rd. Continue to the intersection with the paved road (Steed Creek Road). Go straight across and continue on Willow Hall Rd. Proceed past the rifle range on the left to the 4-way intersection. Turn left onto FS-217 and proceed past FS-217B leading to the right. When you come to the Y-intersection, stay right (on FS-217). Soon you will pass FS-217A on the right. Just after that, you will come to a concrete bridge. Pull off to the right side of the road as much as possible. This Cypress swamp is great for "swamp Warblers" (sometimes Wayne's Black-throated Green Warblers), SWALLOW-TAILED KITES and other swamp residents. This area is where the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness drains into the Little Wambaw Swamp Wilderness.
Continue up FS-217 to the T-intersection with FS-215. Turn left. Soon you will get to another swampy area where there is a double set of bridges. Park shortly before the first bridge you come to. BE ALERT FOR COTTONMOUTH SNAKES (AKA Water Moccassins). Do not walk too close to the side of the road and never step where you cannot see. This area is where another part of the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness drains into Coffee Creek Swamp. The small creeks here are the headwaters of Wambaw Creek, which flows into the Santee River. This area is wonderful habitat - good for swamp Warblers, Vireos, Swallow-tailed Kites, migrating Warblers and more. It has one of the highest concentrations of Prothonotary Warblers in South Carolina.
Continue just past the bridges and explore the area where the ground rises from swampy to upland. This edge area always provides good birding.
At the 4-way intersection, turn right onto FS-154A. As you pass some hilltop areas where Oaks are the primary tree, listen for Ovenbirds. This area is the closest they breed to the SC coast. This area is also good for Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will's-widows at dusk. In late April and early May, drive slowly. You may see a mother WOODCOCK and her brood squatting in the road. Listen for singing Worm-eating Warblers in the thicker forest areas along this stretch.
At this point, FS-154A becomes FS-219. Continue straight and you will reach SC highway 45. Turn right onto SC-45. You will soon cross the bridge over Wambaw Creek. Take the first left after Wambaw Creek onto FS-211. The second left leads you on FS-211B to Still Boat Landing on Wambaw Creek. Park near the landing and explore. A trail leads to the left and runs along Wambaw Creek. This area is good for SWALLOW-TAILED KITES and SWAINSON'S WARBLERS.
Return to FS-211 and take a left to continue the route. Continue straight until FS-211 heads up an incline to end at FS-204. Take a left and you will soon reach the Wambaw Bridge. Park on the far side of the bridge at the boat landing parking area. Walk back to the bridge and scan the sky for SWALLOW-TAILED KITES. From noon until 2pm are prime hours to see SWALLOW-TAILED KITES here. The Kites could be very high in the air or if you are extremely lucky, below the level of the bridge. Kites which nest along upper Wambaw Creek travel downstream past the bridge on their way to feed at the Santee Delta in the early afternoon.
After birding from the bridge for awhile, walk (away from the parking area) back the way you came. The raised roadbed leads through some excellent bottomland hardwood forest. Depending on water levels, SWAINSON'S WARBLERS may be on territory here. The forest along the raised roadbed is excellent for breeding and migrating Warblers, Vireos and other birds.
Cross back over the bridge and bird the forest along the creek before getting in your car. These creekside hardwoods are excellent for breeding and migrating Warblers. The raised roadbed allows one to view the birds closer to one's own level.
Hop in your vehicle and proceed a short way up the road to where the ground gets higher and the open Longleaf Pine forest habitat begins. The woods on the left of the road ALWAYS have a singing male Bachman's Sparrow from April through June. Please do not play recordings of Bachman's Sparrow here, as it is a very easily accessible spot. Overtaping could drive the birds from this favored location.
The following map depicts the Wambaw Bridge portion of the suggested route:
To continue the route, turn around and head back along FS-204 the way you came. Continue until the dirt roads becomes paved. After a few miles, you will reach US-17. At this point, you have a choice. Heading straight across US-17 will lead you to the Santee Coastal Reserve. If you still need either RED-COCKADED WOODPECKERS or BACHMAN'S SPARROWS, the long entrance road at Santee Coastal is a great place to find the birds. If you still need Swallow-tailed or Mississippi Kites, turn left on US-17 and head north.
Heading north will take you across the South Santee River into the Santee Delta (largest river delta east of the Mississippi). The skies over the Santee Delta are the best place in SC to find these two Kite species - best time is from 1-3pm. Just before the bridge over the North Santee River, there is a pulloff to the right that leads to a parking area. Park here, load up with insect repellant and walk the dike trail. Besides Kites, this area is infested with Orchard Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Anhingas, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and other wildlife.
This concludes the suggested route through the eastern portion of the Francis Marion National Forest.
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