By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader
Photography by Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity
In late May, Jim White and I traveled to the South Carolina Lowcountry at the invitation of the Lowcountry Institute on Spring Island. The objective? To develop a new travel program for the Delaware Nature Society. Jim and I think we have a fantastic trip in the making for you to participate in next spring.
Joe checking out the scene in the ACE Basin, which is a 350,000-acre Lowcountry wild area of made up of several S.C. Wildlife Management Areas, a National Wildlife Refuge, and many large private natural areas southwest of Charleston. Wildlife abounds here.
We stayed on Spring Island, home-base for the Lowcountry Institute, an environmental non-profit organization charged with environmental education and conservation in southeastern South Carolina. Spring Island is a nature reserve first, and a residential area second. In fact, you really don’t see houses on the island. You see forest, tidal marsh, freshwater ponds, and lots of wildlife. According to Thomas Blagden, Jr., author of Spring Island: Rhythms of Nature, the island…”is a quintessential Loucountry marsh island. Perhaps what distinguishes it most is its status as the visionary domain of a group of private residents who have placed the quality of their natural surroundings as their highest priority.” Luckily, and coincidentally, Matt Sarver, President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, has in-laws that own a property on the island, and that is where we stayed. Matt accompanied us on our trip and was our host, tour guide, and chauffeur. Not bad!
Jim and I toured many areas to get a feel for the natural aspects of the Lowcountry. Matt and the staff at the Lowcountry institute developed a schedule and accompanied us on our tour. We visited ACE Basin, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, various private nature preserves, and a tern and pelican nesting island on the Georgia/South Carolina border. Our trip next year will include all of these destinations and much more.
ACE Basin is huge. It is where the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers combine to form one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the east coast. This area attracts many bird species that are more commonly known from south Florida. We saw Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Mottled Duck, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and American White Pelican. Vast wetlands attract shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors like Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites. Reptiles and Amphibians abound.
One of the highlights of our trip was a large American Alligator that growled just feet in front of us at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area in the ACE Basin.
The bird-life was amazing here. If you have ever seen Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in the height of shorebird migration in late summer, that is what it was like. Everything depends on water levels, however, and we struck avian gold at Bear Island on our trip, which had just enough mud and just enough water to please a wide diversity of species.
Were we in Florida? No, Bear Island WMA in the ACE Basin of South Carolina. We saw a single Roseate Spoonbill at this location on our trip.
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge was another highlight of our trip. With 29,000-acres of wetlands and bottomland woodlands along the Savannah River, there was no shortage of bird-life. Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites swirled above us as Purple Gallinules scooted across lily pads on the water. The refuge has a wildlife drive that we enjoyed, plus we were given special permission to access an area closed to the public where we searched for reptiles and amphibians.
At Savannah NWR, Common and Purple Gallinules are easy to find. These odd, but colorful members of the rail family look a bit like a duck, but have huge feet for walking across lily pads and through vegetation-choked water.
We were lucky to be escorted by Chris Marsh, Executive Director of the Lowcountry Institute and an expert naturalist, and Tony Mills, their Education Director and a well-known herpetologist and co-author of the book, Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast.
We found 3 Cottonmouth snakes on our trip, including this one at Savannah NWR. Having two expert Herpetologists in the group, Jim and Tony, was a great learning experience. Plus, they LIKE handling poisonous snakes, and know how to do it properly.
Finally, we took a boat excursion to Tomkin’s Island, which is an island made of dredge spoil on the SC/GA border. A huge number of birds were resting and nesting on the island. A large breeding colony of Royal and Sandwich Terns occupied this man-made place. Brown Pelicans were nesting there as well, and some non-breeding American White Pelicans kept them company. A wide range of shorebirds were stopping by to feed on their migration, including Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Marbled Godwit, and many others. On the way back to the mainland, Dolphins swam to the boat to take a closer look at us.
Royal Terns nest on Tomkin's Island in huge numbers. They are joined by their smaller cousin, the Sandwich Tern.
And I can’t forget the Dolphins…
In the back marshes near Hilton Head Island, Bottlenose Dolphins came over to investigate us.
This trip is still in the draft phase, but you can experience these sights yourself when we offer this for next spring. You can expect to visit all of these locations, as well as the historic cities of Charleston, Savannah, and Beaufort, plus the Webb Wildlife Area for Long-leaf Pine ecosystem and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as the historic Magnolia Gardens and Plantation…one of the most famous and beautiful plantations of the south. Jim White will be leading the trip, and we look forward to sharing it with you.