The Low Country

Birds and Wildlife
Cypress Trees on the Satilla River
Cypress Trees on the Satilla River, Ga. (Photo Courtesy Lori Lamoureux)

Ask someone who really understands the Low Country and he will tell you not to miss an opportunity for the unparalleled birding and wildlife-watching to be found there.

The coast between Charleston and St. Marys is on the Atlantic flyway, enhancing the region as an destination for bird-watching. Nine national wildlife refuges and several state-owned sanctuaries ensure large, undisturbed habitats for birds and animals. Many are open to the public. Low Country birders have recorded bald eagles, peregine falcons, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, tri-colored (Louisiana) herons, wood storks, night herons, little blue herons and many other species. American alligators, loggerhead turtles and manatee are also present. Mammals include deer, feral hogs, raccoon, mink and otter.

The cooler months are the best times to do most outdoor activities in South Carolina and Georgia, and bird- and wildlife watching is no exception. October through April are the best birding months. If you're looking for alligators and other reptiles, March through October is prime time. The hotter months are also best if you want to see flowers in bloom, trees in full leaf and Spanish moss at its thickest.

Some of the best places to see birds and wildlife happen also to be the most beautiful, don't-miss spots in the Low Country.

The Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto (ACE) Basin is located in portions of Charleston, Colleton, Beaufort and Hampton Counties, South Carolina. The ACE is 350,000 acres of salt and brackish water marshes, maritime forest, upland pine and bottom land hardwoods. Birds and animals present are the wood stork, American alligator, peregrine falcon (fall only), and the bald eagle: The ACE is home to 19 species of waterfowl, 13 species of wading birds, deer, turkey and fox squirrels. The Basin is also recognized as a Bioreserve, a National Estuarine Research Reserve and a flagship project of the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture portion of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

The National Wildlife Reserve's offices are in Hollywood, South Carolina, 25 miles south of Charleston.

South of the ACE lies Pinckney Island National Wildlife Reserve, near the famous resort of Hilton Head. Pinckney NWR is highlighted by more than 14 miles of trails for wildlife and bird viewing. If you are fortunate enough to have a boat, you may get a better view shore and wading birds, including the endangered wood stork.

Further south, the freshwater empoundments and dikes at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge date from the 1700s. They were built with slave labor to grow rice on the plantations that once occupied the land. The dikes are open to foot travel and provide excellent wildlife observation points.

South of Savannah, Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge offers volunteers the opportunity to help monitor the nesting activities of giant loggerhead sea turtles. Volunteers monitors work under the supervision of personnel from the Savannah Science Museum. Wassaw Island is one of the least developed of Georgia's barrier islands and is accessible only by boat. Birding and beachcombing are excellent here. Visitors often launch boats at Skidaway Island and Isle of Hope in the Savannah area to get to Wassaw.

Ossabaw Island, Wassaw's neighbor to the south, belongs to the State of Georgia as a Heritage Preserve, the strongest level of protection offered by the state. This wilderness preserve allows visitors and limited camping and hunting. Wildlife includes dolphins, osprey, herons, Abyssinian donkeys, wild boar, endangered loggerhead sea turtles and alligators. Visits are arranged through the Ossabaw Island Foundation in Savannah, Georiga.

Many of the Low Country's wildlife refuges are somewhat hard to get to, but not Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. It offers easy access and more than 15 miles of paved roads and trails. A highlight is the large concentration of ducks in wintertime.

The United States Navy purchased Blackbeard Island in 1800 as a source for live oak timber for ship-building. The island has been under continuous federal ownership ever since, and the dense live oak forests are still in existence. Within Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge lies a 3,000-acre wilderness area. Species present include wood stork, loggerhead sea turtle, piping plover, peregrine falcon, American alligator, West Indian manatee, and bald eagle. Blackbeard Island is accessible only by boat, which must be arranged privately.

Sapelo Island is open to the public and offers the opportunity to observe a typical barrier island natural community. The island's rich ecosystems includes diversified wildlife, forested uplands, vast expanses of Spartina salt marsh and a complex beach and dunes system. Visitors can use an observation tower to make bird and wildlife-viewing easier. Also, there are trails, bridges, a marsh observation deck and boardwalks over sand dunes. Interpretive signs provide a self-guided tour with detailed information about the island's flora and fauna.

The island is home to the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is managed by the Parks and Historic Sites Division of Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. Hog Hammock, an historic African-American community, is on Sapelo Island. Contact the McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce, Darien, Georgia for more information. (See Practicalities page.)

Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge is a National Wilderness area. The refuge's thousands of acres of salt marsh and all beach and upland areas are closed to the public, but boating is permitted in its waters.

Birding and wildlife-watching in the Low Country need not be limited to official reserves and state-owned properties. Wherever you go, keep your eyes open. You might see a manatee swimming off the downtown waterfront in St. Marys. Dolphin frequent nearly all the beaches, and almost any quiet, open spot near water is a good place to watch birds.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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