In the Air
When enjoying the marshlands of the coast, consider yourself fortunate to see an endangered wood stork (Mycteria americana), though their numbers are on the increase. The only storks to breed in North America, these graceful, long-lived birds (routinely living over 10 years) are usually seen on a low flight path across the marsh, though at some birding spots beginning in late summer you can find them at a roost, sometimes numbering over 100 birds. Resting at high tide, they fan out over the marsh to feed at low tide on foot. Old-timers sometimes call them “Spanish buzzards” or simply “the preacher.”
Often confused with the wood stork is the gorgeous white ibis (Eudocimus albus), distinguishable by its orange bill and black wingtips. Like the wood stork, the ibis is a communal bird that roosts in colonies.
Other similar-looking coastal denizens are the white-feathered great egret (Ardea alba) and snowy egret (Egretta thula), the former distinguishable by its yellow bill and the latter by its black bill and the tuft of plumes on the back of its head.
Egrets are in the same family as herons. The most magnificent is the great blue heron (Ardea herodias). Despite their imposing height—up to four feet tall—these waders are shy. Often you hear them rather than see them, a loud shriek of alarm that echoes over the marsh.
So how to tell the difference between all these wading birds at a glance? It’s actually easiest when they’re in flight. Egrets and herons fly with their necks tucked in, while storks and ibises fly with their necks extended.
Dozens of species of shorebirds comb the beaches, including sandpipers, plovers, and the wonderful and rare American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates), instantly recognizable for its prancing walk, dark brown back, stark white underside, and long, bright-orange bill.
Gulls and terns also hang out wherever there’s water. They can frequently be seen swarming around incoming shrimp boats, attracted by the catch of little crustaceans.
The chief raptor of the salt marsh is the fish-eating osprey (Pandion haliaetus). These large grayish birds of prey are similar to eagles but are adapted to a maritime environment, with a reversible outer toe on each talon (the better for catching wriggly fish) and closable nostrils so they can dive into the water after prey. Very common all along the coast, they like to build big nests on top of buoys and channel markers in addition to trees.
The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), is making a comeback in the area, thanks to increased federal regulation and better education of trigger-happy locals. Apparently not as all-American as their bumper stickers might sometimes indicate, local farmers would often regard the national symbol as more of a nuisance and fire away anytime they saw one. Of course as we all should have learned in school, the bald eagle is not actually bald but has a head adorned with white feathers. Like the osprey, they prefer fish, but unlike the osprey will settle for rodents and rabbits.
Inland among the pines you’ll find the most common area woodpecker, the huge pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) with its huge crest. Less common is the smaller, more subtly marked red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). Once common in the vast primordial pine forests of the southeast, the species is now endangered, its last real refuge being the big tracts of relatively undisturbed land on military bases.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition