Monday, January 23, 2012

'Tis the Season: My CBC no. 4: Charleston -- Dewees Island Territory

       Saturday, December 31, 2011, the last day to add species to a year's list, was also the day of the Charleston Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  The 15 mile circle  of the count lies north of Mount Pleasant and includes Dewees Island, Capers Island, Bulls Island, Laurel Hill, parts of the Francis Marion Forest including the I'on Swamp, and Cainhoy.  A map of the circle can be found here, on the Carolina Bird Club site.   This year, again, I was the designated leader for the Dewees Island Territory.  If you are a regular visitor to the blog, then you may have already read my very first blog post, written about the Charleston Audubon Spring Count on Dewees Island.  Carl and I were delighted to be returning to bird with our friends and to see the beautiful natural barrier island landscape that this sea island community protects.  This time, the count was occurring on a Saturday, which is a bonus for the Dewees Island group, since the Dewees Island Ferry makes its first run at 7 am on Saturdays, as opposed to 8 am on Sundays!  We were going to be able to start much earlier! 

View of impoundment -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- Decemeber 31, 2011 -- photo by Carl Miller

Below, a Google Map shows the routes and areas birded on Dewees throughout the day.  If you click on the caption, you will be redirected to a larger map with captions and explanations of the route. 

View Dewees Island CBC 2011 in a larger map

      Several members of our team joined us at 6:45 am at the ferry landing in Isle of Palms.  They included Ruby and Curtis Holcomb, Lori Sheridan Wilson, the Environmental Program Director for Dewees Island, Ann Shahid, Carl Broadwell and Aaron Given.  The weather for our count was ideal with a morning temperature of 57F, clear skies and a light South wind.  Of course, we began our count as soon as the ferry turned out of the Intracoastal Waterway and into creek leading to the dock on Dewees.  Here in the creeks, we saw our first Red-Breasted Mergansers, Tri-colored Herons, American Oystercatcher, and Snowy Egrets as well as Ring-Billed Gulls. 
       Island residents and friends, Judy and Reggie Fairchild, and Judy's parents, Bob and Connie Drew, were at the ferry landing on Dewees to greet us upon our arrival.  We scanned the marshes quickly and Aaron found a Seaside Sparrow! And we began spying the Northern Mockingbirds.  Then we loaded our golf carts and drove the very short distance from the Landing Building to the corner of the impoundment.  Water levels in the impoundment were too high for the usual shorebirds that are normally there.  But we did see plenty of Great Egrets, some Great Blue Herons, White Ibis, a few Pied-Billed Grebe, a few Hooded Mergansers, Double-Crested Cormorants and a few species of ducks including Gadwall and American Wigeon.   Across the impoundment, Judy pointed out where a pair of bald eagles were nesting on an Osprey platform!  She had seen the pair cavorting that morning!  And of course, as we progressed towards the Huyler House Pond, the marsh, mytles, live oaks and cedars lining the road revealed Common Yellow-Throats, many Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Eastern Phoebe, a pair of Blue-Headed Vireos, a few House Finches, Carolina Wrens, Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Northern Cardinals and surprisingly some Carolina Chickadees, a bird which is a bit unusual for us on the Dewees Island counts.  As we passed a section of the impoundment where the water levels were lower, one of our teammates spotted some small peeps with his scope.  Also, Carl found 1 Wilson's Snipe.  Unfortunately, we were also staring into the sun.  So we decided to advance a little further to an area under some large live oaks around the bend so that we could scope the peeps at closer range and in better light.  There we tallied 28 Least Sandpipers, 12 Western Sandpipers, some Killdeer, several Greater Yellowlegs and 2 Lesser Yellowlegs.  Dershie McDevitt, another island resident, joined us here.  Next we arrived at Huyler House Pond and there we saw more Great-Crested Cormorants, Northern Cardinals, a few Hooded Mergansers and, 1 Anhinga and several Black-Crowned Night Herons!   We also saw and heard in this pond area some Northern Flickers.

Black-Crowned Night Herons -- Huyler House Pond -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011
Female Hooded Merganser -- Huyler House Pond -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011
Next, we decided to visit the bird blind behind the Huyler House since the light would be to our advantage for scoping the ducks.  And there, Carl took the requisite Dewees Island Birding Team photo.

Front from lft to rt:  Dershie McDevitt, Lori Wilson, Judy Fairchild, Ann Shahid, Connie Drew, Ruby Holcomb, Bob Drew.  Back from lft to rt:  Aaron Given, myself, Carl Broadwell, Curtis Holcomb and Carl Miller -- photo by Carl Miller
      While scanning with the scopes here, we saw more American Wigeon and Gadwall as well as some Green-Winged Teal and Mottled Ducks.  At this point, Dershie invited the group to her house to bird from her deck which overlooks the impoundment.  From that vantage point we were able to see at close range some Common Gallinule, more Hooded Mergansers, BLack-Crowned Night Herons and American Wigeon.  We also watched several Wood Storks descend down to a roost in the marsh just behind some close-by myrtles!

Hooded Mergansers seen from Dershie's deck -- Charleston CBC -- Dewees Island -- December 31, 2011

Immature Wood Stork from Dershie's deck -- Charleston CBC -- Dewees Island -- December 31, 2011 -- photo by Carl Miller

American Wigeon from Dershie's deck -- Charleston CBC -- Dewees Island
American Wigeon from Dershie's deck -- Charleston CBC -- Dewees Island -- December 31, 2011

          When we finished enjoying the birds and the view from Dershie's deck, we drove back around the impoundment to Judy and Reggie's house where we were treated to another viewing opportunity from the Fairchild's deck as well as a delicious brunch prepared by Judy!  The Fairchild's spoil us with their hospitality every time we bird on the island.   Yum!  And the sightings of the birds from there was quite good as well! We were able to add some Blue-Winged Teal and a Northern Shoveler to the list.  We were also able to tally the 13 Wood Storks, many of which we had seen from Dershie's deck landing behind some myrtles.

       After birding and brunching on the Fairchilds' deck, we divided into 2 teams in order to cover the island well.  Team A went with Judy and Reggie Fairchild and consisted of Dershie McDevitt, Ann Shahid, the Holcombs, Lori Sheridan Wilson, and Connie Drew.  Team B consisted of myself, Aaron Given, Carl Miller, Carl Broadwell, and young Ted Fairchild (Reggie and Judy's 10 year old son -- whose future career is predicted to be naturalist, ornithologist, wildlife biologist?).  Bob Drew stayed behind at the house as the contact person for emergencies (dead battery on golf cart, for example -- it happens!).  Team A's mission was to bird the island roads, specific houses where permission had been granted and to cover the Dewees Inlet (southwest end of the island).  They would then go out in Bob's boat to bird the waterways at high tide to find more American Oystercatchers on the shell banks.  Team B would bird the northeastern end of the island and cover Capers Inlet and the sand dunes.  On the return from those areas, Team B also covered the docks on the back side of the island.  The map above illustrates the routes taken by the 2 teams.  For more detail, again, you will want to click on the link in the caption.

          While birding the roads and the docks, our team saw a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks.  This is probably the same pair that have been known to nest in a pine at the foot of one of the docks.

Red-Tailed Hawk -- Dewees Island -- Christmas CBC -- December 31, 2011

Red-Tailed Hawk pair -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011 -- photo by Carl Miller

              It was the middle of the day now and we were experiencing the general drop in bird activity for that time of day.  We hoped we had not dawdled too long over brunch to miss out on some significant birds!    As can be expected though at this time of year, there was no shortage of Yellow-Rumped Warblers in this island habitat!           

           Once we arrived on the northeastern end of the island, we split into groups again to better cover this expansive area on foot.  I went solo through the dunes and wax myrtles on the left.  Aaron and Ted covered the area on the right.  Carl and Carl covered another area much further to the north, along the inlet and away from the open ocean.  It was not long before I began flushing many sparrows such as Song, Savannah and even Field Sparrows (a first for me for Charleston County).

Savannah Sparrow -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011
Savannah Sparrow -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011

And then I found my favorite target bird for Dewees Island, the Common Ground Dove! Just as I was photographing this lovely, perky Savannah Sparrow ....

Savannah Sparrow -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011
..... a Common Ground Dove popped up onto the same branch to steal the limelight!  Thank you, birdie!  You just made my day!

Savannah Sparrow sharing his perch with the newly arrived Common Ground Dove -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC
After a few shots, the Savannah Sparrow left but the Common Ground Dove stayed and posed oh so very nicely! 

Common Ground Dove -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011
Common Ground Dove -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011
               After covering the dunes on my side, I joined on the beach Aaron and Ted who had finished the dunes on their side.  The two of them had come up short on the small birds but had seen a deer, the Red-Tailed Hawks and another Bald Eagle.  At first, the beach appeared empty of birds, but then we spotted a large-ish flock of shorebirds.  Aaron returned to the golf cart to retrieve his scope while Ted and I kept watch on the shorebirds feeding at the water's edge.  Unfortunately, we also saw two women walking along the beach towards OUR birds which we wanted to count.  Aaron was coming back across the dunes with the scope but he was still too far away to count the birds.  If we did not stop the women, they would flush our birds.  So I sent Ted to run after them and waved to Aaron to take a shortcut across the dunes.  Ted was able to stop the 2 ladies and I caught up to them to ask them to pause a moment so that we could count the birds -- pointing to Aaron who was now setting up his scope at the dune line.  The ladies were most gracious, and curious about the significance of the bird counts.  Thus, I happily explained how scientists use the data from the bird counts to understand how our populations of birds are holding up.  I shared with them the fact that scientists have found that most of our bird species are in a state of decline and that, due to climate change, there seems to be a definitive northward shift in migration patterns of birds.  The type of data that we gather can then be analyzed and used to inform environmental policies to protect the birds and other natural resources.  The women seemed genuinely interested.  Hopefully, I expressed the information coherently.  Aaron waved that he had finished counting and the ladies continued their walk.  They did indeed flush the birds who flew back to an area of beach that we had already covered.  In that flock, Aaron tallied  21 Short-Billed Dowitchers, 50 Black-Bellied Plovers, 5 Ruddy Turnstones, and 196 Dunlin!  And I added 6 Sanderling which had scurried up to join the larger group.

        After counting the shorebirds, we scanned the inlet to the approximate middle for sea birds.   We could not count birds on the Capers side of Capers Inlet since this island was a different territory.  We found some Ring-Billed Gulls, 4 Forster Terns, a Common Loon and a Horned Grebe.

Common Loon and Horned Grebe -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011
Horned Grebe -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011

Suddenly overhead,  coming from the Dewees side, we suddenly saw 8 large white forms flying over -- American White Pelicans (a new bird for Aaron for his Charleston County list)!    The birds then flew across the inlet to Capers.  We, of course, counted them!

American White Pelicans -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011

             While birding the beach, we got phone calls from Team A reporting their findings from various points.    They had found a pair of Great Horned Owls at a residence and Bonaparte Gulls among others at Dewees Inlet.  By this time it was early afternoon and we planned to rendez-vous back at the Fairchild residence.  Heading back to the golf carts, we spotted a male Northern Harrier skimming the dunes.  We joined up with Carl and Carl and began working our way back towards the house stopping at various points along the way.  Since Team A had not tromped through the wetlands in the middle of the island, Aaron, Ted and I decided to do that while Carl and Carl checked out the back side of the island via the two docks called Lone Cedar and Big Bend.  It was at the latter that Carl took the photo below with his very short, wide-angled lens.

A bend in the creek from Big Bend Dock -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller
Meanwhile, Aaron, Ted and I were tromping through a very dry wetland to check the Wood Duck boxes for nesting Eastern Screech Owls.  We picked up a few more woodland birds along the way as well, but no Screech Owls.

Aaron checking Wood Duck box for nesting Screech Owls -- Dewees Island -- Charleston CBC -- December 31, 2011

             The day had warmed up quite nicely.  Eventually, the temperatures reached the low 70s and we had shed our jackets.  As we continued our route, we picked up a few more bird species here and there.  Yet, we were still under the impression that this was not turning out to be a very "birdy" day.  On this last leg, we finally heard our first and only Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Carl also heard our one and only Downy Woodpecker of the day.  We also finally heard and then sighted some Golden-Crowned Kinglets.  

            Team A had finished their birding assignment and had dispersed.  Ann Shahid and the Holcombs had left on an earlier ferry and Lori was in her office.  But Judy, tireless in her search for birds was still birding around her house.  And as we drove in, she had just spotted the first Dark-Eyed Junco for the day and then, as we were sharing stories, Aaron spotted our first Orange-Crowned Warbler of the day along her driveway! We compared notes again on each team's finds.  Though it seemed that the count had been less "birdy" this time, we all agreed that the day had been simply wonderful.  It was time to call it a day so we gathered our gear, wished our islander friends a Happy New Year and boarded the ferry.

Part of the Dewees Team  before boarding the ferry -- myself, Carl Broadwell, Lori Wilson, Aaron Given

           On board, we continued to bird as we covered again our territory in the creek out to the Intracoastal Waterway and we were able to add another Common Loon and more Bufflehead to our list.  Then it was time to tally it all up.  After a few e-mail exchanges on some photographic evidence, we determined in the end that we had done very well, indeed!  Although individual bird numbers seemed lower, our species count was high -- 89 species!  --- the highest count since I became the designated leader of this territory in December 2008!  It is also the highest count for any of the Charleston CBC territories this year.  The credit goes to the great teamwork!  Thank you everyone on the Dewees team!  Your participation was significant to this count!

              While it is true that a little competitive spirit helps to bring more fun to the adventure, I would like to say to all participants in bird counts that your volunteerism is important to the overall ecological health of our natural communities.  We should always remember, as I pointed out to the ladies on the beach, each count provides valuable data to the scientists tracking them, and the analysis thereof informs the conservation efforts required to sustain our natural resources.  Bravo to all!  Let's go birding!

           Just to let you know, the last in this series "'Tis the Season: My CBC no. 5: ACE Basin..." will be posted soon... January 1 -- the beginning of a New Year's birding list in one of my favorite Lowcountry destinations!


  1. Great write up Cathy and well documented with pictures and maps. We look forward to seeing you and Carl and everyone else again soon.

  2. Great Pictures! Bravo!
    Phil Deken