Thursday, October 4, 2012

2012 Spring Count on Dewees Island -- May 5 & 6

         When Spring migration is in full swing, birders are eager to sortie to favorite locales to find birds passing through to nesting grounds in more northern destinations as well as favorite summer birds arriving to raise families here in the Lowcountry.  Thus, we also eagerly await the first weekend in May, the traditional weekend of the Charleston Audubon Spring Bird Count.  At this time of year, we also can still find some lingering over-wintering birds.  Quite the bounty of birds makes for a great count!

Purple Martin -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

         My regular readers may recall that my very first blog post was about the Spring Count on Dewees Island in 2011.  This year's count was scheduled for Sunday, May 6 and once again, I was the designated leader of the Dewees Island territory.  Our core team (from off the island) -- myself, Aaron Given, Chris Snook, and Carl -- accepted the generous invitation by the island's Property Owner's Association to spend Saturday night on the island to do some pre-count scouting.  Staying the night also made it possible for us to begin birding at dawn with some of the Dewees Island residents rather than having to wait on an 8 am Sunday morning ferry.  The rest of the team of off-island folk and of Dewees Island residents would join us at 8:30 on Sunday morning at the landings building.  So Saturday afternoon, we traveled to the island to join the other part of our Dewees core team -- friends, fellow birders and Dewees residents, Judy & Reggie Fairchild and the family.  

Carl, Reggie & Judy Fairchild, Bob Drew and Aaron Given -- Dewees Island -- May 5, 2012

        We did do some scouting and were able to locate this mother Chuck-will’s-Widow on her nest right next to a rather busy footpath.  Dewees Island's Environmental Program Director, Lori Sheridan Wilson, had originally found the bird but no one else had yet seen it.  So there we were standing in a semi-circle looking down at the pine-straw covered ground next to the wooded edge scanning for a bird so well camouflaged that we could not see it sitting out in the open 10 feet from us!  Here’s a photo that Carl took.  Can you see the bird?

Location of the Chuck-Will's-Widow on nest -- Do you see it? -- Dewees Island -- May 5, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

Finally Carl spotted the bird and carefully described the sticks and leaves around it so that the rest of us could finally see the bird! 

Chuck-Will's-Widow on nest -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012
Chuck-Will's-Widow on nest -- Dewees Island -- May 5, 2012

      After scouting, we discussed birding strategy for our early morning foray over a pot-luck dinner at Judy’s house while birds outside were fishing for their own dinner in the impoundment below.  

Great Egret -- Dewees Island -- May 5, 2012

        A bonus for this weekend for Carl, Judy, Reggie and myself was the fact that this was a weekend for a full moon.  It was not just any full moon either but a perigee "super" moon.  A perigee moon occurs when the full moon is at its closest point in its orbit to the earth .  Some of my readers may remember this post on my attempts to photograph another "more super" perigee moon in March 2011.  On the evening of May 5, 2012, the moon would appear 14% larger to us than usual.  Of course, we four are often trying to capture events such as that.  We knew that the moon would rise before the sun had set.  So after our early dinner we headed to the beach in hopes of capturing the moon rise with a boneyard beach foreground.  Unfortunately, a cloud bank blocked the view of the rising moon.  Nonetheless, the view on the beach was still superb. 

Dewees Island -- May 5, 2012

        Realizing that the moon would soon break through the clouds and that we would perhaps obtain a better shot from across the impoundment, we rushed back around to that area.  By this time, it was a fast moon rising.  So the hoped for shots of a big fat moon were missed.  We enjoyed the chasing the moon nonetheless.

Full moon over the impoundment on Dewees Island -- May 5, 2012

        Our early morning birding strategy involved our arriving at the inlets on either end of the island to count shorebirds while the morning tide was still high.  We decided that Chris and I would cover the Dewees Inlet and Aaron, Judy, Ted (Judy’s son) and Carl would cover the Capers Inlet.  The next morning, Aaron was counting Chuck-will’s widows by their calls even before we left our Huyler House lodging. 

         As Chris and I headed across the dunes onto the beach, I looked over my right shoulder to see the big, fat yellowish-then-pinkish perigee moon beginning to set. 

Perigee Moon setting over Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Perigee Moon setting over Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012
Perigee Moon setting over Dewees Island dunes -- May 6, 2012
  Ahead of me and to the left a bit, the firey sun was breaking over the horizon.  A divine moment!    Since it was still a bit too dark to count birds, I took enough time to attempt these shots. 

Sunrise over the dunes on Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Sunrise over the ocean at Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Sunrise over the beach on Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

             Sunrises and moonsets pass as quickly as sunsets and moonrises.  With more light, I could concentrate on the important task of finding & counting birds. 

Chris Snook ready to count birds at daybreak -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

      We quickly found that we did not have any great abundance of shorebirds at our inlet.  We did find a couple of Wilson’s plovers disputing a piece of turf while 2 or 3 Semi-palmated Plovers looked on.  I am sorry to say that the dispute was a bit too far away for decent photos.  Here are a few of the birds in question nonetheless.

Wilson's Plover -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Semipalmated Plover -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

       A Black-Bellied plover in non-breeding plumage obliged me with a great photo op to capture his black wingpit -- a telltale identifying mark.  

Black-Bellied Plover -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012
            The highlight of our visit to the inlet for me was when a large flock of Black Skimmers rose up out of a roost on the Isle of Palms across the inlet and flew up and down the inlet before finally crossing the waterway and flying north across Dewees.

Black Skimmers over the Isle of Palms and Dewees Inlet -- May 6, 2012

Black Skimmers over Dewees Inlet -- May 6, 2012

       While I was looking in the opposite direction, unfortunately for me, Chris spotted our one rare bird of the day in a flyover -- A Common Merganser -- just not so common for us here in SC! 

       As Chris and I were returning to our golf cart, he had another exciting moment when he nearly stepped on this critter at the foot of the boardwalk across the dunes!

Eastern Cottonmouth -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Eastern Cottonmouth -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012
        Thankfully Chris realized what was under his foot before he actually put it down on top of the snake!  Funny, this snake was only about 25 feet from the nesting Chuck-will’s Widow.  Our Dewees friends, who followed the progress of the nest, reported to us later that the bird successfully hatched out her chicks.  So the Cottonmouth never found them! 

       Carl, Judy, Ted and Aaron succeeded much better than we in finding the shorebirds at the Capers Inlet.  In fact, you could say their success for certain species was phenomenal:  over 800 Semipalmated Plovers; 50+ Black-Bellied Plovers; 330+ Short-Billed Dowitchers; over 100 Spotted Sandpipers; 55 Dunlin; 70+ Least Sandpipers; several Sanderlings and Semipalmated Sandpipers and about 150 unidentified peeps!  Wow!

Large flock of  Semipalmated Plovers -- Capers Inlet, Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

The requisite Common Ground Dove (Yea!) for the Dewees Island -- Charleston Audubon Spring Count -- May 6, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller
Of course, we always find Common Ground Doves at Capers Inlet.  In the early morning light, this team also saw some deer including this lovely mother-to-be!

White-Tailed Deer -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

         At 8:15 am, we returned to the landings building to meet the other birders from Dewees and the rest of the off-island birding team arriving via ferry.  We quickly devised a plan to divide the island into 4 territories and to divide our large group into 4 teams.  This time, Ted and I birded with Aaron and headed back out to the north end of the island to see if there were other species of birds that they had missed in their rush to reach the inlet.  We did take a detour, like most of the teams, to see the Bald Eagle nesting on the Osprey platform -- quite a site/sight!  The youngster (on the left in the photo below) seemed to have doubled in size since I had last seen him three weeks prior! 

Bald Eagles nesting on an Osprey Platform -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Nestling Bald Eagle with parent -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

        In case you missed the story of this unusual event, you may want to check out my blog post “Lessons Learned from a Spring Photo Shoot on Dewees Island” or Judy Fairchild’s exciting post "Juvenile Eagle Takes Flight” on the Dewees Island Blog.

        Among some of the birds that we found along our trek to the north end was this young Cooper’s hawk who stirred up the ire of several blue jays.

Young Cooper's Hawk -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

           Among the different species that we found on this sortie, I was able to photograph fairly well this Spotted Sandpiper and a singing Orchard Oriole.

Spotted Sandpiper -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Orchard Oriole -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

        I wondered exactly how old this tattered Phaon Crescent was.  Had it survived a winter on Dewees?  Or was it a migrant heading north?   I know a little about the migratory habits of Monarch Butterflies but nothing of other species.  I have much to learn about most species of butterflies.

Phaon Crescent -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

          Late morning, Ted, Aaron and I returned to Judy’s house for the rendez-vous over brunch (yummy -- thank you, Judy!  You are the best!)  where the four teams began to tally birds.  from our discussions, we quickly figured out that we had some missing species that we should be able to find.  So out we went again in search of our missing birds.  It was during this next sortie, that Carl, Connie and Lori all individually sighted the flyovers of a pair of Swallow-tailed kites -- an unusual find so close to the ocean!  Sorry no pictures of those beauties! 

         The birds had settled down quite a bit from their early morning activity.  But we were able to still find some very cool warbler species such as a Black-Throated Blue and a pair of Redstarts.  We did also find the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo that we sought. 

         Of course, there was no shortage of Great Egrets.  These birds are so elegant, it is hard to resist photographing them even when you already possess a number of great shots. 

Great Egret -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Great Egret -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

And this Great Blue Heron was irresistable in his Spring plumage!

Great Blue Heron -- Dewees Island 2012

           As Aaron, Ted and I were out again searching for more specific species, Aaron suddenly wheeled the golf cart around and headed straight towards the tennis courts in the homeowners’ recreational area.  Aaron responded that he had seen a young gator locked up on the tennis court.  That gator would bake on the tennis court if the sun came back out.  Aaron’s plan, of course, was to release the gator.  Ted and I scanned the court and could not initially see the gator.  It was up against the fence in a pile of leaves -- very well camouflaged.  We both wondered out loud as to how in the world Aaron had spotted the gator at that distance.  Then we wondered if we were actually going to see Aaron catch the gator.  But no, Aaron simply swept the unhappy, indignant reptile out of the tennis court.

Aaron sweeping young gator towards the exit with Ted watching -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Young gator being swept towards the exit -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

A still unhappy gator does not yet realize he's being helped -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

Once the little guy realized he had just been swept out of his prison, he grinned (I swear -- just look at the photo) and trodded away through the grass towards the pond.

Little Gator is happy now! -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012

         A little while later, we caught up with Carl and a pair of Dewees Island Birders.  We all decided to bird the areas near the docks.  At the Lone Cedar dock, we heard an odd squeak repeatedly in the woods.  It took us awhile, but we finally located the squeak.  It was coming from this little guy -- a newborn Raccoon in his nest in a tree.

Baby raccoon -- Dewees Island -- May 6, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller
I loved capturing the looks on their faces as they observed the little guy crying for his Mama!

Carl and Julie & Zach Vann watching the baby Racoon cry for his Mama -- Dewees Island -- May 2012

         Our final tally of 92 bird species exceeded our initial expectations and exceeded the previous Spring’s count by 17 species!  We also tallied the most birds of all the territories covered in the Charleston Audubon count circle!  We had a fabulous team of expert, intermediate and novice birders with a goal of seriously trying to find all the birds out there!  What a great time with some great finds!  I want to thank our hosts, Dewees Island residents Judy & Reggie Fairchild, and Dewees Island Environmental Program Director, Lori Sheridan Wilson for their hospitality and help in organizing the count, Aaron Given and Chris Snook for their expertise and all the team members for their valuable sightings and tireless efforts. Thus, I dedicate this post to all my teammates who helped to make this count so great and memorable!  This may have been my favorite Dewees Island count yet!


Carl Miller, Judy Fairchild, Ted Fairchild, Bob Drew, Connie Drew, Aaron Given, Chris Snook, Ann Shahid, Lori Sheridan Wilson, Pete Laurie, Cindy Floyd, Mary Kay Sullivan, Bill Sullivan, Julie Vann, Zach Vann, Melinda Nutter, Sally Campbell


  1. Ok, first to comment, but I need to say so many things! First, that baby raccoon is precious! Second, those great egret shots are breathtaking, it doesn't even look real. Thank you for showing the semipalmated next to the Wilson's, I always need that reminder. And yes, the baby gator looked stoked to be free! Loved the blog, thanks for sharing!

  2. Love the blog. Merci Cathy!