Any student of nature understands the concept of adaptation. So, when the scheduled Long-billed Curlew trip scheduled for a cool, rainy Sunday was changed to a cold, cloudy Saturday (February 3, 2018), the group of a dozen or more SIBlings (my name for this group of fun and dedicated people) rolled with it. Carpools were arranged and early in the morning, the groups set off for McClellanville, about an hour and a half north of Seabrook Island. We never saw the rising sun, but the clouds spread out in a tremendous display of flame orange, the warmest thing we would see all day, made up for it. A pontoon boat awaited us at the docks. Our guides and Captains for the day were Olivia and Gates, employees of South Carolina Coastal Expeditions.
The schedule included a leisurely motor around some of the 66,000+ acres of islands, barrier beach, and salt marsh called the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Unique to the eastern US, the refuge contains 29,000 acres of class 1 wilderness (defined as areas over 5,000 acres which receive the most stringent level of protection). Our target bird, the bird from which the trips received its name: Long-billed Curlew.
With temperatures barely above freezing and a tide that just starting to rise, the boat pushed off and wove its way through the channels. As the boat approached birds, many would take off flying. I know for me, this was the first time I had ever studied flying horned grebes, which in their winter plumage is a small thin white and gray waterfowl. I soon could recognize the bent posture, the white cast around the head, the white secondary feathers on the wing and the clumpy feet that protruded beyond the tail. We would officially record 25 of these birds as they kept popping up wherever we went. The horned grebe spends the winter along the Atlantic coast.
Someone with a sharp eye spotted a duck and Gates stopped the boat and edged closer and closer to a femaleLong-tailed Duck, a bird far more commonly seen north of Delaware. After a nice study of this beauty, we pushed on past large rafts of Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup. Scaup challenge birders of all skill levels. When these birds flew, the white on the wings extended from the body a little more than half way out along the wing. This clinched the identification for the Lesser Scaup. The less common Greater Scaup’s white trailing edge extends almost to the tip of the wing. I remember this distinction by the lesser having lesser amount of white in the wings.
As we motored out farther into the marshland, a Peregrine Falcon snuck up from behind and with barely any effort shot right past the boat and moved off into the distance. The fastest of birds, Captain Gates informed the participants of some of this bird’s fascinating adaptations that enable them to make such high speed dives.
Captain Gates drove the boat to just inside of the barrier beach, a thin stretch of sand and low vegetation that separated the aggressive ocean from the relatively passive bay. As a black smudge on the beach drew closer, the participants soon realized they were looking at close to 100 American Oystercatchers, a stunning bird with an outlandish orange bill specifically adapted to eating oysters, clams, and muscles. American Oystercatchers can often be found on North Beach in Seabrook Island, but not in these numbers! Mixed in with the oystercatchers were some Dunlins, Short-billed Dowitchers and Willets. Each shorebird species has a unique size and bill shape adapted to the potential food sources. Everyone scanned and rescanned the cluster in hopes of spotting a large brown shorebird with its long decurved bill, our target. Regretfully, none were seen.
From there, Captain Gates took us past a heavy white patch that looked like a small iceberg. In reality, he approached a flock of about 100 American White Pelicans rested on the end of the spit. As the boat drew closer, the flock rose in unison. The snow white birds with jet ink black feathers on a portion of their nine-foot wings, lumbering slowly into the air elicited a gasp of appreciation and a machine gun flurry of camera clicks. One injured bird remained after all were gone.
The boat moved on past the light house to another area where Captain Gates drew right up to the edge of the breakwater between the bay and the barrier beach covered with Double-crested Cormorants and several varieties of gulls in hopes of finding the elusive Long-billed Curlew. It was not to be.
As we motored back, knowing full well our chance for seeing “the” birds no longer existed, the group found enjoyment in the many other simpler treasures—some hawks, a pair of Bad Eagles locking talons and tumbling out of the sky, Seaside Sparrows playing hide and seek with us, and, as we approached the dock, a roof of a house holding 12 Turkey Vultures and a single Black Vulture.
When one plans a trip far in advance, picking the best weather is challenging. The SIB members just adapted, shivering off the cold and made the best of the day. The boat took us to inaccessible areas and showed us close looks as large number of birds. We ended the day with 40 different species, lots of fun conversations, and a strong desire to warm up.
Article Submitted by Bob Mercer
Photographs by Ed Konrad, Charles Moore & Nancy Brown