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Wednesday, 10 May 2006 00:00

Half a big day

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What some masochistic birders do for fun is called a “Big Day.” It’s when birders set out to spend the majority of the day afield recording as many species of birds as possible.

This is not your “grannies in tennis shoes” birding where you stop and set up the spotting scope so everyone can get a good look at the eastern towhee. This is a day to cover as much ground, as many different habitats, and as many known birding hotspots as possible. If you hear a bird, that’s good enough, move on to the next species.

On a recent trip to Isle of Palms, S.C., for a wedding, I was able to squeeze in a half-day of birding. We were staying with friends, Ben and Carol Ward. In what seems like a former life, before Ben and Carol left Charleston for a stint in Pittsburgh and while I was running the Cooper River Bridge Run every year, Ben and I used to get the occasional opportunity for some coastal Carolina birding. We decided to hit some of those old haunts for a few hours Sunday morning.

We headed out around 7 a.m. Even though it was only a couple of hours past low tide, we could see when we crossed the causeway to Mt. Pleasant that the marshes were already filling up – a bad sign for shorebirds. We did manage to find a few semipalmated plovers, a couple of black-bellied plovers, and a group of dunlins near the causeway.

Next, we were cruising through neighborhoods in Mt. Pleasant, counting thrashers, mocking birds, mourning doves, Eurasian collared doves and whatever else we could see along the streets as we headed for a small inlet.

As soon as we got out of the car, we could hear clapper rails throughout the marsh. These noisy marsh critters are often difficult to see because they stay in the reeds and grass. However, that morning as we were watching and listening to a sedge wren, a clapper nonchalantly strolled out on the mudflat, turned his beak upwards and started “kekking” away. It was soon joined by another clapper, probably its mate. It made for a strange disjointed scene — the tiny sedge wren with its effusive, bubbly melody next to the large, staccato clapper. But enough of that — we had birds to list.

We left the inlet, ticking off laughing gull, gull-billed tern, least tern, tri-colored heron, etc.

Next, we hit U.S. 17 and headed up to Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge, recording black vultures and rock pigeons along the way. The tide was pretty high at Cape Romaine, but we did manage to squeeze out whimbrel, hudsonian godwit and short-billed dowitcher.

The parking area at Cape Romaine was also pretty birdy. A blue-gray gnatcatcher screamed at us from a live oak and we picked up white-eyed vireo, cedar waxwings and yellow-rumped warbler among others.

We left Cape Romaine for a quick drive down Ion Swamp Road in the Francis Marion National Forest. Hurricane Hugo devastated the area back in 1989. Today, it is beginning to look like a forest again, albeit a young forest.

At one point on Ion Swamp Road, we had great looks at three prothonotary warblers. We also got good looks at a yellow-throated warbler and northern parula, but we couldn’t coax the singing hooded warbler or the Kentucky warbler to pop up for views. We did get a brief glimpse of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

After Francis Marion we made a mad dash on up U.S. 17 to the Santee River because we heard someone say they had seen swallow-tail and Mississippi kites there earlier. We didn’t get swallow-tails, but we did see Mississippi kites plus wood storks and an anhinga.

Then, we turned and beat it back to Isle of Palms, managing to record cattle egrets we passed by at 70 mph.

We birded right up to Ben’s and Carol’s home, recording purple martins about two blocks away, arriving home at 1:10 p.m. with 86 species and ready to go again.

(Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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