As winter vacation destinations go, the Santee National Wildlife Refuge is a top-pick among ducks and geese. Each year, the avian visitors fly into the preserve to enjoy its 13,000 acres of mixed hardwood and pine forests, freshwater marshes, forested wetlands, waterfowl impoundments, croplands, grassland fields and open water.
They are joined by flocks of neo-tropical migratory birds, raptors, shore birds and wading birds that stop in on their travels south to rest and nest. In the summer, the brilliantly colored painted bunting breeds and nests here. At last count, the refuge boasted 296 bird species, including the endangered wood stork.
With so many feathered fans, it's no wonder the Santee Refuge has been hailed as one of the best birding areas in South Carolina.
Located on the north shore of Lake Marion - the largest lake in the state - the refuge is made up of four different units: Bluff, Dingle Pond, Pine Island and Cuddo. I recently visited the Bluff unit, the section farthest north on the lake.
The refuge's Visitor Center is located here, making it a great place to start your exploration of the vast Atlantic Coastal Plain wilderness. In upcoming blogs, I'll tell you about the popular Wright's Bluff Nature Trail, an Indian mound dating back 800 years and the Santee Birding & Nature Festival taking place April 26-28.
At the Visitor Center, you'll find information on hunting, fishing, birding, hiking, biking and kayaking in the preserve. You can also pick up an interpretive guide to the 7.5-mile Wildlife Drive in the Cuddo Unit, a highlight of any visit to the refuge.
Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, the Visitor Center features exhibits on local wildlife from a bald eagle to a gray fox to feral pigs. There's also an interactive area with an alligator skull, turtle shells, feathers and deer antlers among other interesting artifacts. A fish tank holds live inhabitants from the lake, including largemouth bass, bluegill, perch and warmouth.
But my favorite exhibit is the osprey nest displayed at the top of a two-story tree. A spiral staircase leads to a platform where you can get a bird's-eye view of the avian quarters. It's like HGTV for birders.
South Carolina’s diverse landscape provides a variety of habitats, from coastal wetlands to longleaf pine forests, that attract some 437 species of birds. Download the Guide to Birding in South Carolina to learn more about the best birdwatching spots across the state.