In birding circles, nesting season is the marquee event of the year-and rookeries are the theater to watch the avian show. Each spring, these large communal breeding grounds serve as home base for hundreds of birds looking for a safe place to raise their young.
South Carolina's wetlands are prime nesting territory for many of the species of birds that commonly breed in rookeries. In some places, boardwalks have been built through the marsh, providing birders and nature photographers a fantastic vantage point to view nesting birds and their hatchlings up close.
Here are eight of South Carolina's best rookeries:
1. Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest
A 1.75-mile boardwalk trail takes you through a portion of the 1,700-acre old-growth cypress and tupelo swamp located about an hour from Columbia and Charleston off Interstate 26. In the spring and summer, you can stand within an arm's reach of Prothonotary warblers nesting in the cavities of trees or in hollow cypress knees. The forest also provides foraging habitat for yellow-crowned night herons and white ibis.
Located between Hilton Head Island and the mainland, the 4,053-acre refuge features a large rookery on Ibis Pond. The island colony features hundreds of nesting egrets and white ibis, along with little blue, great blue, tricolor and black-crowned night herons.
A half-mile of boardwalks and paved trails takes you around a cypress wetland in the middle of the town of Port Royal. The 1,000-foot main boardwalk and the overlook on Richmond Avenue provide the best platform to view egrets and herons nesting on two islands. The wetlands also are a roosting spot for wood storks.
The Nature Conservancy's 1,040-acre reserve in Charleston County is home to the oldest wading bird rookery in continuous use in North America. Along with egrets, the natural area's 200-year-old freshwater lake and cypress-tupelo swamp serve as nesting grounds for more than 100 pairs of endangered American wood storks.
This 17th-century Lowcountry estate, located along the Ashley River, features the oldest public gardens in America and the 60-acre blackwater cypress and tupelo Audubon Swamp Garden, once a freshwater reservoir for rice cultivation. From boardwalks, bridges and dikes, visitors can view 10 different species of nesting birds, including egrets, herons, ibis and anhinga.
Nestled along 2.6 miles of the Savannah River near Aiken, this 3,250-acre preserve features a rookery for wood storks, the only stork breeding in the United States. Several ponds are maintained specifically for the baldheaded wading birds, ensuring prey is available in the shallow water.
Lake Mary, the largest of four lakes within the 605-acre preserve, houses an island rookery for wading birds, including a variety of egrets and herons. Two observation decks-Fisherman's Point and Rookery Point-provide the best spots to view the avian spectacle. You'll want to bring binoculars to this one.
At the mouth of Shem Creek in Charleston Harbor is one of South Carolina's most productive rookeries. This 22-acre sliver of land is a nesting site for 15 different species of birds, including brown pelicans, gulls, black skimmers, royal terns and American oystercatchers. Several outfitters offer kayak and boat excursions around the isolated island. The islet is off limits to the public during the nesting season, which runs from March 15 through October 15.