With more than 8,000 acres of diverse habitats, Donnelley Wildlife Management Area is a favorite Lowcountry destination for birders looking to run up their list of avian sightings.
Located in Green Pond on land once used for rice cultivation, the property features a historic rice field system now managed to attract waterfowl and other migratory birds. Among its impressive resident and visitor population are roseate spoonbills, Eurasian wigeon ducks, red-cockaded woodpeckers, bald eagles, painted buntings and the rare sandhill crane.
The coastal plain refuge, part of the unique ACE Basin ecosystem, is one of 17 South Carolina sites designated a global Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. An 11-mile driving tour of the property takes you to some of the best spots to see the variety of birds and other wildlife.
You can download a map of the driving tour or pick one up at the Donnelley office near the main entrance just north of the junction of US 17 and SC 303.
You won't get far on the tour before the first recommended stop - a walking path that leads to a dike across an old rice field reserve. In this freshwater wetland, you're likely to spot herons, egrets, ibis and rails.
About a half-mile into your drive, you'll cross a long causeway on the lower end of the backwater. Formerly a water reservoir for the plantation's 18th century rice fields, it's now prime habitat for moorhens, rails, wading birds and waterfowl.
As you continue along the Main Road, you'll come to a natural stand of longleaf pine that serves as home to bluebirds, woodpeckers and a variety of songbirds. Farther down is one of numerous open areas planted with crops that provide supplemental food for turkey, quail and songbirds.
You'll have the opportunity to take a longer walk when you get to the Boynton Nature Trail. The 2.2-mile pathway circles another part of the old rice field complex, offering more excellent bird viewing opportunities.
If you visit in the fall or winter, be sure to stop at the turn-of-the-century home site on Billy Fields Road. The area underneath huge live oaks has been planted with canna lilies and daffodils and is popular with sparrows and other ground-dwelling migrants.
Not far from Billy Fields, you'll come to another causeway with a freshwater impoundment on the left and a brackish impoundment on the right. Nesting boxes have been erected in both areas for wood ducks, South Carolina's only native breeding species of waterfowl.
Depending on the water level, you're likely to see shorebirds, wading birds, coots, common moorhens and alligators. If you want to get out here, pull off the causeway to park.
From there, the trail winds past the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area Lodge to Fishburne Bank, another dike separating the tidally influenced Old Chehaw River from the rice field system.
At this stop, you'll have the opportunity to get a close look at a rice trunk, which features floodgates that can be raised or lowered to control water flow into or out of the impoundments. The water level and salinity in the wetland is managed to provide food and habitat for various ducks, including green-winged teal, northern pintail and American wigeon, as well as wading birds like the endangered wood stork.
The rice field system also is home to hundreds of alligators. In the warmer months, it's not unusual to see a couple dozen of the coldblooded reptiles sunning on the shore or wading in the shallow water.
Visitors to Donnelley Wildlife Management Area are required to obtain a day pass upon entry. Several times a year, the property is closed for hunting, so be sure to check the Donnelley website before you make the trip to the refuge. For more information, call 843.844.8957.
Download the Guide to Birding in South Carolina and learn about more of the best birdwatching spots across the state and the wide variety of birds that call the Palmetto State home.