Since it opened to the public in 1870, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston has been delighting visitors with its lovingly tended romantic gardens and Reconstruction-era manor overlooking the Ashley River.
But the 500-acre Lowcountry estate isn't just a popular tourist destination - it's an avian paradise with a checklist boasting 267 different species of birds. The property's diversity of habitats, from hardwood forests to historic rice fields, attracts such rarities as the fulvous whistling duck, black rail, yellow-headed blackbird and Bullock's oriole.
Managed as a wildlife refuge since 1975, the plantation is home to the Audubon Swamp Garden, a 60-acre blackwater cypress and tupelo wetland that serves as habitat for wading birds, waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. Each spring, birders and photographers flock to the swamp's rookery to observe hundreds of nesting herons, egrets and anhingas.
While the boardwalk through the swamp offers a fantastic viewing platform, there are plenty of other areas in the plantation to look for winged wildlife. To help visitors add to their personal bird list, the plantation offers an early morning bird walk every Sunday with longtime ornithologist Perry Nugent or Charleston birding expert Ray Swagerty.
During the three-hour walk, participants will venture into various sections of the estate in search of resident birds and seasonal visitors. Miles of trails, dikes and boardwalks offer access to the plantation's hardwood forests, historic rice fields, highlands, marshes, lakes and swamp.
On one cool fall morning, Swagerty started his guided bird walk on a trail through the woods, identifying the calls of several different woodpeckers, including red-bellied, downy and pileated varieties. He pointed out a tree bearing dozens of holes pecked by another woodpecker species - a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
"They go for trees with a high sugar content and eat the bugs that get stuck in the sap," he explained. "They've been working on this tree for years."
As the group headed out toward Fernanda Hastie's Field, they spotted a red-shouldered hawk perched on a tree branch. As if on cue, the forest hunter swooped overhead, drawing everyone's binoculars and cameras skyward.
From the field, they ventured to the trail along Ravenswood Pond where they found a couple dozen resident wood ducks and at least 12 blue-winged teal, the first of the migratory waterfowl to show up in the fall. Sightings at the pond also included a belted kingfisher, an anhinga, a pied-billed grebe and a number of alligators.
On the other side of the dike, a member of the group spied a lone immature little blue heron feeding in the marsh. White in its youth, the wading bird doesn't turn blue until its second year, Swagerty said.
From the pond, the group made its way to the Audubon Swamp trail, offering a number of exciting checklist entries in the songbird category.
"There's one word that will stop birders in their tracks - yellow," Swagerty quipped. "It usually means some kind of warbler."
This day's showstoppers included common yellowthroat and yellow-rumped warblers. Also, making the group's list were a blue-gray gnatcatcher spotted near the slave cabins, a northern flicker found in the oak grove and a barred owl located in the gardens.
The walk ended with coffee and cookies in the picnic area and a group data count. Total bird sighting for the morning: 42.
Visit the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens website to start planning your visit or call 843.571.1266 for more information. Download the Guide to Birding in South Carolina and learn about some of the best birdwatching spots across the state.