You know who you are. The first thing you pack for vacation is your spotting scope and field guide. Birdwatching trumps every other activity on your itinerary. Your definition of a wing nut has nothing to do with hardware.
More than 300 species of birds have been sighted in Huntington Beach State Park's 2,500 acres, including such exotic species as jaegers, harlequin duck, snow buntings, lesser black-backed gull and the federally endangered piping plover. Among the park's viewing hot spots are the freshwater marsh impoundment and tidal salt marshes on either side of the causeway. Here you're likely to see eagles, osprey and a variety of wintering waterfowl, including blue-winged and green-winged teal and ruddy and ring-necked ducks, along with hooded and red-breasted mergansers and buffleheads. The paved jetty at the northern end of the park is another must-visit destination. In the colder months of the year, avian visitors often include razorbills, black guillemots, common and red-throated loons, horned grebes and purple sandpipers. If you're looking to add a piping plover to your bird list, walk along the park's three-miles of beach. Before you set out on your birding excursion, stop by the park's Education Center and check the log to see what species other birders have spotted in recent weeks.
Santee National Wildlife Refuge
Located on the North shore of Lake Marion, this 13,000-acre preserve is a major wintering area for ducks and geese, as well as a stopover for neo-tropical migratory birds, raptors, shore birds and wading birds. A great spot to look for ducks is at the Cantey Bay observation point along the Wright's Bluff Nature Trail in the Bluff Unit of the refuge. The trail also features a goose observation tower, offering visitors a fantastic perch to watch for white-fronted, snow, Ross's, cackling and Canada geese. In the Dingle Pond Unit, you're likely to find ducks, rails and American woodcocks in the winter months. During the nesting season, the Pine Island Unit is a good place to look for marsh birds like the least bittern and purple gallinule. Among the rare species spotted in the refuge are white-tailed kites, golden eagles, yellow rail, vermillion flycatcher and LeConte's sparrow.
Ravenel Caw Caw Interpretive Center
Just a few miles south of Charleston, this county park features a diversity of habitats, including pine, hardwoods, a cypress swamp and an old rice impoundment managed for waterfowl. More than 250 species of birds have been seen in the center's 654 acres. During the spring and summer months, you might see Prothonotary warblers in the cypress swamp and swallow-tailed kites soaring overhead. Painted and indigo buntings are often spotted along the edge of the forest. In the former rice fields, you'll often find egrets, herons and ibis feeding. Other regulars include the Acadian flycatcher, American pipit, Baltimore oriole, bank swallow, bay-breasted warbler and belted kingfisher.
Caesars Head State Park
The park's 3,266-foot outcropping atop the Blue Ridge Escarpment offers the best views for one of North America's great birding events-the annual fall raptor migration. On a good day in September, it's not unusual to see 300 hawks riding the thermals and updrafts generated by wind currents on the south facing escarpment. The birds of prey most often seen are broad-winged hawks, but plenty of other species also pass through, including bald eagles, sharp-shinned hawks, merlin, American kestrel, Mississippi kites, Cooper's hawks and black vultures.
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge
Each winter, the 29,000-acre preserve plays host to thousands of ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal, pintails and as many as 10 other species of migrating ducks. In the spring and fall, it's a preferred stopover for transient songbirds. The best way to bird the refuge is to follow the four-mile Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive and stop along the dikes, freshwater impoundments, tidal marsh and hammocks to look for such birds as migrant warblers, scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeak. Rare bird sightings include the red-necked grebe, fulvous whistling duck, tundra swan, Eurasian wigeon, white-faced ibis, groove-billed ani and cave swallow.
Bomb Island on Lake Murray
It is an avian spectacle no birder should miss: tens of thousands of purple martins flying in to roost on a small uninhabited island in the middle of a Midlands lake. The Hitchcockian event takes place every evening in July and August. Lake Murray Boat Tours offers boat tours to watch the swallows fly in from every direction to roost on Bomb Island, the largest purple martin sanctuary in North America.
Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest
The undisputed headliner of this 1,800-acre old-growth cypress-tupelo swamp is the Prothonotary warbler. More than 2,000 pairs of the "golden swamp warbler" make their home here, making it the easiest place in the country to see the beautiful songbirds. But there's plenty of other species to add to your bird list as well, including the ever-popular painted bunting, barred owl, red-shoulder hawk, pileated woodpecker, Swainson's warbler, veery, American redstart, Northern and Louisiana waterthrushes, yellow-billed cuckoo, Chuckwill's widow and wood stork.
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
Located along 22 miles of the Atlantic Coast, the refuge includes an expanse of barrier islands, salt marshes, coastal waterways, fresh and brackish impoundments and maritime forests enjoyed by nearly 300 migratory and resident bird species, including oystercatchers, wood storks, peregrine falcons, marbled godwits, whimbrels, marsh wrens, seaside sparrows, bufflehead ducks and life list birds like the long-billed curlew, American avocet and white pelican. One of the best places to see the winged visitors is on Bulls Island. Several outfitters offer kayak and boat tours to this pristine wilderness.
Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge
Boasting the largest population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker on US service-owned lands, this 46,000-acre preserve also serves as habitat for more than 190 other species of birds, among them Southern bald eagle, Canada goose, hooded merganser, pied-billed grebe, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, indigo bunting, summer tanager and Eastern wood-pewee. The Woodland Pond Trail is a good area to spot songbirds like Bachman's sparrow. Wood ducks and other winter waterfowl are often seen on Lake Bee and Triple Lakes. The driving tour route leads to most of the habitats found on the refuge.
Audubon Swamp Garden
Once a reservoir for Magnolia Plantation's rice crops, the 60-acre cypress and tupelo swamp features a network of boardwalks, bridges and dykes where visitors can observe hundreds of great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, little blue herons, anhingas and other waterfowl nesting each year. Other possible sightings include ruby-crowned kinglets, cedar waxwings, hermit thrushes, white-throated sparrows, blue-headed vireos, yellow-rumped warblers, northern parulas, blue-gray gnatcatchers, Prothonotary warblers, northern flickers, pileated woodpeckers and white-eyed vireos. Sunday mornings at 8:30, visitors are invited to join a local ornithologist for a walk around the property.