For wing nuts, Huntington Beach State Park is the birding Mecca of the Southeast. More than 300 species of birds have been sighted in the park's 2,500 acres, including the federally endangered piping plover.
The legacy of sculptress Anna Hyatt and her philanthropist husband Archer Huntington, this unique coastal treasure features salt marsh and tidal waters, forests and maritime shrub thickets, freshwater and brackish marshes and three-miles of beach and sand dunes.
The diversity of habitat is what draws so many different types of waterfowl, hawks, cranes, terns, sandpipers, woodpeckers, swifts, swallows and warblers to the park. On any given day, one might spy 100 or more species!
One of the best spots to view the avian show is along the causeway at the entrance to the park. On one side you'll find the managed freshwater marsh impoundment known as Mullet Pond; on the other are the tidal salt marshes of Murrells Inlet.
Park your car in the lot on the right side of the road just past the end of the causeway. From there, you can hoof it along the sidewalk to the causeway or take a short path to a boardwalk and overlook that sits at the edge of the freshwater lagoon.
Winter is a great time to spot waterfowl, especially blue-winged and green-winged teal, canvasback, ruddy and ring-necked ducks. From the overlook, you can see them feeding on the widgeon grass that grows on the bottom of the marsh.
On the Sunday we visited Huntington Beach, we also saw one of a pair of bald eagles that has a nest across the street in Brookgreen Gardens. Every time the raptor moved, the ducks in the pond scattered. Apparently, the eagles breed in the middle of winter and are not beyond stealing fish from ospreys or other birds.
After enjoying the spectacle with several knowledgeable birders, we moseyed across the causeway to a 500-foot boardwalk that extends into the salt marsh over spartina grass, pluff mud and those delectable oysters. The observation area on the boardwalk is a great spot to look out for sandhill cranes, rosette spoonbills and swallow-tailed kites.
Before we moved on, we stopped at the Nature Center, which features a very cool saltwater touch tank containing a small stingray. Among the other wildlife exhibits in the center is a baby alligator and a couple of turtles.
From there, we hiked the easy 2-mile out-and-back Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail. After crossing through a coastal forest of oaks and red cedars, we came upon a saltwater pond with a nifty observation platform. The day's visitors included great blue herons, egrets and assorted ducks.
Down a ways was another pond with still more birds, including a pair of beautiful hooded and red-breasted mergansers. The trail ends at a paved path that leads to one of the best-preserved beaches in South Carolina's upper coastal plain.
If you're a serious birder, I encourage you to walk another 1.2 miles north along the beach to the Murrells Inlet Jetty. During our visit, we ran into a park regular who said high tide is the best time to see common and red-throated loons and horned grebes that winter in the area. If you're lucky, you may even spot a razorbill and black guillemot.
And you can't leave the park without seeing Atalaya, the Huntingtons' Moorish-style home, a National Historic Landmark. It's just $1 to take a self-guided tour of the residence.
The park also features 131 campsites accommodating RVs up to 40-feet, six walk-in tent sites and three picnic shelters.
Click here for more information on Huntington Beach State Park, or call (843) 237-4440.