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Best Places for Birdwatching Along the Grand Strand

  By  Jo Clark
Bird Watching at Huntington Beach State Park

Can you think of a better place for bird watching? Here on the Grand Strand, we have the best of the birding world: small songbirds, shorebirds, and birds of prey! Plus, we’re on one of the four North American flyways migratory birds use twice yearly—for the Spring and the Fall Migration. March 1 through June 15 marks the annual Spring Migration period, providing the perfect opportunity for birdwatchers to check off birds on a lifetime list.

Birdwatching with Technology

On the April night I typed this, 16,400 birds were crossing Horry County! Wow! Did I count them? Well, no…but BirdCast did! And two hours later, the count was up to 63,300! BirdCast is a collaborative effort between Cornell, Clemson, and others. They developed tools like the Live Bird Migration Map to monitor and predict bird migration. Visit their website, type in the county you want to see, and voilà—the number of birds passing through (and lots of other information) appears on your screen. By comparison, 600 birds were crossing Henry County, Virginia, the same night.

Most birds migrate at night because they navigate by the stars and the moon, and the night air is more stable for flying. 

The local chapter of the National Audubon Society is the Waccamaw Audubon Society. The chapter has over four hundred members from the coastal Carolinas. The group holds monthly meetings with guest speakers and offers field trips open to the public and their members.

Wood Stork in marsh water photo by Jo Clark

National Land

Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge is a U. S. National Wildlife Refuge, straddling Horry and Georgetown Counties. The refuge offers fishing, hunting, hiking, boating, birding, wildlife observation, and photography opportunities. You can canoe or paddle through cypress trees, forested wetlands, or blackwater swamps at Cox Ferry Lake, the Pee Dee River, or Yauhannah Lake. More than 200 bird species, including swallow-tailed kites, call the 30,000-acre refuge home. 

South Carolina DNR Public Lands

Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, near Carolina Forest and Conway, is managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The 10,427-acre preserve is open daily during daylight hours. Besides birds, you may spot footprints of deer, fox, or black bear, among others (or the animals themselves). In fact, this preserve has the largest number of black bears in South Carolina. You may manage to view bald eagles or red-cockaded woodpeckers. These woodpeckers are especially vulnerable to land use and lumbering practices since they need mature pine trees for their nesting habitat. This is why they were among the first to be placed on the federally endangered species list. Stay alert for native orchids, wild azaleas, and wildflowers like pitcher plants and Venus flytraps.

Cartwheel and Mossy Bays trails are located in Carolina Bays, a part of the South Carolina Trails system. Birders will be excited to know that thirteen species of warblers have been spotted here, including the Swainson, Kentucky, and hooded warblers. The SC Trails web page is user-friendly and allows you to key in a county or town and find all the trails nearby. There is a 10.2-mile trail called Grissom Parkway. Believe it or not, this trail is part of the East Coast Greenway system that connects Maine to Florida—3,000 miles. How far do you want to walk to watch those birdies?

Woodpecker in the Woods, Birdwatching photo by Jo Clark

State Parks

Myrtle Beach State Park

Myrtle Beach State Park has one mile of beach, dunes, a pier, and oak- and pine-filled forest. You will spot common sea and shore birds, waterfowl, Osprey, pelicans, and eagles fishing at the first state park in South Carolina. But, the half-mile Oak Nature Trail that winds through the Heritage Trust site maritime forest is where you will find those harder-to-spot species like warblers and cedar waxwings. 

Huntington Beach State Park

Huntington Beach State Park causeway crosses between a freshwater pond and the saltwater tidal marsh. Most days, you will witness Osprey snatching fish out of the water and eagles fishing for their family. During migration, the striking pink Roseate Spoonbills and the prehistoric-looking Wood Storks are present. And, for added excitement, there are alligators. At the end of the causeway is a bird feeder, and behind the nature center, you will find an array of feeders and birdbaths. Some of the birds you will see are Red-winged Blackbirds, finches, and Painted Buntings. Huntington also has three miles of beach, with the jetties on the north end providing shelter for tiny creatures and minks (yes, really!)

The park is known as a top spot for East Coast bird watching, thanks to birders who have recorded over 300 species of birds. A checklist to print is provided on the park’s web page to help you keep score!

Birdwatching in Marsh grasses

Other Unique Places

Cox Ferry Lake Recreation Area in Conway is a 325-acre property. The three-mile nature trail and boardwalk give visitors an easily maneuverable walking pathway. If you get caught in a shower (what, you thought we canceled the rain!?? *smile*), there is a weather shelter with picnic tables. Cox Ferry Lake is an integral part of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.

Lake Busbee has been a landmark for Grand Strand visitors since 1966. Entering Horry County and headed for Myrtle Beach on 501, Conway’s Lake Busbee offered the first glimpse of water—the one that told you your trip was nearing the end! The man-made lake was built as a cooling pond for the Grainger Steam-Electric Generating Plant and closed in 2012.

Since then, the area has been allowed to revert to its natural wetlands state. The small pockets of water provide a feeding area for Wood storks, herons, egrets, gulls, shorebirds, Osprey, and eagles. A convenient 2.3-mile walking and biking path circling Lake Busbee is worth checking out.

Russell Burgess Coastal Preserve in North Myrtle Beach provides a scenic overview of the Cherry Grove Marsh. The preserve has a boardwalk along the marsh, giving you a firm foundation for setting up a spotting scope or camera tripod.

The members of the Audubon Society encourage birders to visit the wastewater treatment ponds. Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority’s treatment facility on Jackson Bluff Road in Conway is a bird magnet. These guys know what they’re talking about, so go!

Sandy Island is the largest preserve in South Carolina and is just a trickle over the Georgetown County line. It comes in at 9,165 acres, although it is accessible only by boat. But you’re in luck! Black River Outdoors has four-hour kayak tours that begin near Murrells Inlet and continue up the Waccamaw to a little creek that ends at the Sandy Island dock. The tour includes a 45-minute walk on the island, a break to devour your own lunch, then paddling back to the landing where you began the day. On this trip, you can expect to see nesting Osprey (during the right time of year) and great blue herons. I’ve been on a couple of their trips—check out another article of my top 13 things to do and you’ll find Black River tours. They always know where the best wildlife is to be found!

Another local company, Waccamaw Outfitters, rents equipment and leads tours, check with them for a current list of adventures.

Waccamaw River Tours is ready to meet your needs for private parties or groups who want to view nature from a boat. They also have an Osprey Photography Tour, getting you up close to view and photograph Osprey in their natural habitat. The birds arrive in early spring to nest, raise their young, and then migrate South in late August. It is a treat and a challenge to capture the perfect shot! The tours are limited to 15 passengers, so all the photographers and their equipment have plenty of room. You are allowed to bring a monopod but not a tripod. Insider tip:  Set your shutter speed higher than you think to capture the quick movements!

Another fantastic way to spend a day of bird watching is to join the folks at Coastal Expeditions for a day-long tour of the blackwater areas surrounding us. Their tours are fun and educational (without you even realizing it). The guides know the best hotspots for migrating songbirds, raptors, and other natural wonders. You can pick from locations like ACE Basin, Francis Marion National Forest (260,000 acres of pristine forestland, or Black River. They also offer a Santee Delta boat trip that stops at the lovely Hampton Plantation State Park.

For me, these adventures offer the best of both worlds: lots of birds and wildlife and a day on the water!

Brookgreen Gardens is a 9,127-acre property that preserves the site’s natural and cultivated landscape. Walking through the gardens and grounds always provides views of a remarkable number of birds, and the trail “beyond the garden wall” winds along the river. There is also an enclosed aviary where you can get extra close to native birds who can no longer survive in the wild. There are periodic bird walks (limited to 16 guests, free with admission). Join the tour for an informative walk around the creek and garden, identifying birds. Participants are encouraged to bring binoculars and cameras.

Hobcaw Barony is a 16,000-acre property owned by the Belle W. Baruch Foundation. Located on the coast just before the Black River Bridge into Georgetown, it has the diversity of South Carolina coastal ecosystems. It also has more than 70 cultural sites on the plantation. 

The Hobcaw Barony Discovery Center is a museum on the property that provides information about the history, ecology, and research projects conducted on the property. It also holds a 1,200-gallon saltwater aquarium filled with native fish species. My personal favorite is the exhibit of Belle Baruch’s binoculars. An avid birder, these were actually used on her beach watches—in response to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s request that she maintain a search for WWII German spies.

To enter Hobcaw, you must be part of a guided tour or particular program. You park at the Discovery Center, and Hobcaw transports you throughout the grounds. Watch their website for special events, like birding or night photography.

Your Own Backyard

When I inquired of those who enjoy bird watching about their favorite place to view feathered friends, to a man (or woman!), they said, “My backyard!”

Yep, it’s true. Birds will flock to your backyard with a bit of effort on your part. Just installing a birdbath will attract more feathered bathers than you can imagine! They’ll line up and practically fight for bathing rights. It doesn’t have to be fancy; you can DIY using a large flowerpot. Just overturn the pot and place the saucer on top! And adding a feeder or two will ensure a large number of daily visitors. 

It’s a vicious cycle, but one guaranteed to put a smile on your face. My advice? Keep that camera handy!

Jo Clark

Jo Clark is a travel writer—and a self-proclaimed beach bum! An award-winning photographer and a food and wine lover from South Carolina’s Grand Strand, Jo seeks off-the-beaten-path places with abundant wildlife, good food, and delicious wine! Born, reared, and educated in southwestern Virginia, she loves history, has edited two WWII books, and co-authored several Civil War biographical volumes. She is the editor of Recipes Travel Culture online magazine, and a member of IFWTWA, TravMedia, and the Travel Writer’s University. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @JoGoesEverywhere or on Facebook at Have Glass, Will Travel.