Daufuskie's Feathered Friends
The Avian Inhabitants of Haig Point
We are blessed to live on Daufuskie Island because we are never without feathered friends. Spring is the season of an explosive bird migration. On Daufuskie they pass through our yards, woods, beaches and marshes like flooding waters after a heavy rain. The migration comes in a breathtaking rush, and then it’s over – almost too short to really enjoy.
In contrast, the special offerings of the fall migration can be enjoyed for a much longer period of time. Daufuskie’s more moderate climate encourages birds to linger on their annual migration. Where spring is a rush of birds, winter is a lazy arrival of visitors that are making their annual trek southward. Whimbrels and Curlews and other rarer birds come through the marsh flats. Warblers, Redstarts, Hawks, Thrushes, Hummingbirds, and Finches often congregate where they can get a drink of fresh water.
A Daufuskie Favorite: Bluebirds
Because of the mild climate, Daufuskie is actually a good place for bird watching all year long and a favorite of birders is the Bluebird. As an early settler in Plymouth Colony wrote, “The Bluebird is well named. No other flashes before our admiring eyes so much brilliant blue. It has been said that he carries on his back the blue of heaven and, on his breast, the rich brown of the freshly turned earth. Who has ever seen the bluest sky as blue as the bluebird’s back?”
The Bluebird is one of Daufuskie’s most useful and delightful birds. It is useful because it eats large quantities of harmful insects. It is delightful because of its “dinner dance.” Since its food is found on or near the ground, you will often see a Bluebird sitting on some low tree or a fence post watching for its prey. Then it suddenly darts down, seizes a morsel, and returns to its perch only to repeat the dance step a few seconds later.
Bluebirds are also delightful to watch during mating season, which occurs in the spring and summer. The male usually arrives a few days ahead of the female, selects what he considers to be a suitable summer home (cavity or box), and carols his sweetest, most seductive notes day after day until she appears in answer to his call. Then, to win her favor, he flutters before her, showing off his physical prowess by spreading his tail feathers and fluffing his half-opened wings while warbling ‘jeew’ or ‘chir-wi’ in sweet melodic tones.
At first, she seems indifferent to the gorgeous blue of his overcoat or the warm reddish brown of his puffy breast as he perches beside her, caresses her tenderly, and sings sweet love songs. Sometimes you might even see him bring her a delicious morsel and place it gently in her mouth as a love offering.
Once he has her interest, he leads her to the home of his choice and tries to persuade her to cohabitate. But much persistent wooing is needed until, in the end, she makes the final choice and seals the nuptial pact with a mid-air cloacal kiss. Decision made, both sexes help in building the nest, though most of the actual work on it is done by the female while the male follows her about singing her praise. Over the next ten days, she will make many trips to and from the nest loosely weaving together grasses and pine needles until it is ready. Although the male Bluebird sings abundantly during this time, as soon as incubation begins, the songs cease and it is down to the business of child-rearing. His singing is not renewed until the young have left home and it is time to start a new nesting.
A mature female typically raises two broods each season. During this time, the male will occasionally feed the incubating mother while he stands guard over the nest. Occasionally you will see larger birds and even humans being driven away from the vicinity of the Bluebirds’ nest by the protective father. Since the young cannot care for themselves upon hatching, mama Bluebird broods the chicks for up to 7 days and both parents cooperate in feeding them (mostly insects) until they are ready to take wing. After a successful clutch is ready to fly, approximately 15 to 20 days, the female bluebird will often go off to build a second nest, leaving the male to care for the fledged young.
Eastern Bluebirds can live for 6 to 10 years, however, they have many natural predators including snakes, chipmunks, flying squirrels, bear, fire ants, and raccoons. At Haig Point, residents have found a way to protect these precious birds from their many predators and to encourage them to stick around. According to Debbie McKeeman, Bluebird lovers have put up 21 nesting boxes around the golf course over the past seven years and volunteers have been tending each of them regularly to monitor egg laying and hatching activities and to ensure that the houses are clean and remain in good repair. Happily, this has resulted in over 600 baby Bluebirds being added to the Bluebird population here at Haig Point.
Bird Sightings at Haig Point
While Bluebirds are a delight to watch, it is possible to see more than 200 different birds over the course of a year – some common and some quite rare.
Well-known bird photographer, Dennis Sutcliffe, put this in perspective when he said, “Last year at the end of May, while watching out the back windows of my house in Haig Point, I saw Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, American Crows, Mourning Doves, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, Painted Bunting, and House Finches. It just doesn’t get any better than that!”
Add to that list the pair of Black-crowned Night Herons you see down at the dock at dusk. These rare visitors are presumed to be monogamous and residents say that you will never see one without the other. The female is often seen sitting on the wooden supports under the dock and the male perches on the pole by the water taxi. Since they are a nocturnal bird, look for them hunting for food in the early evening.
Another sought-after sighting is that of the relatively scarce Glossy Ibis, Plegadis Falcinellus. One was recently spotted lounging among the crowds of White Ibis resting in the big trees which line the pond across from the Clubhouse. Over the years, these natives of West Africa have migrated to the Caribbean by riding the trade winds. Now they can be seen along our Atlantic Coast where they were once classified as scarce. Look for their nests in shrubs or on low trees or bushes near rivers and ponds.
Speaking of riding the winds, hurricane Irma may have had something to do with the appearance of a total stranger in Terry Foster’s backyard this season. “When I looked out the window, I saw a gray bird with incredibly bright red markings on each wing.” After checking her resources, Terry learned that it was a Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco which is supposed to reside only in Western Texas. “This was definitely a first-timer on Daufuskie,” she explained and added her suspicions that Irma might have provided transportation services for the Junco. Haig Point resident Kathi De Leo also reported a first-time visitor to Daufuskie. Last summer she watched a pair of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks as they enjoyed a nearby pond and gave birth to eight ducklings. She kept watch to make sure that an alligator didn’t eat the little ones and happily reported that the ducklings matured and flew south with their parents. According to De Leo, it is unusual to find these birds this far north but, with the warmer weather, their migration pattern is changing. “I am hopeful and excited about seeing them here again next season,” she added.
Another special visitor that spent some time on Daufuskie this year was the Piping Plover. This endangered species (only about 1200 left) was spotted on the Bloody Point beach. Although the Piping Plover nests and breeds on the beaches up north, we are very fortunate that they have decided to spend time with us in the winter. They are usually seen by themselves at low tide looking for worms.
Although no longer endangered, the return of our National Bird is one of the most anticipated at Haig Point. With a wingspan of up to 6 feet and weighing up to 70 pounds, Bald Eagles are unique to North America. They are characterized by their keen vision that allows them to detect their prey during flight. Larger than the Osprey, Eagles have been known to take down full-sized deer. They make their homes near water, in large trees with an open limb structure so that they have a clear view of their surroundings. When the Eagles arrive in late fall, they return to their existing nests which they immediately begin to spruce up. Look for the Bald Eagles’ nest in the tree to the right of the forward tee box on hole #16. You may see the owners lining it with fresh soft material and even carrying twigs and branches to make it sturdier if it had been damaged by storms while they were gone.
Haig Point resident Terry Foster cites our amazing bird population as one of the reasons why she wanted to move here. To hear her talk, you could almost say the Cooper River is Highway 95 for migrating birds. Among the busy traffic you will see White Pelicans and Red Winged Black Birds on their way to Florida, Painted Buntings and Brown-headed Nuthatches arriving for the summer, and Wood Storks soaring leisurely up and down the river going nowhere in particular. It’s as if they’ve decided to stay and enjoy the pristine beauty of Daufuskie instead of going further south to Florida - just like many of us have. -Judy Barth, contributor