Nature 

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Few places can compete with Hilton Head for nature lovers. Wildlife abounds on land, in lagoons and in the ocean. We hope this page will help you enjoy observing our wildlife.  If you are a nature lover, check with the Coastal Discovery Museum to see what their programs for nature walks, kayaking, and bird watching are (689-6767).  They are co-located with the Chamber of Commerce at the North end, near the bridge.  Another wonderful source of more detailed information is the book Tideland Treasures, by Todd Ballantine, a local naturalist.  The book is available at most bookstores - the last copy I bought was $12 - and at some drugstores.  It's one you will want to take home.

Birds

It is an oversimplification to divide birds into the categories of shore birds and inland birds, but it helps in identification. Generally, shore birds have long legs for their bodies because they feed by wading in the water and eating fish or small crustaceans.  The smallest are Piping Plovers, which can be seen running along the tide line so fast their legs are a blur. Somewhat larger, but of similar behavior, are Sanderlings and Sandpipers. Egrets are found more often in lagoons and marshes than on the beach. These are the large, pure white, long legged birds with a very long skinny neck. The Great White Egret is the larger one, distinguished by a yellow beak. The smaller Snowy Egret has a black beak.Great Blue Heron During nesting season both these birds display beautiful, long, delicate plumes. The huge grayish blue birds similar to Egrets are Great Blue Herons. They can be seen in lagoons and marshes, but they do come to the beach at dusk and often remain until nightfall. 

Some other long-legged birds you might see are: 

The Ibis, often found on golf courses and identified by a long, curved beak. The Ibis is white when mature, but youngsters are mostly brown.

The Wood Stork, becoming more common on Hilton Head as they loose habitat in Florida. This bird looks all white when it's on land, but reveals half black wings (underside) when flying. The Wood Stork is endangered, with a declining population, due to wetlands drainage in Florida. At this time they are headed toward certain extinction.

The cattle Egret can be found in horse pastures. This is a small white Egret, with some brown accents on its head, breast and back.

Brown Pelicans are entertaining to watch. They glide gracefully through the air, often skimming along inches above the water. As graceful as they are when flying, they are ungainly when feeding. A Pelican will hover about 30 feet above the water looking for small fish, then suddenly fold its wings and crash unceremoniously into the water to grab its prey.

The dark colored birds standing with their wings outstretched are either Anhingas or Cormorants. Cormorants are more common and can be identified by a hooked beak, whereas the Anhinga has a straight, pointed beak. These birds feed by swimming under water, which they do very well. They are often seen in the water, with little more than their long neck above the surface. You might see a Common Loon, which looks like the Anhinga or Cormorant but has a shorter neck and is much more rare (declining population).

The most common bird on the beach is, of course, the Gull. There are many kinds of Gull, but they are all scavengers, usually eating dead things that wash up on the beach, stealing another bird's catch or young or hovering around shrimp trawlers. An interesting behavior of some Gulls is they will pick up an oyster from the shallows, fly high into the air and drop it onto the hard packed sand. This cracks open the oyster, and then the gull that dropped it is in competition with the others to get to it first. If you see a gull that makes you laugh, its a Laughing Gull, which makes a sound so like a human laugh its contagious. Other common Gulls here are the Herring Gull and the Ring-billed Gull. Herring Gulls are quite large - about 25" long. They have a yellow bill with a red dot at the tip . Ring-billed Gulls are about 19" long and a yellow bill with a black ring around it.

If you see a Gull-like bird that is actually working for its living by diving for food, its probably a Tern. There are many kinds of Tern, but common characteristics in this part of the country are white or light color with a black crown and a notched or forked tail.Skimmer on Hilton Head

A bird that looks somewhat like a Tern is a Black Skimmer. This bird flies just above the water and plows the surface of the water with its open beak, waiting to snap shut on any prey it contacts.

You might be looking out the window of your rental property some day and see what appears to be an island on the ocean that wasn't there earlier. Get out the binoculars and you will see it's thousands of birds floating together in the water. These are Scaup, a type of duck, and what you see is called a "raft" of Scaup.

If you are on the beach and see a large bird circling high overhead and looking like an Eagle, it's probably an Osprey.  Like Eagles, Osprey were affected by DDT and almost became extinct. Even ten years ago an Osprey sighting on Hilton Head was rare. Fortunately the population has bounced back and sightings are now common. Keep an eye on this bird. When it sees a fish it will dive from great height at high speed and snatch up the fish with its razor sharp talons. It's quite a sight to see and sometimes happens close to the beach. You can see Osprey nests on TV antenna and other towers. Recently there have been sightings of bald Eagles on the Island. The local newspaper claims knowledge of three nesting pair in the general area. They, too are making a comeback.

Red Tailed hawk on Hilton HeadHilton Head's inland birds are much the same as those seen elsewhere. Songbirds include the Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Mocking Bird , Sparrow, Chickadee, Woodpecker and Wren. Grackles, a type of blackbird, are very common and very noisy.  The males are an iridescent black and the females are brown. Ring-necked Turtle Doves are becoming increasingly common. They are a smoky beige in color, with a black band at the back of their necks.  These birds can be seen pretty much throughout the year. Finches, Warblers, Hummingbirds, various Ducks, and Vireos, among others, are migratory visitors. This picture is of a Red Tail Hawk, common on Hilton Head. They are the squirrel's nemesis.

Bird watching

Other than the beach, the best places for bird watching on Hilton Head are the Sea Pines Forest Preserve and the Audubon Newhall preserve on Palmetto Bay road (off island is the Pinckney preserve, also popular among birders).

Reptiles

Alligators

Alligators are perhaps our best known wildlife. For the most part they live in the many lagoons throughout Hilton Head. Alligators areAlligator in Hilton Head lagoon cold-blooded (they have no mechanism to regulate body temperature) so they rely on their environment to survive. During cooler weather alligators will come out of their lagoons and lie on the banks in the sun to raise their body temperature. In warmer weather they stay in the water to stay relatively cool. This means the best times to see alligators are the spring and fall, but exceptions are common. If a lot of rain has lowered the water temperature in the lagoons, the alligators will come out to sun themselves. It also seems sometimes they come out of the water just because they feel like it, for example, on a cloudy day. In Winter (October to March) alligators become dormant and hide in mud dens, so are rarely seen.

Alligators in Hilton Head can grow to about 12 feet in length.  Those larger than that are generally "removed" because they scare people.  We locals have an arrangement with the alligators: we leave them alone and they leave us alone. You would be wise to honor that arrangement. Alligators are not normally aggressive toward humans but they are dangerous.  An alligator can outrun a horse for a limited distance. Human adults are too big to be alligator prey, but small children and pets are vulnerable, and an angry alligator knows no fear and will go after anything that bothers it.  Here are some rules to keep you out of harm's way:

A mother alligator protecting its nest is about the only circumstance an alligator will attack without provocation. This could occur in wooded or brushy areas near lagoons. Nesting is typically May through August, and the mother protects the hatchlings for one to three years.

Feeding alligators is illegal for a good reason.  If an alligator sees humans as a source of food, it stands to reason it will approach humans.  Alligators lack social skills - they won't ask nicely for a handout. To feed an alligator is to sign its death warrant, for it will become aggressive and will soon be "removed" (yes, killed).

Never, ever, let small children or pets play in lagoons or on the banks of lagoons. Alligators are so fast a pet can vanish before its owner can take a deep breath.

Large alligatorIf you catch a fish in a lagoon and an alligator wants it, give it up. Reeling in the fish close to you is a very bad idea, as the alligator will see you as competition for food.

If someone tells you there are no alligators in a given lagoon all they have done is display their ignorance about alligators. Alligators move around and frequently relocate. A male can cover 1,000 acres in search of mates.

There have been very rare instances of alligators at the beach. Alligators can stand salt water but prefer fresh or brackish, so an alligator at the beach is out of its normal environment and probably lost. Just keep away from it - if possible report it.

It has been said that the way to tell the length of an alligator is to measure the distance between its eyes in inches, which will tell you its length in feet. This sounds like a very bad idea if the alligator is alive.

Lizards and Salamanders

You will see creatures we tend to call lizards climbing up stucco walls and wood fences or sunning on decks.  They are absolutely harmless to man, in fact, they eat insects to our benefit.  Children like to try to catch them and often end up with a wriggling tail in their hands, for these creatures will sacrifice their tail as a defense against predators because they will grow another to replace it.  A lizard that is usually green and has a red throat that it can blow up like a tiny balloon is an "Anole".  The Anole can change color to brown, especially in cool weather. Females have a dorsal stripe on their back. A less common lizard you might see is the Skink.  Skinks favor woodlands and gardens and are very shy. They are thicker in the body than other species.

Turtles

The most common turtles spotted sunning themselves on the banks of lagoons are Yellow Bellied Sliders.  They have yellow bellies (Duh!) and show some yellow on their heads and legs .Others you may see are Diamond Back Terrapins. They too have some yellow on their shells but not on their heads or legs. They can live in salt or brackish water. If you should get close enough to one to count the rings on the "diamonds" on its shell, you will know its age in years. These turtles were once popular as food for humans. [Thanks, Jon]

The sea turtle you might see will likely be a Loggerhead.  These turtles can grow to enormous size, up to four feet in length and weighing 400 pounds.  If you see one in the water you will get just a glimpse, as it will dive as soon as it senses your presence.  Loggerheads are protected by federal law as an endangered species.  In the spring and early summer, females crawl awkwardly up the beach, often at night, and dig a hole in the sand near the high tide line.  They will deposit about 100 eggs in this hole and cover it with sand, then return to the sea.  About two months later, one night the eggs will hatch and the baby Loggerheads will rush to the ocean.  Only one Loggerhead egg in 10,000 will result in a hatchling becoming an adult.  Their enemies are Raccoons and Ghost Crabs that eat the eggs, man, who sometimes regards the eggs as toys or in some cases a delicacy or aphrodisiac, fish and birds of prey that eat the hatchlings, and one unusual problem.  Loggerhead hatchlings are guided to the ocean by the reflection of starlight on the water.  If people who occupy properties on or near the ocean have lights on at night during hatching season, the light and reflections produced confuses the hatchlings, who may head inland to certain death from dehydration or predation. Another Loggerhead killer is trash - balloons, plastic bags, Styrofoam™, etc. that they might mistake for food. The laws that protect Loggerheads provide extremely severe penalties for anyone who disturbs a nest or interferes with the hatchlings rush to the sea. You might be surprised to learn the law also requires lights visible from the beach to be extinguished or shielded from May 1 to October 31. The penalty for not doing so can be a fine of $895.00.  If you should be fortunate enough to see a nest hatch, stay away from it, and do not illuminate a flashlight or cigarette lighter.  Those who think they can circumvent those rules are often surprised by the volunteers who patrol the beaches at night to protect the nests and hatchlings.  If you see a problem with Loggerhead nests or hatchlings, call the Coastal Discovery Museum at 843-689-6767 or the Sheriff at 843-785-3618.  Do not try to help - fines go to six figures and jail time can be imposed.

Snakes

There are many species of snakes in South Carolina.  I see a snake on Hilton Head on the average of once every two years, but I don't spend a lot of time in the woods.  Most snakes are at least as afraid of humans as we are of them, and will try hard to avoid us. That said, I would encourage golfers looking for a wayward ball in the woods to make a lot of noise, sweeping the underbrush with their club.  Poisonous snakes that could be found on the island are: 

Coral snake. Usually small, burrows in the ground, very strong venom. Very rare in South Carolina.  It is banded with red, black and yellow bands, but so are many other snakes.  If the bands are yellow-red-yellow remember "kill a fellow". 

Cottonmouth (AKA  Water Moccasin)  Is aquatic, may flee if approached or may display a huge white open mouth as a threat. They can get very large, up to several feet. 

Rattle snake.  I have heard of one being spotted on the island, when habitat was being disturbed during the construction of the Cross-island Expressway. They also can get very large. 

Copperhead.  Freeze at danger rather than run away, but not particularly aggressive. This is the only poisonous snake I have seen here (one sighting).

 Hilton Head overall does not provide good habitat for snakes.  It's too built out and there are too many people, so if you want to see snakes there are many better places.

You might see legless lizards that looks a lot like snakes except they have ear holes and moveable eyelids.

Frogs and Toads

If you have never felt a tree frog stick to your arm you have missed a neat feeling and an amazing natural phenomenon.  These small, light green frogs appear to have suction cups on  their toes, and can be seen sticking to sliding glass doors at night in the presence of outdoor lights that attract the insects they eat.  But those are not suction cups!  A suction cup that tiny could not have any effect on your skin - especially a hairy arm.  As hard as it is to believe, those little round toes have on them tiny "hairs", thousands of them, so small they can actually grab individual molecules of whatever surface they cling to, including glass.  What will mother nature think of next!  (For an accurate scientific explanation, look up van der Waals interactions). I am very fond of frogs.  It's a treat to take a walk at night after a rain and listen to the "peepers" and "croakers" at a pond or lagoon.  When you try to get too close, suddenly the din turns to total silence.  You probably know frogs  and toads lay eggs which hatch tadpoles, who live in water and have gills.  After a time they loose their tails and morph into their final form.  I am always amazed that a dry area that turns into a pool of water after a heavy rain will suddenly be populated by hundreds of tadpoles overnight. Most of the time the pool will dry up before the tadpoles can become frogs, and they perish, but not always.  Toads, unlike frogs, have a defense mechanism other than flight.  Most toads have glands behind their eyes extending backward that secrete a milky substance that discourages their enemies, such as dogs.

Dolphins

Dolphins are mammals, not fish (there is a dolphin fish, known in restaurants as mahi-mahi).  Technically, they are "toothed whales" , with only one blowhole (nostril). They breath air, are warm-blooded, bear live young, and suckle Dolphin on Hilton Head their young. Mothers  take care of their young during their first year. They can grow up to 12 feet in length and 800 Lbs. in weight and can swim at speeds up to 45 Mph. Since Dolphins are air breathing they are easily spotted when they surface for air. You will hear a telltale "whoosh" as the dolphin expels used air. They are adapted to breath infrequently by virtue of muscles that store oxygen and the ability to expel almost all the used air in their lungs when they exhale (we expel only 10%). Dolphins locate their food (mostly fish) by making a click-like sound and listening for an echo. This is similar to sonar used by submarines and is called echolocation. Blind people who navigate using a cane they tap employ the same principle. Scientists believe dolphins communicate with each other using squeaks and whistles and are trying to learn their language with little success. 

Dolphins abound in the waters around Hilton Head. You can see them from the beach or from a boat. About 200 of our dolphin population are permanent, but many more are migratory. Many dolphins are friendly to humans and will come up to a boat out of curiosity. There are several ways you can see dolphins from a boat:

Kyaks and wave runners on Hilton Head

Kayaking puts you as close as you can get to wildlife, however it limits your range (it does take some effort), and may not provide a dolphin experience. May not be desirable for non swimmers or non athletically inclined.

Zodiac boat on nature cruise around Hilton Head

Zodiac boats also put you right where the action is. They hold six people (a few are larger) plus the captain and can go almost anywhere. You are almost certain to see dolphin.

 

Larger boats such as Gypsy, Vagabond, Adventure and others provide a more stable platform with amenities such as a bathroom, soft drinks and snacks.

If you go on your own, look for a shrimp trawler anchored with its nets raised. Chances are they are clearing their nets or their shrimp catch of collateral catch, such as squid, small fish, etc. This attracts small fish, which in turn attract dolphins. You might well be treated to an unforgettable sight. Also, in Broad Creek, just as you come to the first docks on the left, may be a dolphin named Blackbeard (for a black spot on his "chin") who might choose to come visit. Bang on the side of your boat to call him - he might come close enough to touch.

When you go dolphin watching, consider the distance from the marina to the area you will be going. You don't want to spend all your time getting there and getting back.

Furry creatures

Deer are so plentiful on Hilton Head, especially in the Plantations, they are considered pests by some people. Deer are most Hilton Head deer are smallactive at dusk (when humans go inside for dinner). In Sea Pines Plantation you can't drive two miles at dusk without seeing deer, which should be warning enough to drive with caution. Although deer tend to panic and act irrationally when frightened, if you drive slowly they are easy to avoid. Deer travel in groups, so if you see one cross the street you can bet more will follow. Sometimes residents, who should know better, will walk their dog off the leash. A dog will usually chase a deer, and a deer being chased could run into you, your car, or even your sliding glass door.

Raccoons are also common on Hilton Head. They might be cute, but they can create a terrible mess by getting into your trash can, which they will surely do if they smell food (they seem to be able to smell through plastic bags). Outside trash should be in a container with a raccoon-proof lid locked down. They are very clever and can even remove a bungee cord from a trash can lid.

Although rabies has not been a problem on Hilton Head, these creatures can carry rabies. Wild animals (or feral animals such as cats) should not be approached or touched. Any animal acting out of the ordinary (a raccoon out in daylight) should be avoided and reported. Feral cats are common in marinas and stables - caution children to leave them alone. A scratch could mean a series of precautionary injections. Rabies is almost 100% fatal.

Crustaceans

Common crustaceans on Hilton Head are crabs and shrimp. The most common edible crab here is the Blue Crab, which is actually mostly green, except for the legs. Blue Crabs can be caught in tidal lagoons or in the ocean or sound. Female crabs have prominent red tips on their claws (the girls paint their fingernails), while males have little red. You can also tell one from the other by turning them upside down and observing their "apron". The male has an apron shaped like the Washington Monument, the female like the Capitol Dome.

Other crabs are:

Ghost crabs, which live in holes in the sand above the high tide line. They are white and their body is rectangular, about 2 inches in size. They look much bigger because they have very long legs. Ghost crabs are mostly nocturnal, but sometimes can be seen scurrying into their holes in the daytime (they are very shy).

Fiddler crabs are abundant in the mud flats at low tide, They are smaller than a dime and live in holes they dig in the mud. The males have a single pincer claw, which they wave constantly to attract females. When the tide comes in, Fiddler crabs go into their holes and plug the openings with a mud plug, thus staying relatively dry. These crabs are also spooky - to see them you must be still, or they will vanish into their holes.

Hermit crabs live in discarded shells . As they grow, they outgrow the current shell and move to a larger one. Hermit crabs are common on the beach.  If you pick up an enclosed shell (like a snail shell) from the shallows, it probably is occupied by a Hermit crab.  Look in the opening and you will barely see its hard legs covering the opening and providing protection.

Stone crabs are less common. They  can grow up to five inches in width, and are reddish brown in color.  They have two large, bulky claws, more like lobster claws.  Stone crabs cannot be taken (a claw may be removed) and are mentioned here only because their claws are powerful enough to inflict appreciable damage to a human finger.  They do not swim and are found on jetties. For information about crabbing, click here.

Horseshoe crabs are misnamed - they are not crabs at all - they are related to spiders. Their large shells, up to 8 inches across, are common on the beaches, sometimes including legs and their spiny tail, . Horseshoe crabs are fierce looking but completely harmless to humans. They have been on this planet since before the dinosaurs. Their blood is used in biological research because it is very sensitive to bacteria and is used to detect impurities in drugs. Horseshoe crabs harvested for their blood are tapped and returned to the water none the worse for wear. 

SHRIMP
The shrimp caught in the waters off Hilton Head are Brown shrimp, Pink shrimp and White shrimp.  Everybody has an opinion as to which is better eating, but the fact is most shrimp consumed here are previously frozen farm-raised shrimp of foreign origin and are actually Pacific White shrimp.  You can buy locally caught shrimp in stores, directly from the trawlers, or off the back of pickup trucks (off island).  If you do, you should know the inedible head of a shrimp comprises about a third of its body weight - in other words, 3 pounds of shrimp with heads on is equivalent to two pounds with heads removed ($6 a pound with heads on = $9 with heads off).

Be knowledgeable when you shop for "fresh" shrimp - to me, previously frozen shrimp are not fresh because if you freeze them again they will have an unpleasant texture.  South Carolina has three shrimping seasons, the start and end dates of which vary according to the condition of the shrimp population.  The May - June season produces "white roe" shrimp; June - August is brown shrimp season; and August - December is for white shrimp.  If the shrimp trawlers are not running (January to May), the "fresh" shrimp on pickup trucks and even at the docks are not fresh local shrimp by my definition.

Our local shrimp industry, like elsewhere in this country, is in sharp decline, with catch down by 2/3 from 2000 to 2005 because of environmental regulations, fuel prices, competition from foreign suppliers and a decline in the number of shrimp due to habitat damage. Grocery stores and some restaurants now advertise "wild American shrimp", which are chemical free.  Expect to pay a premium for them - they are worth it.  Foreign shrimp farms liberally use an antibiotic chloramphenicol, which is banned in the USA and is linked to human aplastic anemia and other health problems. (Source: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/fish/shrimp/health-impacts)

Flora

Some of our trees and other plants do not exist "up North", so they might be new to you.  The huge, sprawling trees often draped in Spanish Moss are Live Oaks.  They look nothing like northern Oaks until you see their acorns, which are the same.  Live Oaks are evergreens, but they do change their leaves every year,  The new leaves push off the old ones in March, giving the appearance of the trees being constantly in leaf.

The trees that look like palm trees are actually palmetto trees.  Their seeds are berry-like, not coconuts or dates.

The pine trees you see here are mostly Loblolly Pines.  The are the source of our garden mulch, Pine Straw, and in February and early March are the source of pine pollen, a yellow powder that covers everything and triggers allergic reactions.   There are other types of pines, each of which grows in a different environment, such as the Pond Pine, which grows in areas that are wet much of the time.  Pine trees have branches on just the top part of the trunk.  The conifers you see with branches nearly to the ground are Red Cedar trees. 

Spanish Moss is not moss at all, its an epiphyte, an air plant that derives all its needs from rainwater and sunlight.  It does no harm to its host, as it is not parasitic.  Some visitors collect Spanish Moss to use as mulch for potted houseplants.  You need to know that it is often host to Chiggers, which are nasty little insects that bite humans and leave  itchy red spots that are quite uncomfortable.  Rumor has it you can put Spanish moss a Ziplock® bag as soon as you collect it, then put it in the microwave for a few seconds to kill the chiggers without harming the plant.  We have not tried that because it seems like a good way to make a mess.

Plants to watch out for include poison ivy, often found growing up the trunks of trees, oleander, which is toxic if eaten, sand spurs, which are found on grassy fields by people walking barefoot (ouch!), and Yucca, a leafy plant with sharp spikes on the ends of the leaves that can deliver a painful puncture.  Even pine cones need delicate handling, as some have sharp spikes.

The dunes you cross to get to the beach are home to several different plants, the most common of which is Sea Oats.  They, along with other plants and grasses trap the sand as it is carried past by the wind, causing the dunes to slowly rise.  The dunes are our only protection from storm surge caused by high tides and high winds.  For that reason it is illegal to walk on the dunes, which are easily destroyed.  Please be sure to use the manmade crossovers when going to or from the beach.  

If you want to explore guided dolphin and nature tours (or even self-guided), click here for eco tours.

 

This page  Updated 05/31/2014

 

 

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