Birders flock to the 2nd annual Hammock Coast Birding Festival

17 Feb

Birders flock to the 2nd annual Hammock Coast Birding Festival

They came with binoculars, spotting scopes and tripods. They scoured through field guides emblazoned with names like Peterson, Sibley and Audubon.

They came from Canada and 16 states – some as far away as Wyoming, Michigan and Rhode Island – to attend the 2nd annual Hammock Coast Birding Festival, a three-day celebration and exploration of birding in Georgetown County, South Carolina.

Birders enjoy viewing a variety of birds at Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center south of Georgetown. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Organized by the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®, the festival was held Feb. 8-11, with welcome registration and a couple of “early-bird” events on Feb. 7. It followed the successful inaugural 2023 event, also held in February when winter migrants converge on the Hammock Coast in large numbers. The festival offers birdwatchers, or “birders,” a chance to experience guided tours and programs at four nature preserves in the area: Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center, Hobcaw Barony, Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park.

Mark A. Stevens, director of tourism development for the Georgetown County Chamber and the Hammock Coast, helps organize the event.

“We were pleased to see so many birders from far and wide come to experience birding on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast,” he said. “We even had many people who attended our inaugural event in 2023 return, which was wonderful. It certainly was verification that what we are doing is a success.”

The attendees had the opportunity to take part in birding-centric tours at Yawkey, Hobcaw Barony, Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park. Some tours could take 13 participants, while others could accommodate as many as 28. Each location has areas that can attract a variety of birds, from songbirds, ducks, wading birds like herons, and raptors, such as eagles and hawks. The endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, which has habitat at Brookgreen, Yawkey and Hobcaw, remained elusive this year for the majority of attendees, but many reported “life birds,” a term used when logging the first time seeing a specific species.

This hooded merganser was spotted in Brookgreen Gardens. (Photo by Colin Hocking Photography)

In addition to tours, the festival also included a showing of “Purple Haze: A Conservation Film,” a documentary about Purple Martins by South Carolinian filmmaker Zach Steinhauser, at the Waccamaw Neck Public Library; a program at the state park featuring an owl, kite, and hawk presented by the Center for Birds of Prey; classes in birding photography by Colin Hocking and painting by South Carolina Artist Carolyn Schanen; and a concluding program on Sunday by the Lowcountry Zoo staff at Brookgreen Gardens on conservation efforts and the care of birds at the zoo.

The highlight was a Friday evening dinner at Pawleys Plantation featuring a keynote address by Emmy Award-winning host and acclaimed educator Dr. Patrick McMillan, who told attendees just how lucky they were to be on the Hammock Coast, recognized as one of the best birding sites on the East Coast.

“We want to keep this coast green,” McMillan said. “That’s the idea. Thank you for being here!”

And, overwhelmingly, the attendees were happy to be on the Hammock Coast – and enjoying warmer-than-expected February weather.

“I have really enjoyed myself down here,” said Cindy Bero of Toronto, Canada. “I’ve seen a lot of the same birds I can see at home, but here they are all in one place.” She said she’d have to travel to various locations, some a far distance from her home to catch a glimpse of specific birds. She was surprised by the sheer number of birds she had seen just the first day of the festival.

Bero said that she also saw some birds that she hasn’t seen before. She added that Huntington Beach State Park, where she saw several new birds, is her new favorite place for birding.

Some birders took photos of birds while others used binoculars and scopes for viewing. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

“I’ve been to the park five times in the past two days,” Bero said. “Every time I go there, there is something different to see.”

Marianne Ballard of Sun City Center, Florida, was attending the festival with her friend, Deborah Zeveney of Greenville, South Carolina. They have only been birding for about a year.

“This birding event was impressive because it was well organized, and we could choose from so many great tours,” Ballard said. “The Hammock Coast is such a lovely area, and the weather has been gorgeous, with no rain.”

Zeveney agreed. “It looks like the whole community has chipped in to support this effort,” she said.

Bob and Mary Thomson of Wilmington, North Carolina, have been birding for about five years and especially enjoyed a three-hour birding tour at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.

“This is a great event and the Yawkey tour was very interesting,” Mary Thomson said. “We learned about the birds there, the land management, and history of the property. It was a very comprehensive tour.”

An osprey searches for prey at Huntington Beach State Park. (Photo by Colin Hocking Photography)

Bob Thomson said he enjoyed the opportunity to see a group of Wood Stork, a large, black-and-white wading bird with a long carved bill often seen in the area.

“They are not something we see normally,” he explained. “We enjoyed seeing that bird very much.”

Candace Morgan from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, attended the inaugural Hammock Coast Birding Festival in 2023 and was one of several birders who returned in 2024 for the second festival. She said last year she saw more than 90 birds and 17 were “life birds,” which are ones seen and identified in the wild for the first time by an individual. Many birders keep life lists of the number of birds they’ve seen.

This year, Morgan added four more “lifers” to her list. She said the most interesting birds she has seen this year are the Sora, also known as the Carolina Rail, and the Western Kingbird, a flycatcher normally found in Central and South America and rarely seen in the United States.

“I’ve been trying to see the Sora for about a year,” she said. “The Western Kingbird was at Brookgreen Gardens, and it had no reason being there at all. That was a bird I thought I would never see.”

A Western Kingbird sighting in South Carolina in February surprised many of the festival attendees who were lucky enough to get a glimpse.

“That is the thing about birding, that it surprises you,” Morgan said. “Every time you go out to see birds, you see something that you never expected.”

Attendees got a closeup view of a Barred Owl during a presentation by the Birds of Prey at Huntington Beach State Park. (Photo by Mark A. Stevens/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Susan Norton from Isle of Palms, South Carolina, is also a returning birder for the event. She said the thing she most enjoys about birding events like the one on the Hammock Coast is the comradery between the attendees.

“It is a fairly small group, so you get to know people during this event,” Norton said. “And you come back the next year and you see familiar faces, people you’ve enjoyed being with, just nice people.”

Emmy winner Dr. Patrick McMillan was the keynote speaker for the festival. (Photo by Mark A. Stevens/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

When asked if she is planning to come back again next year for the the 3rd annual Hammock Coast Birding Festival, she was quick to respond.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I’ll be back next year.”

And that attitude — the thrill of seeing birds and exploring nature – is what makes the Hammock Coast a special place on the South Carolina coast.

McMillan touched on it over and over in his speech.

“Just take the Roseate Spoonbill, for example,” he said of a large pink wading bird becoming more common on the Hammock Coast. “Think about this … Nature moves around. It’s a common theme. … Until just a few years ago, we never saw Spoonbills in South Carolina. … Otherwise you’d have to go to Florida or south Texas to see them. First, we saw juvenile Spoonbills in Georgia back in the ’90s … and then over the past two years, my wife and I have taken these gorgeous pictures in Georgetown County of Spoonbills at Huntington Beach State Park. And people, like you, are coming to see them.”

That’s something that Beth Stedman, president and chief executive officer of the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce, hopes will continue.

“You couldn’t ask for better visitors than the folks who come to the Hammock Coast Birding Festival,” Stedman said. “They are respectful of our area. They want to protect our beautiful area that’s home to hundreds of species of birds throughout the year. When it comes to eco-tourism, the Hammock Coast is nothing short of spectacular.”

To find out more about the 2025 festival, follow the Hammock Coast on social media and look for updates HERE.

For more about the 2024 Hammock Coast Birding Festival, check out this report from Adrianna Lawrence at WBTW-TV and this story by Charles Swenson in the Coastal Observer. And check out some blogs about the festival from outdoors writer Jeff Dennis about the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center HERE and Huntington Beach State Park and the re-release of a Barred Owl into the wild HERE.

By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®

Background photos by Colin Hocking.

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