Growing up in North Carolina, I developed a love for the outdoors and a passion for birding. Years later in college, I convinced my roommate John to accompany me on a couple of birding expeditions, and he became an enthusiast, as well.
Today, John and I are still avid birders, although getting together for special trips has become increasingly challenging as we both have busy careers and growing families. That’s all the more reason I was so excited about our four-day trip to the Hammock Coast. Southern Living says the stunning South Carolina region is the top birding destination on the East Coast, due, in part, to its large number of migratory birds.
Getting away to the coast of South Carolina is just what John and I needed, and it was made all the better because our buddy Trey would be joining us on the trip, although he was decidedly less enthusiastic about the prospect of birdwatching than we were!
After packing up my RV, the three of us left from Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoyed the easy four-hour drive to the Hammock Coast. Located along Highway 17, the Hammock Coast is scenic and laid-back, with four eclectic beach communities – Murrells Inlet, Pawleys Island, Litchfield Beach, and Southern Garden City – and the historic towns of Georgetown and Andrews.
During our visit, we stayed in Murrells Inlet at Huntington Beach State Park, which USA Today recently named as one of the top state parks for RVers as part of its 10Best nationwide contest. It’s easy to see why. The 2,500-acre park includes salt marshes, tidal waters, forests and some 200 acres of sandy beach and dunes. It’s a thriving habitat for the area’s diverse wildlife, including hundreds of bird species. Trey could not have been in a better spot for his first birding experience
We arrived Friday afternoon and quickly hooked up the camper. The park has standard sites with electric and water, along with full hookup sites with electricity, water and sewer. While there are plenty of accommodations, it’s still a good idea to make reservations by either calling 1-866-345-PARK or visiting the park’s reservation page.
After we settled in, we made our way to the newly reopened Nature Center to pick-up a bird checklist. The original center burned down a few years ago after it was struck by lightning. But a new $2.3 million center opened in September 2020, and it has lots of resources for birders, including exhibits about the park’s different habitats. The bird checklist included an astounding 353 species. Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger at the park, told us a full day of birdwatching could yield 100 or more species. He also suggested a few not-to-miss spots during our visit.
By then our stomachs were starting to growl, so we headed to Hanser House, which was nearby in the Litchfield community of Pawleys Island for an early dinner. The family-owned restaurant is noted for its Lowcountry cuisine, and we indulged in some of the signature dishes, including Southern Oyster Rockefeller, Hanser Family She Crab Soup, and the Litchfield Combo composed of fantail shrimp, flounder and crab cakes .
During dinner, John pulled out the birding checklist and started discussing all the different species. Trey rolled his eyes.
“I still can’t believe I let you two convince me to come here for a whole weekend of birdwatching,” he said.
“Don’t worry, Trey, I promise you’ll enjoy yourself,” I said. “Besides, you’re at the beach and the weather is beautiful.”
We turned in early that night, so we could get up before dawn and make the most of the day. As any experienced birder will tell you, birds are most active in the early morning, as the sun rouses bugs, worms and other critters that they eat. As Trey groused about how the sun wasn’t even up yet, we enjoyed a quick breakfast in the camper.
Armed with our birding checklist, binoculars and field guide, we made our way to the park’s iconic causeway, a great vantage point to view birds and other wildlife. As we strolled along, we had expansive views of the salt marsh and spotted a variety of wading birds, including Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and a host of herons and egrets, all pecking and poking in the brackish water for something to eat.
As John and I were checking the birds off the list, we suddenly heard Trey exclaim, “Oh, wow, I think I see a Bald Eagle!”
Sure enough, we looked up to see the majestic bird soaring through the air. Once an endangered species, the Bald Eagle is thriving again, and they can be seen feeding on fish in the park’s wetlands and at Mullet Pond.
Next, at ranger Mike Walker’s suggestion, we made the 1.2-mile walk up the beach to the jetty, situated at the northern end of the park. Along the way, we stopped at a mailbox near the beach access where a notebook is kept for birders to log sightings. Trey updated the notebook with the birds we had spotted so far. The jetty’s rocky coastline is a popular winter birding spot for a number of species, like Razorbills, Black Guillemots and Red-throated Loons, all of which we saw. During other times of the year, birders on the jetty will usually spot species such as Ruddy Turnstones, American Oystercatchers, and a variety of terns and gulls.
Following a successful morning of birding, we headed back to the camper for sandwiches and snacks. We enjoyed some downtime in the RV. Trey was still pumped about spotting the bald eagle, which made him far more invested in checking off more birds on our list.
“It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt,” Trey said. “I can’t believe there’s so many types of birds here. It’s actually pretty amazing.”
Later that evening, we grilled steaks at our campsite and over a couple of cold ones discussed the next day’s plans, which included birding on the beach.
“Anyone care to make a wager about who spots the most birds tomorrow?” Trey asked.
And with that, John and I knew he was hooked.
The next morning, we again rose before the sun and ate a quick breakfast in the camper. The beach was pristine and beautiful, and as we strolled along the shore, we spotted numerous shorebirds, including the federally endangered Piping Plover, with its distinctive yellow, orange and red legs and black band across the forehead.
“I’ll record that one,” Trey said, checking the bird off our list. “That makes 97 different species we’ve spotted on this trip. Not too shabby.”
“So is it fair to say you’re a fan of birding now?” I asked.
“Hey, I’m surprised as much as you are,” he responded. “This is actually a lot of fun.”
After our morning birding session, we made lunch back at the campground and decided to walk the half-mile to Atalaya Castle for a self-guided tour. Philanthropist Archer Huntington built the castle in the early 1930s as a winter residence for him and his wife, renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The castle has 30 rooms — mostly used to house animals, her preferred art subjects — a central courtyard and 40-foot water tower. The castle is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s sort of funny how people come to the beach to build sandcastles, but Huntington Beach State Park actually has a real castle overlooking the ocean.
That evening we decided to make the quick five-minute drive to Dead Dog Saloon. The popular waterfront restaurant has a great selection of hearty entrees. We ordered shrimp and grits, a New York strip steak and Alaskan snow crab legs — a delicious and hearty meal to fill our bellies and wrap up our weekend. Afterward, we strolled along the MarshWalk, a quaint, half-mile, waterfront boardwalk along an estuary that’s lined with restaurants and live music creating a fun, relaxed atmosphere.
“Guys, I’ve got to say, this trip has been a lot more enjoyable than I expected,” Trey said, as we headed back to the car.
After waking up before sunrise the previous two days, we slept in for our final day at Huntington Beach State Park. I cooked some eggs, bacon and grits, and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.
As we savored our coffee, we chatted about the weekend, and everyone agreed that Trey getting so excited about spotting the Bald Eagle on our first excursion was one of the highlights.
“So are we doing this again next year?” Trey asked.
“Mark your calendar, bud,” I responded. “I knew you’d come around.”
We spent the next hour or so packing up all our gear and getting organized. As I drove toward the park’s exit, Trey pointed up in the trees and in a professorial voice exclaimed, “Why do I believe that’s a female Painted Bunting I see?”
“Uh-oh, I think we’ve created a monster,” John said, as we all burst out laughing.
Some photos have been provided by Steve Ellwood, a master-photographer and long-time resident of Murrells Inlet.
To see more of Steve’s stunning photos or purchase his book visit www.InTheMomentBook.com.