If you had told me a year ago that I’d be sitting here enthusiastically writing a post titled “a novice’s guide to bird watching at Huntington Beach State Park”, I’d have laughed at you. You see, I haven’t always liked birds (and besides I typically write about running). In fact, up until recently, birds barely made it onto my “things I tolerate” list.
I had my reasons, of course. When I was younger my grandmother owned a pair of love birds, and I have distinct memories of how obnoxiously loud they were. They’d start in with their incessant screeching (chirping is an understatement) the second the sun began to rise, and would continue on for the majority of the day.
When I was in high school, my first serious boyfriend’s mom had a pet parrot. Ivan was his name, and Ivan hated me. LOATHED me. He’d scream and lunge at me from his cage, and even told me to “shut up” a time or two. I honestly don’t know what I ever did to offend Ivan, but I definitely wasn’t on that birds “things he tolerates” list.
It wasn’t until my Dad passed away that I began to appreciate birds. You see, my Dad was an avid bird watcher. He always had his binoculars and bird identification book at the ready, from his seat at the breakfast table to his recliner in the living room. Dad had multiple bird feeders full of various seeds in both the front and back yards of every house he lived in. And he spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to out-smart the squirrels who were constantly trying to pilfer the bird’s food.
In a fog of grief after my father’s death, I immediately clung to all of the things he loved. I imagine this is a normal mourning response, as it feels like another means of keeping your lost loved one close to your heart. When I left my parents house that fall, I brought home an authentic railroad lantern, framed photos of trains, vintage L.L. Bean gear, and a pair of Dad’s binoculars.
And I started watching the birds.
Birdwatching at Huntington Beach State Park – A Beginners Guide
We currently live on a 60+ mile coastline section of South Carolina known as the Grand Strand. (This includes the ever popular town of Myrtle Beach). And we are fortunate in this area to have not one, but two state parks. One of them, Huntington Beach State Park, is notorious of amazing bird watching opportunities. In fact, over 300 species of birds have been sighted in the park’s 2,500 acres.
Why so many birds? It’s most definitely due to the incredibly varied habitat available within the borders of the park. Huntington Beach State Park is comprised of 1,060 acres of salt marsh and tidal waters, 750 acres of forest, 90 acres of freshwater and brackish marshes, 400 acres of maritime shrub thicket, and 200 acres of sandy beach and dunes.
Now, I’m certainly not a bird expert. Remember, my self proclaimed “bird nerd” status is still woefully green, despite the fact that I already have a painted bunting permanently tattooed on my forearm. Therefore, I don’t own a fancy camera, and I certainly cannot identify and ramble off the names of most of the birds I see (I’ve got “cardinal” down though…). In fact, in this post I’ll barely cover what types of birds you may see…because I still don’t even know myself.
BUT, I really enjoy grabbing my South Carolina State Parks Passport and heading to Huntington Beach State Park to watch the birds. And while I might not know exactly what type of bird I’m looking at, I do know this park inside and out. So, if it’s your first visit to HBSP, and you’re also far from a birding expert, hopefully these tips will help you enjoy your visit. And hopefully, you see lots of beautiful birds.
What to Bring
The following is a list of things I’d recommend bringing along for your bird watching adventures at Huntington Beach State Park:
- Comfortable walking shoes. This park is big, and you can put in a lot of miles (confirmed by the fact that I do a ton of training runs here!)
- A pair of binoculars, if you have them. A lot of the birds hang out in the trees, and it’s hard to always tell what you are looking at.
- A camera, if you want to take pictures.
- A bird identification book. I have “Birds of the Carolinas Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela (2nd edition), and “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America” by David Allen Sibley (2nd edition). I find the latter to be more user friendly in quickly identifying birds.
- This checklist of all of the birds (313!) you may see at HBSP, from South Carolina State Parks. (Click the link to download and print a copy!)
- Some water. You’ll be doing a lot of walking, and it’s hot in South Carolina probably about 11 out of 12 months a year (and sometimes, even the 12th month.)
Where to Go
Huntington Beach State Park is huge, and honestly, you’ll likely see birds no matter where you go. But, these locations are considered the prime birding spots (click HERE for a full map of HBSP):
The first, and most popular bird watching area at Huntington Beach State Park is the causeway. You cannot miss it, as you must drive across it to get into the park itself. The paved causeway separates the salt water marsh with the freshwater marsh Mullet Pond, and is home to pretty much every long legged wading bird your heart could desire. Every color and size you could imagine, you’ll probably see it here.
Once you drive across the causeway, you’ll bear right where the road forks, and immediately see a parking lot on your left. Start there, then walk back towards the causeway.
You can walk up and down either side of the causeway on the protected (from the many RV’s that will drive past) sidewalks. Both sides of the causeway have a small sheltered viewing deck where you can take a seat and enjoy the shade.
Don’t be intimidated by the countless people with cameras and lenses that probably cost more than a few months of rent for your average apartment building. (Seriously, you should SEE these cameras!) These people just really, REALLY love taking pictures of birds. And if you see a bunch of them with their cameras pointed in the same direction – you should probably look that way too.
Don’t forget to look up into the trees from the causeway: you may see hawks, osprey, and even Bald Eagles perched or nesting.
Atalaya Straight Road
On the south end of the park you’ll find a long, straight as an arrow walkway that extends all the way from the Atalaya castle down to highway 17. That road will take you between Mullet Pond and Mallard Pond.
Fun fact: this is where I have had most of my alligator sightings. Countless other locals have reported seeing the gators casually cross the path from one pond to the other. So you know, heads up – this is not a zoo, and these alligators are not enclosed.
But, in addition to the alligators, there are endless birds. On this side I tend to see a lot of different types of ducks.
While walking down the road – and frankly, anywhere at HBSP – don’t forget to look into the trees and bushes. There are songbirds EVERYWHERE. In fact, this is where I saw my very first Painted Bunting (and I’ve seen them many times since!)
Park at the North Beach Access, hit the sand, and head North. It’s about a 1.2 mile walk to get to Jetty, but it’s absolutely worth it . This stretch of beach is protected bird sanctuary – and no dogs are allowed. Plus, the further you get from the parking lot, the less people you see. It truly feels like a desolate, wild beach – a rarity in this area.
As such, you’re likely to see countless gulls, sandpipers, cormorants, and other sea and shore birds. Apparently, the federally endangered piping plover makes appearances here as well (though I haven’t seen one – yet.) And if you’re lucky, you’ll also see one of my favorites: the Pelican.
There are four observation decks at Huntington Beach State Park. One is almost directly across from the causeway parking lot, on Mullet Pond. The second is also on Mullet Pond, but must be accessed via the Kerrigan Nature Trail head, which can be found on the back end of the office parking lot.
Then, there’s a long observation deck/walkway near the nature/educational center (currently in the process of being rebuilt after a fire destroyed the building in July of 2016). This walkway extends well out into the pluff mud. At low tide, you can watch the fiddler crabs and other sea critters scurrying around in the mud.
Lastly, there is an observation tower overlooking Sandpiper pond, accessible from the North Beach access. There is a “bird notes” book located in this parking lot, though I’m honestly not sure how often it is updated, or if it’s frequently used/checked.
What to Know Before You Go
- While birds can be seen at Huntington Beach State Park all year round, the best times of year tend to be fall through spring. Personally, I’ve had the best experiences around September. In one visit alone, we saw a huge flock of Roseate Spoonbills, and a huge flock of Wood Storks, all in addition to the countless herons and song birds we normally see.
- Huntington Beach State Park does have an admission fee. As of January 1st, 2020, the cost for entrance is: $8 for Adults, $5 for Seniors, and $4 for Youth ages 6-15. Or, use your “All Parks” State Park Passport.
- Park hours are 6 a.m. – 6 p.m., daily. During Daylight Saving Time, the hours are extended to 10 p.m.
- The park tends to be super crowded late spring through early fall, as the beaches are pristine and expansive. Therefore, I always recommend getting there as early as possible, so you don’t have to wait in a massive line at the gate.
So there you have it, Heather’s super novice guide to bird watching at Huntington Beach State Park. I may not have any idea what birds I’m looking at, but never the less, I love this place.
4 comments on “A Beginners Guide to Bird Watching at Huntington Beach State Park”
Great pictures! I had to laugh about the huggable pelican – my teenage daughter helps band young pelicans and they definitely don’t like being hugged ; ). We look forward to visiting Huntington Beach sometime in the future! Best, Gwen
Haha yes! I imagine this goes for 99.5% of wildlife. Looks huggable, definitely doesn’t want to be hugged! What a cool job your daughter has! I’ve always loved Pelicans!
Check out eBird. You can log in your bird sightings, but you can also set up alerts for when and where the people with expensive cameras spot rare birds in your area.
YES! I need to download this app. I did the last time you recommended it, but my phone panicked and needless to say, I had to uninstall. Gonna try again…
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