Lounging in the Lowcountry

I have heard it said that an inoculation to the sights and smells of the Carolina lowcountry is an almost irreversible antidote to the charms of other landscapes.

~Pat Conroy

I recently made a leisurely trip to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Lowcountry generally refers to the lands along the coast from Charleston to the Georgia line, and is both a geographic and cultural designation. The impetus was to try to see the phenomenon known as strand feeding where dolphins run fish up on a muddy bank at low tide, coming up on the bank themselves as they grab the struggling fish. This behavior is primarily found in dolphins inhabiting the marshes south of Charleston.

Brown Pelicans in flight

Brown Pelican flyover on the boat trip through the marsh (click photos to enlarge)

After looking online, I booked a morning charter near Charleston with a boat captain that would take you out to look for dolphins. The day was beautiful with sunshine and a light breeze and the charter was timed with low tide to increase the chances of seeing strand feeding. Just after leaving the dock we began seeing a lot of bird activity. First, a pair of Brown Pelicans glided overhead, staring down at us.

Royal Tern in flight

Royal Tern in flight

Then a pair of Royal Terns zigged and zagged across the creek, one bird chasing another that had a fish, until the latter gulped it down. On the way out, our captain passed by a couple of fishing boats at a dock. One boat was a commercial shark-fishing boat, and as we passed by, that captain held up a Loggerhead Sea Turtle that he had just found inside the belly of an 8-foot Tiger Shark.

American Oystercatcher on marsh bank

American Oystercatcher on oyster reef

Cruising past the docks, the marsh creek narrowed, and we could see the plentiful oysters exposed by the low tide. And where there are oysters, there are American Oystercatchers. These large shorebirds have a unique feeding style. Their stout red bills are long, straight, an laterally flattened. The birds use them to pry or hammer open bivalve shells and to occasionally catch other small prey such as worms and crabs. Individual birds tend to differ in their feeding style with some being primarily “stabbers” (prying open shells), and others being mainly “hammerers” (breaking open shells by pounding on them). The back lighting on this bird highlighted some of the beauty of its unusual bill.

Morris' Lighthouse and pelicans g

Morris Island Light with Brown Pelicans in foreground

There were a few other people on the boat and we were all soon dropped off near Morris Island Light for some beach time. The lighthouse was once the primary safety beacon for Charleston Harbor.

Morris Island Light

Morris Island Light has been decommissioned and today stands far offshore

But the construction of long jetties to protect the main channel into the harbor in the late 1800’s greatly altered the sand transport patterns. In 1880, the lighthouse stood about 2700 feet inland. By 1938, it was at the water’s edge, and today, the lighthouse is on its own tiny island, roughly 1600 feet from shore.

Sand dollar

Sand Dollars and Hermit Crabs were common along the shore

The shoreline was sculpted by wave action and provided beachcombers with an array of shells and Sand Dollars. Finding an intact Sand Dollar is still one of life’s simple pleasures.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull in adult non-breeding plumage looks like it has something to say…

Laughing Gull bill agape

…but remained quiet.

A lone Laughing Gull was standing at the water’s edge and I noticed it gaping its bill every now and then. I sat down and watched and the gull would stand still for a minute, then turn its head and gape. I expected a sound, but nothing. The bird kept it up the entire time I watched. Gulls will often do gape displays when threatening other birds but it usually involves a head thrust and often a long call, so I still don’t know what this guy was up to.

Dolphin fin

Bottlenose Dolphin

Throughout the boat trip, we saw Bottlenose Dolphins swimming and feeding in the marsh creeks, but no strand feeding. One dolphin continued to come up close to our boat and the captain said it had been tagged for studies of their movements. It certainly was an odd-looking tag – a blob that appeared to somehow be attached to the back of the dorsal fin.

dolphin 1

Bottlenose Dolphin cruising next to the boat while we drifted

The dolphins were so close that we could hear them breathe each time they surfaced. The sky was bright blue, the temperature very comfortable, the birds and dolphins feeding throughout the marsh creeks – all in all, a great way to spend a morning in the Lowcountry.