Boneyard and Butterflies

Discovering this idyllic place, we find ourselves filled with a yearning to linger here, where time stands still and beauty overwhelms.


Salt marsh at sunset

Salt marsh at sunset (click photos to enlarge)

Another report on my recent trip to the South Carolina Lowcountry…after looking for dolphins on the boat charter and enjoying some of the fine dining to be found in Charleston, it was off to Edisto Beach State Park for a couple of days of exploring and relaxing.

Palmetto leaves and shadows

Cabbage Palmetto leaves make interesting patterns as the sun sets

Edisto Beach State Park has a great interpretive center and nice hiking trails. The campground and cabin area are located adjacent to a salt marsh with beautiful woods along the shoreline. Sitting on the screen porch and watching the sun slowly sink over the marsh was a great way to relax. Two Great Horned Owls called in the distance.

Palm leaf patterns

Cabbage Palm leaf patterns

The low angle golden light cast beams and shadows on the vegetation making the woods seem like a gallery showcasing an artist that specialized in abstracts of green stained glass.

Botany Bay roadway

The tree-lined road into Botany Bay

One of the places I wanted to visit was one friends simply called Botany Bay. I had thought it was part of Edisto Beach Sate Park. But, it turns out its more official name is Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area and it lies a few miles down the road from the state park. And, as I found out, you need to do a little homework before visiting as it is regularly closed to the public on many days in the Fall for scheduled gun deer hunts. Luckily, one of the days I was in the area was a Sunday, and there are no hunts scheduled for Sundays. The two mile dirt road into Botany Bay is gorgeous, with huge Live Oaks draped with Spanish Moss forming a sun-dappled tunnel.

Spanish Moss on Live Oak

Live Oak festooned with Spanish Moss

Live Oak branches at Botany Bay

The trees are so beautiful you want to stop and just stare up toward the sky

I found myself driving very slow and stopping periodically just to look up and try to take it all in. This is quintessential Lowcountry – dark twisting branches of Live Oaks, some heavily cloaked with the gray clumps of Spanish Moss. Volunteers greet you on busy days and provide a map to the self-guided auto tour route. But I headed straight for a place I had heard about that can be a photographers delight, under the right conditions – the beach at Botany Bay.

Dead tree at Botany Bay 1

Dead trees provide stark subjects for photography along the beach at Botany Bay

I have seen images from many wonderful photographers taken along the so-called Boneyard Beach of Botany Bay at sunrise. Unfortunately, the tide gods did not cooperate on this, my first visit to this area, as it was a time of extremely high tides at, you guessed it, sunrise. Park staff had said it was unlikely that the beach would even exist at high tide, and, from the looks of things, they had been right. So, waiting for the tide to start dropping also meant the sun was rising higher in the sky, making for some harsh lighting.

Dead tree at Botany Bay

Dead trees reach to the ocean at Botany Bay

Dead tree at Botany Bay 2

Boneyard Beach as the tide is dropping

I will definitely make a return trip to this unique beach for a sunrise visit at mid-tide, hopefully with a few clouds to liven things up.

Buckeye butterfly on grass stem

A butterfly caught my eye walking back through the salt marsh at Botany Bay

The trail out to the beach passes through a salt marsh and some maritime forest and can be a great place to see birds, reptiles, crabs, and other coastal critters. I had hoped to see migrating Monarch Butterflies, as this is usually a great time of year to see them along the North Carolina coast. But, nary a Monarch in sight, although some other butterflies did their best to make up for that.

Buckeye butterfly on grass stem wings open

Buckeye basking on a marsh grass stem

What looked like a freshly emerged Buckeye caught my eye as it rested on a swaying Spartina stem along the path. It finally opened its wings to catch some of the warm sun, displaying its boldly patterned wings for a quick image.

Gulf Frittilary

Gulf Frittilary

But the star of the insect world on this trip were hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Gulf Frittilary butterflies flying everywhere along the coast.

Gulf frittilaries

The undersides of the wings are covered in silvery spots

I think some people may mistake these orange and black beauties for Monarch Butterflies in the fall, as they, too, undergo mass migrations, especially on the coast. But Gulf Frittilaries are a bit more elongate in their wing shape, and have distinctive silvery spots on the underside of their wings. In North Carolina, this species is resident mainly along the southeastern coast, and then exhibits some inland and southward migration in late summer. Larval food plants are various species of Passionflowers. This must have been a very good year for this species as everywhere I went along the coast, they were abundant.

Shadows on duckweed-filled pond

Shadows on duckweed-filled pond

Those few days spent in the Lowcountry will be remembered for the slow pace, the wildlife, and the play of light on the water and through the vegetation…there is a serenity to the place, something that will call me back.




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.