Return to Bear Island.

Bear Island is a huge wildlife management area in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Here are almost 12,000 acres of marsh, forest, and acreage planted for wildlife.

I spent a lot of time exploring there last year in the second half of summer. I wanted to find some new areas for photography, and I did manage–through a lot of walking and biking–to find some spots which are now favorites, and offer a good alternative to closer areas like Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.

Today was going to be a scouting trip. The area had been shut down since September of last year for hunting and to offer a resting area for migrating waterfowl. It recently reopened and I was anxious to make acquaintance again with one of the best birding areas in South Carolina.

My hope for today would be to locate some migrating ducks, Bald Eagles, Osprey an assortment of shorebirds. I came home with 994 photos. Of course, many of those would be duplicates, long distance shots, poor lighting, and out of focus. I was going to be satisfied if 3%–30 images–were good enough to keep.

I was out of the house by 6:00, grabbing a banana and a granola bar for the 50 minute trip. Dark overcast and a 20-25 mile an hour wind greeted me outside. I thought to myself, “Mother Nature is going to be in our face today!” I don’t let weather keep me home. In coastal South Carolina, it changes rapidly. And, the photography is always a second priority anyway. Just being out there is first.

First stop: Duck Alley.

Duck Alley is a long impoundment that slices through a marsh on it’s way to an island. I have had some phenomenal luck with ducks, eagles, and ospreys in addition to Pelicans, Herons, and Egrets.

As I exited my car in the parking area, a large dark shape passed by me overhead. At first, I thought it was a vulture. But the wings never formed the classic “V” shape above its body, so I brought up my camera. Yep, Bald Eagle. A quick shot showed me what I would be up against on this low light morning.

I walked onto the dike and immediately saw large white birds in the air, with some darker ones mixed in. Adult and juvenile White Ibis, too far for a shot. I stopped about half way down the dike, and sat down to see if the flight path had changed from last year.

Waterfowl and other birds have a habit of using the same flight paths in an out of a marsh. It’s like our roads. Last year, the best place to be was about 3/4 of the way down the dike. In ten minutes today, I could see that hadn’t changed.

Walking west, a Bald Eagle flew between me and the island. If I had been in place, I would have had a shot. I kept my eye on it as I set up my chair in front of a large shrub. Eventually, he started working his way back toward me, coming closer and closer. There was no doubt he could see me, but sometimes they just don’t care, and soar right over top of people. This one came close. The sky had lightened some, but not enough for a great shot.

Close enough, but light is still poor.

I spent about an hour on Duck Alley without seeing much else other than ducks that were too far away. I had three other spots to hit, and it was time to move on. On the walk to my truck, some white Pelicans cruised overhead.

Next up was The Drive at Bear Island, a circular driving tour by Mary’s Pond, a popular spot with photographers. It’s my least favorite spot here, primarily because it can get really crowded with people. On a cloudy and windy week day though, I wasn’t expecting a lot of company. Some more White Pelicans and Snowy Egrets on Mary’s Pond.

And, the always beautiful Great Blue Heron. The light was picking up now, with patches of blue sky peeking through the clouds.

White Ibis, adults and juveniles.

And, the ever present gulls.

No Osprey in the nest by the DNR headquarters. Too early maybe? Next on the list was what I call the Spoonbill marshes. Three smaller bodies of water where I have seen Roseate Spoonbills, and Shoveler ducks (also called Spoonbills). No Rosies today, but a few Northern Shovelers.

The Spoonbills are filter feeders. They move along like underwater lawn mowers, filtering water through their bills to get food. Apparently the little Snowy didn’t know that, as he hurried over to see what great treats could be found, only to walk away disappointed.

Also, I often see Avocet here. Beautiful and interesting birds, especially in flight. There appear to be some differences between the pair; whether that is male/female or a different sub species, I don’t know.

Let’s head to Blue Wing Pass, so named because I was here during the fall duck migration last year while hundreds of Blue Wing Teal passed over my head. This shot is from September 2019.

This areas consists of four ponds and a canal, intersected by impoundments. I saw a large raft of ducks on one, but too far away to even identify. More Avocets, and a Snowy working for food. These small egrets shake their leg back and forth to stir food from the marsh bottom.

On another pond, I see three large dark birds feeding together. Glossy Ibis! I take a shot but will try to get closer.

Sneaking down the dike behind some tall marsh grass, I realize the grass is so thick I will not be able to get an image without spooking the birds. I don’t intentionally flush birds in order to get a shot, so I decided to retreat. As I turned around, another Glossy Ibis explodes into the air not twenty yards to my left, taking with it the other three. While focusing on the trio, I had completely missed the single. The best laid plans…

As I come to the end of the driving tour, I see a familiar brown shape in the sky, sporting a white rump. Harrier hawk! Quickly exiting the vehicle, my camera comes up, hoping for a shot. The hawk sees me, of course, and refuses to come close. They always do. But, I get an image that is better than any others I have taken to date.

More Avocets.

Time to head to my last stop, Osprey Heaven. On the way, another marsh holds some Tundra Swans, and I get some close shots. These birds have a long trip to their summer home on the Arctic Tundra.

Arriving at Osprey Heaven, I find that the mosquitoes are back already. Soon, I also discover that my mosquito repellent from last year is not up to the task. This could be rough.

I chose that name for this place, because last August I spent a lot of time here watching four, sometimes five Osprey at one time hunt this marsh, located in the boondocks of Bear Island. It’s a three mile hike round trip. I normally take a bike, but after a camera disaster late last year in which I fell off said bike and onto my camera–breaking the telephoto lens completely off the camera mount–I have since eschewed that mode of transportation in the field.

Some Osprey pics from last year. These birds are very curious, and often flew over to stare at me from a low altitude when I arrived at the marsh. I also discovered they miss fish more often than they catch one.

No Osprey today. Walking around the marsh, I hear a lot of duck-speak in the marsh, and close, but I can’t see any birds. Suddenly, a dozen Mottled Ducks burst forth from behind some rushes. Soon I realize one is left on the water, talking up a storm. That normally means one of two possibilities: Either she is wounded, or she has a nest near by. They did have some lottery duck hunts here, so I’m hoping it’s the latter instead of the former.

Her brethren continue to circle as she calls to them, apparently trying to get them to come back. I take a quick shot and move on so they can be reunited.

Mottled Duck

The chatter of a Kingfisher freezes me in place. Just as I locate it, the bird takes flight, landing on a distant trunk. A bit too far, but the first one of the day so I take it.

To my left, a large gator slips into the water and watches me.

Time to head back to the truck. A mile and half to go, and my bad feet and knees are protesting. I’m going to have to figure out a way to carry my camera rig on a bike safely if I want to come back to Osprey Heaven. And, of course I do.

A Fiddler crab wields it’s weapon on the walk out.

Up ahead I see three Terns working another marsh. Lots of fun to attempt captures of their hunting.

The water impact shot won’t happen today, as there is marsh grass between the bird and me. It is the most difficult shot to achieve. The camera, in auto focus mode, follows the bird to the water. When impact happens and the water erupts, the focus now becomes the water and not the bird. I am determined to get a clean shot of this, but it will take some work. It seems to me the solution is either a greater depth of field, or maybe even using manual focus.

Getting close to the vehicle, I hear an eagle chirping up above. It is circling and hunting. Not very close, but I don’t pass up the opportunity.

Up ahead, the last marsh, a huge one. I can see a raft of ducks through the brush. Pintails and Widgeons. I take some shots and would love to get closer, but the last thing I want to do is flush a large flock of feeding and resting migrating waterfowl. So I settle for what I can get. Pintails are uncommon where I am from, and I am happy to get these shots.

Almost to the vehicle, but one more bird in the sky. Osprey? Nope, another Northern Harrier, first hunting the thickets and then flying directly over the raft of ducks. I am positive they will take to the sky at the sight of it, but they only peep a bit louder and stay put. The hawk passes without incident.

And that’s a wrap! What a morning. None of these will make the annual calendar, but I have seen a lot of variety and am pleased with that. My scouting trip is a success, and the next trip will focus on one special spot at a time.

Published by Larry Maras

Nature Photographer in Summerville, SC.

2 thoughts on “Return to Bear Island.

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