HHI – North End

While the south end of the island and the Atlantic beaches get the most human visitors, most Hilton Head Island birds favors the north end of the island and the “flats” of the Port Royal Sound. And with good reason – there are numerous parks – and even housing developments or “plantations” – full of woods, tidal creeks, marshes, mudflats and sandbars just full of delicacies to eat and places to get away from the crowds of human visitors!

Hilton Head Island - Port Royal Sound from airplane

Fish Haul Creek Park and Port Royal Sound from a small plane –
you can clearly see the “Port Royal Flats” sandbars extending out into the Sound

Fish Haul Creek Park, Mitchellville Beach Park, and Baygall Field Park – There are three parks at the northeast end of Hilton Head Island (just beyond the airport) that provide access to the Port Royal Sound shoreline and nearby marshes – Fish Haul Creek Park, Mitchelville Beach Park, and Barker Field Park. These parks were developed and are maintained by the Town of Hilton Head Island, who have done a good job of preserving the natural beauty while also providing good access to it.

Fish Haul Creek Park - Marsh view from boardwalk

Fish Haul Creek Park –
Marsh view from boardwalk at high tide

Probably the best place for a birder to start looking for a wide variety of birds is at Fish Haul Creek Park. This is the largest and most varied of the three parks, and it has become one of our favorite biking + birding + beach destinations.

Other than a boardwalk leading to a gazebo out in the salt marsh and a trail with wood chips on it (a little soft for biking, but not bad if you have a “fat tire” bike), it is mostly an undeveloped “natural” park with four major habitats – maritime forest (with some beautiful specimen live oaks), salt marsh and creeks (full of fiddler crabs), beach dunes and scrub (where grackles and herons hang out), and tidal mudflats and sandbars (the “Port Royal Flats”).  It does have a decent restroom as well as a “natural” parking area with a little pavement and a “rinse-off” station.

The maritime forest around the parking lot has a lot of large live oaks and is good area for warblers and vireos during migration and wintertime.  (I heard a White-eyed Vireo calling from amidst the brush under a large live oak the last time we were there.) The salt marsh is close to the parking area and restroom and is easily accessible – follow the wood chip covered trail over to a boardwalk that goes out to a spacious gazebo in the marsh.

Fiddler Crabs in Fish Haul Creek Salt Marsh

Fiddler Crabs in Fish Haul Creek Salt Marsh

If the tide is going out, look for the many small fiddler crabs that scurry about in the marsh area.  There will likely be shorebirds such as White Ibis, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, and Green Heron feeding in the area, along with Vultures, Ospreys, and even an occasional Bald Eagle soaring overhead. We’ve also seen a raccoon looking for lunch in the marsh grasses along the edge of the woods as well. And the gazebo is a great place to cool off and relax or eat a lunch or snack on a hot sunny day – just remember to take your trash out with you!

But for shorebirds, you can’t beat the beach and mud flats along Port Royal Sound. The Port Royal flats provide feeding and resting habitat for most of the herons, shorebirds, gulls, and terns of the South Carolina coast, but you may need a telescope (or a willingness to get your feet wet) to see them well. If you head east over towards the point where the Port Royal Sound empties into the Atlantic Ocean, you will see some large sandbars (especially at low tide) with hundreds of shorebirds and Brown Pelicans on them. This is a particularly good spot for winter shorebirds such as Marbled Godwits, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Sanderlings, along with year round resident Black Skimmers, Oystercatchers, Willets, Royal Terns, and other shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Groups of Red Knots, Semi-palmated Plovers, Dunlins and Least Sandpipers will show up there during the spring migration as well. I saw a Black-bellied Plover there still hanging around at the beginning of May.

Mitchellville Beach Park - Shorebirds

Mitchellville Beach Park – Shorebirds galore!

From the Fish Haul Creek Park beach you can easily walk west about a quarter mile to Mitchellville Beach Park. It is a relatively new park (the Town of Hilton Head Island opened it in 2007). This small park has been a recent discovery of our family, and it has become one of our favorite places to relax.  It has a nice, mostly-shaded parking area and restrooms, and it provides easy access to the beach and the Port Royal Flats shoreline and sandbars. It is a “mostly” quiet getaway from the crowded beaches of the Atlantic shoreline – depending on how much air traffic is coming in or out of Hilton Head Airport! (Yes, it is located right on the flight path of all flights coming in from the north or taking off to the north.) If you don’t mind the airplane noise – or enjoy watching flights coming in a few hundred feet over your head – it is also a major stopover on the Atlantic Flyway during spring bird migration as well.

Mitchellville Beach Park - Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls

Mitchellville Beach Park - Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls

Just a short walk or drive further east from the Mitchellville Beach Park parking lot is Barker Field Park, which is mostly a group of athletic fields for baseball, softball, soccer, and lacrosse. However, at the north end of this park (you can park your vehicle by the soccer/lacrosse field), there is a boardwalk that goes out into a tidal marsh (covering probably an acre or more) and ends up in a viewing platform overlooking a small tidal creek.  From our experience, there will likely be a LOT of herons, rails and shorebirds there – there were at least a dozen Snowy Egrets there in early April.  There is also a boardwalk that goes to the right over the marsh and connects to the Mitchellville Beach Park by its parking lot.

From our experience, the only downside to birding in this area along the Port Royal Sound are all the folks who let their dogs run up and down the beach and out into the flats/sandbar area.  Since most of the public doesn’t know about these beaches, there are no lifeguards around to enforce any dog-leash ordinances during the summer, so you may have a wet and sandy Lab come playfully tromping by while you’re trying to figure out what kind of tern you are  – oops, were – viewing.  However, the birds seem to have gotten used to the occasional human and animal traffic and don’t usually fly too far away.

How to Get to Fish Haul Creek Park or Mitchellville Beach Park

All three of these parks are basically at the north end of Beach City Road – just follow the signs for the airport and keep heading north. To get to Fish Haul Creek Park, keep going north through the 4-way stop sign until you see the sign for the park on the right – another 100 yards on Beach City Road and you’d be on the beach anyways. (There is a big “Road Ends” sign and barrier at the end of Beach City Road.)

To get to Barker Field Park or Mitchellville Beach Park, go to the 4-way stop sign after the airport, then turn left onto Fish Haul Road. Follow Fish Haul Road for 0.4 miles to Baygall Road, then turn right onto Baygall Road for 0.3 miles to Mitchellville Road. Turn right onto Mitchellville Road – you’ll see the Barker Field baseball fields on your right side, then the soccer/lacrosse field on the left where you can park to go out on the boardwalk to the marsh. Or keep going for 0.2 miles to the Mitchellville Beach Park entrance, on your left.

A Scenic Beach Bike Trip

HINT: Here’s a nice bike trip for you that visits all three of these parks, if you’re up to a 4 mile ride: park your vehicle in the lot of St. Francis by the Sea church (along Beach City Road by the bike trail – away from the church) or in the Hospital Commons lot behind the church (turn in at the Palmetto Hall sign, then make a left onto Bill Fries Road, past the church property, then a left into the parking lot).  NOTE: I have heard a Chuck-will’s-widow calling at dusk from the little strip of woods between this parking lot and the lagoon behind the church!)

Hop on your bikes and ride down past the airport, past Fort Howell (an old Union Army earthen fort from Civil War days – worth a short stopover), and down to the 4-way stop sign at Fish Haul Rd. and Dillon Rd.  Keep heading north until you reach Fish Haul Creek Park on the right.

Fish Haul Creek Park - Bike trail

Fish Haul Creek Park - Bike trail

You can stop in at the restrooms, ride the trail over to the boardwalk and go out to the gazebo where you can take a look over the tidal salt marsh, then head down the trail again through the maritime forest to the beach.  VOILA!  You are looking out at the Port Royal Flats, one of the birding hotspots of the Lowcountry! If it’s low tide, you can walk a long ways out onto the flats, although there are some Pluff Mud areas where you could sink in a ways.  (I highly recommend wearing some saltwater-compatible waterproof footwear like the Keen Laguna Sandals if you’re walking along in this area!) You can also probably ride your bike some along the beach (especially at low tide), but the sand can be soft in some areas, so plan on walking your bike part of the time.

Once you’re done pedaling and walking around the beach area, you can head west (go under and beyond the pier that juts out into the Sound) and take the short trail from the beach to Mitchellville Beach Park (watch for the woven matting coming out of the woods onto the sand). Stop off at the “rinse-off” station and the restroom there, have a cool drink in the shade, and then pedal or walk out over the boardwalk to the right of the parking lot to the tidal marsh viewing area. You’ll likely see a number of herons and egrets there.

Then pedal out the bike trail past the soccer field to the road, turn right and go down past the baseball fields to the crossroads. Turn left and follow the bike trail back up Baygall Rd. to Fish Haul Rd., then turn left and ride back to the 4-way stop sign again at Beach City Rd. Take the bike trail back up Beach City Rd. to your parked vehicle. This probably takes a couple of hours (depending on how much time you take to dawdle and birdwatch) and covers about 4-5 miles.  A great way to spend an afternoon!