Because our island is a wildlife habitat where a variety of species are revered, many people who call the Lowcountry home enjoy hobbies outdoors where they can observe the animals who also call this place home. A large majority of those animals are birds, and a large majority of those people are “birders.”
Maggie Washo captures a group of Marbled Godwits hunting for dinner on a birding adventure to Fish Haul Beach Par
Interestingly, every year in December, the Audubon Society enlists volunteers to inventory the feathered creatures in the Western Hemisphere. In 2022, the Hilton Head Island chapter of the Audubon Society counted 27,609 birds of 135 species. The counters included 379 participants—the largest group the Hilton Head chapter has had to date and the third-highest number of volunteers in all the count circles in the Western Hemisphere. Of that number, 280 were field observers, 99 were feeder watchers, 20 were fifth graders, and 12 were high school students. Also interestingly, the group was one of the few in which some volunteers carried out their mission on golf carts.
Most of those volunteers are “backyard birders” whose hobby includes attracting birds to their backyard sanctuaries. Many of them shop at Wild Birds Unlimited for products and food to stock their backyard feeders, so they can watch them from the comfort of their Carolina rooms and back patios.
“Wild Birds Unlimited specializes in bringing people and nature together through the hobby of backyard bird feeding and nature products,” Sean Ryan, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, said. “Our store offers the highest quality products including bird food, bird baths, and bird houses.”
Until recently, interactions with Wild Birds Unlimited were limited to store visits where you might breeze in and out with a bag of specialty food that would hopefully attract some feathered friends or maybe a quick chat with expert birders about particular feeders and particular food for particular fowl. And you can still do that, for sure. But that’s not all.
Now, Wild Birds Unlimited is branching out to include services outside the store—where the birds live and where the birders practice their hobby. One of the most popular, especially this time of year when the temperatures are more moderate and in anticipation of the Audubon Society’s annual the Christmas Bird Count in December, are the bird walks.
“On a Wild Birds Unlimited bird walk, our expert guides will lead you through one of our many island birding destinations and help you understand what specific birds look like and sound like so that you can identify them on your own—whether in your backyard or out watching on your own time,” Ryan said.
For the past 30 years, Bob Speare, Naturalist and Audubon Society member, has been leading birding tours, beginning with a career with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. When he first approached Wild Birds Unlimited about leading tours, the idea was inspired by their customers, who are bird enthusiasts who enjoy looking at birds, seeing them at their feeders, and are eager to learn how to bring more birds to their backyards.
“Birds walks are another way that people can enjoy their hobby, plus, there is a social side to it,” Speare said. “You’re out on a nice, easy walk with like-minded people.”
One such person is Deb Sadlon, a Connecticut transplant who has been birding for 30 years, five of those on Hilton Head with Wild Birds Unlimited. Even though she’s an experienced birder, because the birds are different here, she found there was still much to learn.
“The Bird Walk guides at Wild Birds Unlimited are very knowledgeable,” Sadlon said. “They explain everything thoroughly and give great little tips to help solidify the knowledge they impart, allowing participants to recognize birds either by sight or sound. For example, sound cues might be that a brown-headed nut hatch sounds like a squeaky dog toy or the cat bird actually ‘meows.’ Some great sight cues involve markings on birds in flight, such as a black vulture has white on its wing tips, but the turkey vulture has white along the bottom edge of the wings.”
The 60-minute bird walks are entry level events, and even those who are new to birding feel welcome and not overwhelmed. The guides take folks around to local places like Pinckney Island, Fish Haul Park, the old golf course near Port Royal Plantation, Jarvis Creek, and even Shelter Cove—all places providing good opportunities to see local birds.
“Bird walks are also an opportunity to learn about birds that don’t come to your feeder,” Speare said. “For example, there are birds that only eat insects, so you won’t find them in a seed feeder. But you might find them at your bird bath, or you might just see them in and around your yard eating bugs. People also benefit from our walks by learning about the habitats of different birds and how important these habitats are to the whole environment.”
While the wild habitats are essential and abundant on Hilton Head, Wild Birds Unlimited now offers “feederscaping” services that enable you to create wonderful backyard spaces for birds.
Naturalist Bob Speare points out a circling vulture and Kandace Cunningham and Deb Sadlon track it with binoculars.
“With feederscaping, we come to your yard and make sure your feeders are set up where they need to be in order to attract an abundance of birds,” Ryan said. “Whether it’s advising on what hardware you should use, what kind of feeders attract certain birds, where in the yard to place the feeder, and what type of food to use, we take the guesswork out.”
Wild Birds Unlimited also offers a feeder cleaning service. Bring your dirty feeders to the store and they will clean them for a nominal fee.
“Lots of people don’t like cleaning feeders, so we take that task off your hands,” Ryan said. “Clean feeders protect the birds, plus birds are like people, in that no one wants to eat from a dirty plate. Birds will return to clean feeders and avoid dirty ones. The same is true for your bird baths.”
Another new service is feeder filling. If you’ve got bird feeders in your backyard and you travel for any length of time, one of the pros at Wild Birds Unlimited will come to your yard and fill your feeders so that the birds don’t go find somewhere else to feed.
To take it to the next level, Wild Birds Unlimited can help you get your backyard Wildlife Certified by the National Wildlife Foundation. “The certification requires that you provide the birds a source of water, a couple different sources of food, and a source of shelter for birds,” Ryan said. “We can guide you through that entire process.”
When you’re ready to get to know the Lowcountry’s feathered friends a little better or to create a bird haven in your backyard, Wild Birds Unlimited is the place to begin. For better birding, visit online at HiltonHead.WBU.com, in the store at 45 Pembroke Dr., Ste. 130, or call (843) 802-2010.