2023 Wildlife Sightings: Incredible Findings and Photos

Welcome to the Kiawah Island Nature Program’s 2023 wildlife sightings. Here you’ll find postings from our Naturalists and island biologists, showing you what is currently in the field, as well as an archive of observations from throughout the year. We hope this archive will get you excited about the amazing and diverse wildlife found on Kiawah Island. Share your photos and stories with us at Kiawah_Recreation@KiawahResort.com

May 23, 2023 ~ Black-bellied whistling ducks

I know there’s too many bird pictures on here now, but I just couldn’t help myself with this one! These are absolutely beautiful whistling ducks with a very calm and collected attitude. I had fun taking a few photos, but I really enjoyed my time with these birds

As always, happy spotting!

~ Naturalist Stephen

May 15, 2023 ~ Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned night herons are a special treat for any shorebird-loving individual on the island. They are typically only active during the early morning and late evening hours to avoid competition with other herons; getting to spot one midday is always a blast!

This night heron wasted no time worrying about me – or anything else – for that matter. Similar to their long-necked cousins, they stalk prey slowly before lunging forward with their long neck, grasping at a potential meal. Like other shorebirds, these birds are not particularly picky, so we got to watch this fella’ eat anything from weeds, to insects, to fish and more.

As always, happy spotting!

~ Naturalist Stephen

May 12, 2023 ~ Roseate Spoonbill

you are spotting a weird cousin of the flamingo, but the two have almost nothing in common. The pink features of the roseate spoonbill come from the same material flamingos eat. They both eat certain algae and shrimp that produce carotenoids, which are the compounds that give these birds their beautiful pink plumage.

With mesmerizing pink wings and a gorgeous bill to boot, these birds are quite the sight! When feeding, they swish their bill back and forth underneath the mud. Specialized nerves on its end will detect any potential prey, and the “spoon” will quickly snap shut! Despite the odd look of this bird, it is always one of our favorites to spot – no only is it absolutely stunning, but it gives us all the feeling that summer is in the air 🙂

May 2, 2023 ~ Tricolored heron

Tricolored herons are some awesome birds to spot – from their gorgeous plumage to their fascinating hunting behaviors, this bird is always a treat! This was at low tide, so it stalked along the water’s edge looking for small fish and crabs to snatch up. Luckily it was in quite a good spot, so I had some fun with the photos I captured.

~ Naturalist Stephen

May 1, 2023 ~ Green anole

I love it when the lizards come out to play again! And – believe me – these green anoles sure are “playing” quite a bit. When it comes to those territorial push up contests, the color-changing anoles are pretty much every corner you turn. The interesting thing about green anoles – while they change colors, this is not a camouflage technique like many people think. They actually change their color to indicate levels of stress; typically for green anoles, they change to a dark brown when they are particularly angry.

Feel free to look around the corners of walk ways – or pretty much anywhere – for these beautiful lizards. With how active they are during the day, it won’t be hard to find one!

~ Naturalist Stephen

April 25 2023 ~ Beautiful common loon!

Special thanks to Donna Dorner for capturing this seemingly odd sighting of a common loon “stranded” on the beach! Loons are extremely interesting – their call is one of the most commonly used bird calls in cinema because of the eerie, whistle-like noise they make. Even if you haven’t seen one, you might still be able to recognize their call from that alone.

Their back legs are so far behind their body to help amplify their swimming abilities, but it also means they are unable to walk on land. this doesn’t stop them from “crawling” up to the beach, though! Often dragging its chest and staying close to the shoreline, most loons can rest up to 24 hours on land before heading back into the water.

While these fellas’ can look like they’re in constant need of help, the best thing you can do is leave them be! As long as they look healthy and alert with their head sticking up – like this beautiful bird here, they’re probably just taking a break.

If you ever are worried – it’s always better to be safe than sorry! Feel free to call 843.768.6001 and we will happily check on any wildlife concerns you have 😊 😊

Thanks again to Donna for sharing this awesome video with us!

April 24, 2023 ~ Black skimmers

While out out on beach, Naturalist Stevie ran across a beautiful sighting of black skimmers! These gorgeous birds have a slightly downturned, bright orange beak with a large black tip. You can frequently see them flying just above the water’s surface, opening their beaks to “skim” along and capture small fish, shrimp and invertebrates they find along the shallower areas of the water.

Keep your eyes peeled – they’re a fun bird to spot!

April 23, 2023 ~ Red knots

Our red knot friends have been with us for a while now, but because they don’t leave until mid to late May, seeing such a unique bird is still an incredible treat.

Kiawah Island and Seabrook are both known as “critical sites” providing essential areas where they can recuperate and rest undisturbed. In a 2020 study, data showed that 42% of the red knot population landed on these two islands! They rest in this area for a few reasons: first, it’s a relatively safe place for them to idle undisturbed, and second, it give them access to a huge supply of horseshoe crab eggs. Timing the water temperature right, they can eat thousands of these eggs, building fat reserves to continue the rest of their journey while hardly slimming the horseshoe egg supply in the process.

Red knots are migratory sandpipers that travel almost 20,000 miles each year; starting from their wintering grounds on the southern tip of South America to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, a single red knot travels about 9,300 miles during their biyearly migration. Thought they might not look the part, these birds are absolute feats of nature.

Talk about an incredible bird!

~ Photo by Naturalist Stevie

April 19, 2023 ~ Juvenile ‘gator

Who doesn’t love stumbling upon a baby alligator? When I was out out on my gator walk, we happened upon a group of smaller, juvenile alligators. While I’m not exactly sure how old they were, my guess would be around 2 years old at the most. The markings this one has are pretty intricate, and its mom was stationed close by, so these fellas were still being well cared for. It’s always a good day for alligator spotting on Kiawah!

~ Naturalist Stephen

April 19, 2023 ~ Cannonball jellyfish

Special thanks to Amanda Minter Auston for sharing this fun find with us! When out beachcombing in the early morning, Amanda stumbled across an awesome array shells, crabs, and more! We will be sharing some of the other pictures she was kind enough to share with us, but we thought it would be fun to start off with one of the more common animals you will spot around this time of year – the cannonball jellyfish.

While common, this does not mean it is anything less than extraordinary. They – like other jellyfish – are natural carnivores, preying on fish eggs, planktonic larvae, and other small objects they can capture. They can emit a toxin which, while relatively harmless to humans, can kill smaller fish and keep predators at bay.

Believe it or not, because these jellyfish feed on smaller organisms they can be picked up without fear of getting stung! We don’t recommend doing this; you never know if you’ve misidentified a jellyfish, and most of the jellyfish washed up are likely not in a good state to get picked up in the first place.

Thanks again to Amanda for this awesome photo!

April 10, 2023 ~ Raccoon skull

While out exploring the marsh, Naturalists Cheyenne and Stevie managed to come across an assortment of bones from two separate raccoons. While we were unsure if their bones were near each other by mere happenstance, we can say that the find was definitely a fun one!

April 9, 2023 ~ Blue-headed vireo

Blue-headed vireos are a relatively uncommon sighting on Kiawah, so I was happy to hear the beautiful whistling of this magnificent songbird while I was walking to my car one day. Following the sound, I was able to locate it and snap a few pictures; the small and fast moving vireo was hard to catch, but it did give me quite a show! These beautiful birds are pretty unique in look – almost like a half warbler, half kinglet hybrid. Regardless, it was still a rush to see this pretty fella’ jumping around, eating worms and other insects while gleefully singing in the sun!

~ Naturalist Stephen

March 29, 2023 ~ Yellow-throated warbler

With the migratory season right around the corner for many of our warbling friends, expect a lot of beautiful calls and displaying action! Just today, I heard three of the gorgeous calls from our yellow-throated warbler friends and decided to test my luck. In almost no time, I found a beautiful bird calling out! With how small these birds are, and how quickly they move around, I was lucky to get any shot at all. Still, it gave me quite a show – and I still can’t help but think of their docile, song-like call.

~ Naturalist Stephen

March 28, 2023 ~ Yellow-rumped warbler

While it is almost time for these gorgeous songbirds to migrate north for the spring, the yellow-rumped warbler is still one of our favorites! These bright, beautiful birds are found everywhere on Kiawah in the winter, but our “butter-butts” tend to leave between April and May, returning in September. They overwinter on Kiawah, and travel towards Canada to reach breeding grounds.

While yellow-rumps are classified into different subspecies, it’s no doubt that they exist almost everywhere in the US. If you’re on Kiawah in the coming days, be sure to look out for their gorgeous yellow sides and tail!

Happy spotting!

March 13, 2023 ~ Belted kingfisher

No matter where I go, whenever I hear the beautiful, tiny “trrrr” sound of these magnificent birds my mood is instantly lifted. While it’s clear I didn’t get a very good photo, this belted kingfisher gave me quite the show as it hovered around Willet pond, diving around and catching small fish before flying to this palmetto to enjoy its catch. I watched this kingfisher for about 10 minutes before it decided it had bigger things to tend to elsewhere. Still, what a beautiful show! I’m so happy that one of my favorite birds can be found at just about any pond on Kiawah.

As always, happy birding!

~ Naturalist Stephen

March 9, 2023 ~ The red knots have arrived

The red knots are back! If you are unfamiliar with these incredible birds, you are in for quite a treat!

Red knots migrate 9,300 miles one way – traveling from the southern tip of South America all the way up to the Canadian Arctic. This trip is exhaustive, requiring a multitude of incredible ecological phenomena in order for these birds to survive the journey.

Along their trip, they rest on Kiawah! This is considered a critical resting space, so it is CRUCIAL that these birds are not disturbed. Because of their exhaustive travel, even the slightest change in resting location could be devastating for the population.

So, what can you do to make sure you are not disturbing our red Knots? The easiest thing to do is appreciate them from a distance – these are thousands of beautiful birds moving in and out of the area, so they are tricky to miss! More importantly, be sure to keep your dogs leashed and outside of any resting locations. Our red knots typically rest on the northern and southern-most ends of the Island, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled!

March 8, 2023 ~ Baby yellow-bellied sliders; already?

While it is certainly a bit early to see some of our turtle hatchlings out and about, the mild winter and warmer water temperatures Kiawah has been experiencing makes early hatches like this more common. While this usually is not an issue, major climate changes could potentially lead to early hatching cycles, meaning some turtles will hatch before ample food is available. For now – thankfully – this is not a huge concern, and early hatches still tend to be rare.

While it likely won’t be until later in the spring and summer until the majority of our babies hatch, it is still important to look out for hatchlings that might get confused along their journey.

This yellow-bellied slider baby was found and rescued by an island guest, as it had gotten lost and wandered a little too far away from a nearby pond. Luckily, it was taken to the Nature Center at Night Heron Park, where Naturalists Stevie and Luke helped release our precious turtle friend.

February 23, 2023 ~ A painted bunting?!

I know I mentioned in my last post that minks are pretty difficult to spot, but finding a painted bunting this time of year is quite a sight! This is my second time seeing one in the winter – our nonmigratory population is relatively small, but we still have quite a few that hang around regardless of the weather 🙂

Be sure to keep your eyes peeled on bird feeders; they’re very timid, but you never know if you’ll be able to spot one!

~ Naturalist Stephen

February 22, 2023 ~ American mink!

During a morning Kayak tour, our group came across an elusive little critter! The American mink is almost always near a body of water, but I’ve only seen them three times on Kiawah. The best part: every time I’ve seen them, it’s the morning, it’s during spring tide season, and it’s a high tide. This fella’ was in the same exact spot as the mink I encountered last time, so it might have even been the same friend! As the fearless, territorial little animals they are, it stood its ground and watched as we drifted by. What a fun time to kayak!

~ Naturalist Stephen

February 17, 2023 ~ How many alligators can fit in a pond?

Near the Ocean Course, I came across a beautiful communal alligator pond. These are where smaller alligators will live together until they reach a large enough size to live on their own. I would not call alligators “social” creatures, but they are definitely more social than the average reptile! They’ll often tolerate each other until a certain age – which is why you see so many in this specific pond.
So, how many alligators can you find?

~Naturalist Stephen

February 16, 2023 ~ A good ol’ deer run

It’s so fun to spot deer on Kiawah! They can be found everywhere in the early morning hours – usually traveling together in groups. While it is always awesome to spot these beautiful creatures, remember they are still wild! It’s best to appreciate them from a distance so you don’t accidentally disturb them.

Happy spotting! 🙂

February 11, 2023 ~ White pelicans!

Unfortunately, we weren’t quite able to catch these gorgeous birds with one of our cameras, but we thought we would put the message out anyway! For the last few days, White pelicans have been spotted near Captain Sam’s inlet. These have been confirmed by pictures from some of our guests, and a sighting from one of our Naturalists. Definitely be on the lookout – these are rare, big, and beautiful birds!

February 10, 2023 ~ The bluebirds are getting angry

It’s that time of year! You know, the time where you can go out on a walk, enjoy the wildlife and nature, and come back to small birds attacking themselves next to your car mirror. This case was no exception – I parked in my usual spot for some birding, and immediately found this beautiful fella’! Eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, tufted titmice, and many other songbirds are getting ready to attract a mate as nesting season approaches, so they’re getting a little more aggressive! Here our friend confused its reflection for a competing male, so he went on the attack.

While it’s generally harmless, keep your eyes peeled for more forested areas to avoid any possible scratches on your car (or any other mess that can happen with birds – if you know what I mean). Some birds will do this until they deplete their energy entirely, so if you see a confused songbird near your car you can help it save some energy if you move a little farther away.

Expect some awesome nests soon as these birds are getting ramped up for the season. As always, happy birding!

~ Naturalist Stephen

February 6, 2023 ~ Cedar waxwings

Waxwings are still a common upper-canopy bird found on Kiawah over the wintering months. Listen for the high pitched, whistle-like “tnnn” noise and you’ll be sure to spot them! They love eating berries in the canopy, or simply basking in the sun. Even though they’re relatively small, they travel in huge flocks that make them an easy – but still beautiful – animal to spot!

Thanks to Naturalist Cheyenne for capturing this photo.

February 3, 2023 ~ Stunning dolphin encounter!

Thanks to Naturalist Luke for sharing this incredible video!

February 2, 2023 ~ Flying bald eagle

Eagles are here in full force! Our bald eagle friends are taking the island by storm, nesting in multiple areas. Because they tend to nest in the same or similar area for life, we are happy to see so many make a return to Kiawah!

February 1, 2023 ~ Tufted titmouse

While these seem like one of the most common birds on Kiawah, I think they are still a beautiful treat! The tufted titmouse is one bird you’ll almost always find on your birdfeeder, and watching them is a blast. They grab a single sunflower from our feeders, fly to a nearby branch, and enjoy before going back for more.

These are definitely a wonderful bird to spot on your birdfeeders, and I’d consider adding shrubbery around your “bird area” to ensure to best birds stop by! Many of our harder-to-spot birds are rather timid, so extra layers of protection do wonders can definitely add to your experience tenfold!

~ Naturalist Stephen

February 1, 2023 ~ Oh, look – a ‘gator!

As surprising as it is, one of our Naturalists found an alligator!

With close to 700 alligators on Kiawah, we average around 6 to 7 for every pond. In fact, alligators are such a common sighting that we aren’t even sure who took this photo! Their relative commonality does not make them any short of amazing, and their adaptive strategies to save energy during the winter are absolutely incredible. While we can’t go into everything here, we recommend checking out your local pond – if you’re in the area, chances are you’ll be able to find a ‘gator in no time!

January 30, 2023 ~ Red-shouldered hawk

Because of her recent luck with birding, Naturalist Cheyenne decided to check out the Preserve one more time to see if she could find anything exciting. As you can see, she had no problem with that! Red-shouldered hawks are a gorgeous, medium-sized bird of prey. Similar to other raptors, you can often find them perched along a tree branch or open area, scanning its surroundings for rodents or small birds.

Suggested by the name, the red-shouldered hawk spots a beautiful rustic color on the chest and shoulders; this is especially prominent during mating season, although it takes around three years for a juvenile to fully mature.
As nesting season approaches, expect more of these red beauties to appear.

They begin nesting in late February, and continue throughout March, so their presence on Kiawah can definitely be felt if you are out spotting yourself!

January 29, 2023 ~ Bar-tailed godwits – here?!

After checking the ebird “rare bird alert list” for South Carolina, I saw that there was another bar-tailed godwit sighting. Seeing one last year, I went down to the Ocean Course – where it was recently spotted – and sat down. Outside of terns and black skimmers there wasn’t much birding activity, but low and behold a godwit appeared from one of the dunes!

I can’t say for certain that this is the bar-tailed godwit because my camera wasn’t able to pick up any quality images, but I think there’s a good chance I found it! If it was not a bar-tailed, it would have to be a marbled godwit, but the normal plumage for a marbled godwit looks a little different in my opinion. I’m no birding expert, but I definitely hope I got to witness this rare bird!

~ Naturalist Stephen

January 28, 2023 ~ American coot

What a beautiful week for birding! As the temperature cools, more and more waterfowl are seemingly appearing out of thin air! This american coot is no exception. I was walking around Night Heron Park, and I found this beauty bathing itself in the shade.

I’ve always found American coots to be fascinating – especially due to that large red patch above their beak. They’re easily mistaken for a type of duck, but they are only distantly related. Nonetheless, you will definitely want to look for these guys in the same places, as they are definitely happiest in the water 🙂

As always, happy birding!

~ Naturalist Stephen

January 27, 2023 ~ Bald eagle

‘Tis the season! Naturalist Cheyenne managed to capture a beautiful image of a Bald Eagle during one of her Back Island Birding tours. Recently, our Naturalists have been noticing a huge rise in bald eagle sightings, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled! We are currently in nesting season, and bald eagles tend to return to the same areas each year, so it’s great to see our population is thriving! While they have become a little more common on the island, they are still absolutely breathtaking – you definitely do not want to miss an opportunity to spot one!

January 20, 2023 ~ A pond of baby alligators

When our Naturalists participated in the 2023 Winter Bird Count, we were tasked with spotting and identifying birds across Kiawah – specifically, we surveyed the Kiawah River and the Ocean Park area. However, among one of the coolest sightings wasn’t any bird, but a local alligator nest one of our Naturalists stumbled upon! This nest is incredible; we totaled 12 alligators in an extremely small area. There was one large alligator (presumably the mother) and a group of her babies! Mother ‘gators lay clutches of up to 50 eggs and stay with their young for around two years. This particular mom found a wonderful spot to hide them, as she was well hidden within a forested area, but not too far away from a larger pond for her to gather food.

Naturalist Cheyenne recently decided to come back to this spot and see if she could get any good pictures. Of course – she found some incredible angles. Still, these ‘gator babies can be tricky to spot. Can you see all of them in the picture? There’s more than one!

January 18, 2023 ~ Red-tailed Hawk

While on a Back Island Birding tour, Naturalist Cheyenne was lucky enough to come across a gorgeous red-tailed hawk! This beautiful bird of prey was perched nicely on a tree, ignoring her tour completely as it scanned the surroundings for some food. At the requests of her tour, Cheyenne managed snap some great photos of the show! During this Back Island Birding adventure, Cheyenne and her group managed to find four different birds of prey – not to mention tons of shorebirds, herons, and others.

Such an amazing shot!

January 17, 2023 ~ Pretty pretty bluebird

Regardless of the season, eastern bluebirds are a common sighting along the island. Looking at this picture it is easy to see why – they’re absolutely stunning! Males sport a bright blue back, an orange chest, and a white belly. I always find them on early morning walks; they are particularly common in grassy areas near the canopy. Similar to yellow-rumped warblers, you can find them all across the ground picking up early morning snacks. If you ever fine a sunny spot, keep an eye out! They love to fly around, and you might get yourself a beautiful view like this one 🙂

Happy Birding!

~ Naturalist Stephen

January 13, 2023 ~ Blue crab

A common sight around Kiawah, the blue crab is a beautiful (and delicious) crustacean with colorful blue claws and legs. I found this one in one of my usual birding spots, but definitely look out for crabs in any of Kiawah’s muddy, or shallow water areas. You’re bound to find some of these beautiful fellas!

~ Naturalist Stephen

January 10, 2023 ~ A killdeer, you say?

If you’ve seen my posts before, you would know that I’m a huge fan of our shorebird population! While at the Ocean Course admiring the diving pelicans and gorgeous beach, I found quite a treat!

Killdeer are a gorgeous, small group of plovers that nest in the upper banks of beach and marshland – farther up than most shorebirds prefer to go. While they’re small, they’re beautiful black rings and bright red eyes make them an easy spot (if you are lucky enough to find them out in the open)!

Killdeer have an incredible characteristic they employ to protect their young. If a predator approaches their nest, the mother will fly a safe distance away from the nest, before chirping loudly to attract the predators attention. More so, the mother killdeer will even taunt its wing to the predator as if it were broken. Said predator might ditch the nest in favor of an easy treat – but that is just what the killdeer wants! It will continue to lure potential danger away using this “broken wing” method until its nest is safe and sound. Talk about smart 🙂

~ Naturalist Stephen

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