Egrets, storks, ibis and more egrets - Huntington Beach State Park

September 03, 2015

If you do a web search on Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, you'll find it listed by many birders and photographers as a top spot. I was there a few weeks ago, in the latter part of August, and it certainly didn't disappoint, providing great photo opportunities for various waterbirds: Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tri-coloured Heron, Great Blue Heron, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill. Add into the mix a scattering of shorebirds, the chance of a fly by Caspian or Royal Tern and Anhinga, and there's plenty to keep the bird photographer busy. This aside, it's also simply a great birding spot, boasting a bird list of more than 300 species, with something to interest the avid birder throughout the year.

I shot over a period of three mornings and one evening, almost exclusively photographing from the causeway. On one side you have a freshwater area (also known as Mullet Pond), and the other a tidal marsh area. There are some key factors to be aware of to ensure you get the most from this site - which I'll get to later in the article (hint - sun angle and shooting height). Right now let's get to the birds.

During my early morning visits, Wood Stork (highest morning count was 192) were often gathered on the far shore of Mullet Pond. The rising sun would create a golden glow to the reeds, which reflected beautifully on the water.

Wood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

As morning progressed, birds would depart periodically, offering good flight opportunities as they crossed the causeway.

Wood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

Many were headed to the trees at the entrance end of the causeway, where they would sit, wings-out-stretched, warming themselves in the morning sunshine.

Wood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

Wood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

On the final morning, an overnight lowering of the water level (the park management apparently controls the water level in Mullet Pond) triggered a huge increase in the numbers of birds present. There may have been other factors contributing to this sudden increase (fish kill?), but this was the most obvious change.

Mullet Pond, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaMullet Pond, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

On this morning, in addition to the Wood Stork, I estimated over 100 each of Great Egret, Snowy Egret and White Ibis, 80+ Tri-coloured Heron, a handful of Little Blue Heron and Great Blue Heron and 5 Roseate Spoonbill.

Great Egret, Great Blue Heron and Wood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaGreat Egret, Great Blue Heron and Wood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

Wood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWood Stork, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

Patterns of reflected light, and simple reflections were bountiful on the final morning.

Tri-coloured Heron, Huntington Beach State Park, North CarolinaTri-coloured Heron, Huntington Beach State Park, North Carolina

White Ibis, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWhite Ibis, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

The Roseate Spoonbill and White Ibis were most often on the marsh side, and here the morning light direction was very challenging. Great for back-lite shots, but not so great for evenly illuminated birds. Added to which the light would get very harsh very quickly (passing clouds offered short relief, softening the light wonderfully!). Of course the reverse situation exists in the evening!

Roseate Spoonbill, Huntingdon Beach State Park, South CarolinaRoseate Spoonbill, Huntingdon Beach State Park, South Carolina

Roseate Spoonbill, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaRoseate Spoonbill, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

Roseate Spoonbill, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaRoseate Spoonbill, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

Roseate Spoonbill, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaRoseate Spoonbill, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

White Ibis, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWhite Ibis, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

Tri-coloured Heron, Huntington Beach State Park, North CarolinaTri-coloured Heron, Huntington Beach State Park, North Carolina

Willet, Huntington Beach State Park, South CarolinaWillet, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

And of course there are ever present Alligators that would occasionally cruise by...

Reflections on getting the most from a visit in August

I've only been here once, in August, shooting for three consecutive days, so this may not be a typical experience. However, there are some photography tips that apply quite distinctly to this place, which it's worth being aware off should you choose to plan a visit at this time of year.

  • Sun position relative to the causeway - take a look at the State Park map. When shooting into Mullet Pond, to get the sun behind you (think, your shadow pointing at the subject - simple but effective tip from Art Morris) you're going to be shooting at 45 degrees from the causeway (not a problem), but on the marsh side your subjects will be, at best, side lite. Not a disaster (and back lite images certainly have their place), but you need to think a lot about your shooting position to maximise your optimal shooting opportunities. Afterall, no-one likes shadowed bird faces!
  • Shooting height - you can get quite low on the causeway, but certainly not at eye-level. The board-walk and other viewing points, IMHO, are too high, with you looking down at the birds.
  • Tide state - quite an obvious one, but be there ether side of high tide, especially if you're after shorebirds. As the mud gets exposed, the birds feed further from the causeway. So timing wise, I'd recommend high tide early morning, ideally just before sunrise. And a falling tide is probably preferable, with birds flying in to take advantage of the newly exposed mud.
  • Water level in Mullet Pond - numbers of birds present, it seems, will be influenced by the height of the water in Mullet Pond. No control over this, but it might be worth checking with park staff to establish.
  • Planning - if you want to know in advance what birds are being seen, then eBird is a must visit resource. Huntington Beach State Park is what eBird describes as a "birding hotpsot", and it's typical during peak birding months to have checklists being posted daily.
  • Reach - in addition to your longest lens have a mid-range zoom - there are times when birds are very close, feeding on the shore edge just feet away from the causeway, and with little care for the presence of birders or photographers.
  • Pause periodically to check both sides of the causeway and look around. You can be focused on that perfect Stork or Egret shot, only to discover Roseate Spoonbills feeding metres away from the causeway just behind you.
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