The Best Places to Spot Wildlife on Hilton Head Island

Dolphins swim by a great white egret on Hilton Head Island
Dolphins swim by a great white egret on Hilton Head Island Joyce Harkins
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Hilton Head is the town that it is today largely due to one man’s vision. Charles Fraser developed Sea Pines Plantation on the island’s south end under strict guidelines that were meant to allow development without sacrificing what made the island beautiful—its sprawling maritime forest, wetlands, and majestic live oaks.

Fraser had a keen sense for conservation, and the success of Sea Pines was a model for much of the other development on the island. The town has strict rules about development; this is why you will never see any neon or backlit signs, buildings above a certain height, or any building colors that you couldn’t find in nature. While this can make navigating the island a bit harder for those who are from out of town, it keeps the sense of being on a small, quiet island alive—a plus for residents and visitors alike.

Due to the incredible stewardship shown in the development of Hilton Head, it's not unusual to catch glimpses of Great Blue Herons and pelicans soaring over parking lots, to see alligators basking next to bike paths along Highway 278, or even to witness White-tailed Deer will jetting in front of your car unexpectedly (this is a very real problem, keep your eyes peeled!). Wildlife is ingrained into daily life on Hilton Head Island, and even in the most mundane settings your chances for an encounter are high throughout the year. But there are some places on, and around, the island that are especially good for spotting wildlife.

1. The Sea Pines Forest Preserve

An alligator rests in a rice field turned marsh
An alligator rests in a rice field turned marsh The Island Packet

Situated in the heart of Sea Pines plantation is a roughly 600-acre plot of land that is protected from development and is maintained as a wildlife refuge. The Sea Pines Forest Preserve has forests filled with old pines, lakes, and even a wildflower field; but it is the swamps and marshes that bring the wildlife.

Much of the preserve is covered by wetlands that used to be used for rice cultivation long before the island became the booming resort town that it is today. These rice fields are now overgrown and look more like marsh than field. They serve as a multi-layered ecosystem that provides habitat for small mammals, insects of all order, and bird life as well. White-tailed deer frequent these marshes to feed, and birds of prey like ospreys and marsh hawks soar above them looking for their next meal. In the swamps and lakes on the preserve you’ll encounter alligators, long-legged wading birds like egrets, and you’ll also see mullet as they launch themselves out of the water and land with a splash.

2. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

White ibis and great blue herons nest in Ibis Pond
White ibis and great blue herons nest in Ibis Pond Jeff Gunn

It is hard to talk about wildlife viewing without mentioning Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge . Anywhere you go on the large island and you are guaranteed to run into wildlife. Alligators, ospreys, pelicans, deer, raccoons, and so much more can be found here. The island is even home to velvet ants—large ants covered with red “fur”—that cannot be found anywhere else in the area (look but don’t touch, these guys pack a powerful bite).

Wildlife is ubiquitous here, but one of the best places on the island to see it is Ibis Pond—here you have a chance to see all of the critters listed above in one spot. Ibis Pond is a large pond filled with tall grasses and duckweed, submerged trees, and small islands. There is a grassy trail that circumnavigates the pond providing endless vistas teeming with life. The islands in the pond serve as rookeries for Ibis, hence the name. Rookeries are breeding grounds for birds; the islands are perfect for raising young birds in a safe and secluded setting. You will see large flocks of ibis coming to and from the pond, enough that you can hear their wings beating overhead. Smaller birds like redwing blackbirds flit in and out of the grasses chasing insects, while herons and egrets stalk the shores in search of small fish.

The pond is thriving with life, and there is no better place to sit still, watch, and listen. Get there right as dusk approaches: the pond is close to the parking lot so it is a great spot to watch the sun set and the burst of wildlife activity that comes with it. Just remember to bring your bug spray!

3. Mitchellville Beach

A ghost crab patrols the beach
A ghost crab patrols the beach Kevin Rimlinger

Mitchellville Beach is one of Hilton Head’s most natural beaches. While it is not great for lying out and relaxing, there is no better spot to see some of Hilton Head’s coastal wildlife. The sandy portions of the beach give way to large mud flats at low tide that are home to clams, oysters, blue crabs, fiddler crabs, ghost crabs, and much more. You will find starfish and sand dollars here in droves. Pick them up and marvel, but leave them on the beach—it is actually illegal to remove these species from the beach. This expanse is bordered on either side by tidal creeks, as the tides flow in and out of these waterways they bring a lot of fish and shrimp with them. This makes Mitchellville Beach a great place to spot dolphins, as they’ll often hang around the mouths of these creeks on outgoing tides to trap fish as they float out to sea.

All types of shore birds hang can be found here too—black skimmers, gulls, herons, and egrets are all familiar sites. There is also a bald eagle that frequents the beach and feeds on the fish and crabs in the shallow water. This beach overlooks Port Royal Sound, which is home to a number of shark species, and sometimes you’ll see their fins break the surface. It is also a great place to find shark teeth as it is less combed than others.

This beach has been the site of many of my personal favorite wildlife sightings, including a large hammerhead swimming near the surface, a pilot whale making its way down the shore, and a large manta ray flying out of the water. Don’t miss out!

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