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29 White Birds in South Carolina

white birds in south carolina
Least Tern in Beaufort, South Carolina: Photo by Marina Nordstrand

Introduction

From lumbering pelicans skimming over salty marshes to tiny terns plunging into estuaries, South Carolina provides essential habitat for a remarkable diversity of white-plumaged birds. Coasts, wetlands, and waterways attract these snowy-feathered species that elegantly contribute to the state’s abundant biodiversity. Read on to learn about some of the beautiful white birds that call South Carolina home.

White Birds in South Carolina

Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens

  • Features: The snow goose is a large plump waterfowl with snow white body plumage, black wingtips, a pink bill, and pink legs. The head can show rusty orange stains. It has a small head and short neck giving it the profile of a dabbling goose.
  • Locations: Snow geese are found in fields and wetlands across central and coastal South Carolina during migration periods. They winter along the coast. 
  • Fun Fact: Adult snow geese go through a molt each summer that turns their feathers chalky white. They breed in the High Arctic region of Canada.

Ross’s Goose (Anser rossii)

  • Features: Ross’s goose is a small white goose with black neck, face, and tail tip markings. The short stubby bill has a pink base and black tip. It is much rarer than the similar snow goose. 
  • Locations: During winter and migration, Ross’s geese occur in coastal marshes, lakes, and fields across South Carolina. They breed in northern Canada. 
  • Fun Fact: Its small size and quickness allows the Ross’s goose to escape predators better than larger white goose species. The nest is a simple scrape lined with down feathers.

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

  • Features: A large white swan with an orange bill and black facial skin. It holds its neck in an S-curve. Birds have a black knob above the bill and rounded head profile. The wings beat slowly and make a low throbbing sound in flight.
  • Locations: Mute swans occur on ponds, lakes, and estuaries across coastal South Carolina and are spreading inland as well. Native to Eurasia, they were introduced to North America.  
  • Fun Fact: The name “mute” refers to their relatively quieter nature compared to other swan species. Male and female pairs often mate for life.

Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus

  • Features: The tundra swan is a large white waterbird with entirely black legs, bill, and lores. The bill has a gentle slope from base to tip and yellow spot in front of eye. It has a long, straight neck. 
  • Locations: In South Carolina, tundra swans winter on coastal lakes, marshes, and fields after migrating from Arctic breeding areas. They are seen inland as well during migration.
  • Fun Fact: Tundra swans make a variety of musical calls including the “who-hoo” or “kow-wow” sound the species is known for. Pairs may mate for life.

Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

  • Features: A slender pale dove with buffy plumage on the back. It has a black half collar on the nape and a squared-off tail. The tail feathers are tipped white. The bill and feet are also blackish.
  • Locations: This introduced species is now found year-round in urban areas, suburbs, parks, and farms across South Carolina. Native to Europe and Asia. 
  • Fun Fact: The cooing courtship song sounds mournful, resembling “uuOOH-hooo-hooo.” Pairs will nest repetitively raising multiple broods each year.

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)

  • Features: The American avocet has long thin legs, a thin upturned bill, and black and white plumage. The head and neck are rusty in breeding season. In flight, black wing stripes are visible between white coverts and flight feathers. 
  • Locations: In South Carolina, American avocets are found along the coastline where they forage in shallows of marshes, mudflats, and lagoons.
  • Fun Fact: They sweep their upturned bill from side to side in the water to catch small invertebrates and crustaceans. Avocets sometimes form dense breeding colonies. 

Gray Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)

  • Features: This large shorebird has gray upperparts, head, and breast in breeding season. The undersides are white. It has a thick black bill and black legs. Non-breeding birds are mottled gray above.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, gray plovers occur along the coast during migration and winter. They breed in Arctic regions.
  • Fun Fact: Long distance migrants, some gray plovers complete an annual round trip from Arctic breeding grounds to Antarctica and back. Their melody call is three notes up then down in pitch.

Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia

  • Features: This small plover has a dark gray back, wings, and breast band contrasting with its white forehead, belly, and wing stripes in flight. The thick bill and legs are black. It has a single black breast band.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, Wilson’s plovers nest and forage along the coastline on beaches and tidal flats year-round. They breed on isolated islands and shoals.
  • Fun Fact: Agile fliers, Wilson’s plovers are known for their aerial nest defense strategy, aggressively diving at intruders near their ground nest site.

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

  • Features: This small pale sand-colored plover has a black breast band, forehead bar, and bill. Orange legs blend in with beach habitat. Single black breast band and orange bill tip distinguish it from similar Wilson’s plover. 
  • Locations: Piping plovers nest and forage on South Carolina beaches and tidal flats along the coast. They winter along the southern Atlantic coast and Gulf coast. 
  • Fun Fact: Adults distract intruders from nests using displays like faking a broken wing. The melodic call sounds like a plaintive whistle.

Sanderling (Calidris alba

  • Features: A small active shorebird with a black bill and legs. Breeding birds are reddish above with black spots. In winter, the sanderling is completely pale gray above and white below. Its constant running distinguishes it.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, sanderlings forage along coastlines during migration and winter. They breed in the High Arctic region.
  • Fun Fact: Sanderlings run rapidly along the ocean edge, chasing the foam left by receding waves to nab marine invertebrates stirred up by the surf.

Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

  • Features: A small, slender gull with delicate proportions. It has a black hooded head with white crescents above and below the eye. The wings are gray above and the undersides are white. The thin bill is black. 
  • Locations: Bonaparte’s gulls pass through South Carolina mainly during coastal migrations. They winter along the Gulf Coast and breed inland across Canada and Alaska. 
  • Fun Fact: Named in honor of Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a French ornithologist and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. They catch much of their food on the wing, including aerial insects.

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

  • Features: This medium-sized gull has pale gray upperparts and white undersides. The yellow eyes have a dark ring. The bill has a subtle black ring near the tip in adults. The legs are greenish-yellow.
  • Locations: Ring-billed gulls occur in coastal areas across South Carolina during the nonbreeding season after migrating south from the Great Lakes. 
  • Fun Fact: Named for the faint dark ring around their bill which is hard to see. They thrive in human-altered habitats like dams, ponds, and agricultural fields.

American Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

  • Features: A large coastal gull with pale gray back, black and white wingtips, and pink legs. The yellow bill has an obvious red spot. The head is white with black streaks in breeding season.
  • Locations: American herring gulls winter along the entire South Carolina coastline after breeding further north. They readily utilize human-created habitats. 
  • Fun Fact: They make a wide repertoire of vocalizations including barks, mews, and throaty long calls that sound like laughing. Very opportunistic feeders.

Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)

  • Features: The least tern is the smallest North American tern with gray upperparts, white undersides, a black-tipped yellow bill, and legs that match the yellow bill. There is a white forehead and black cap on the head.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, least terns nest and feed in colonies along the coastline on beaches and in marshes. They winter in Central and South America.
  • Fun Fact: Least terns dive from brief hovers to catch small fish in shallow waters along the shoreline and in estuaries. They are vocally noisy especially at colonies.

Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica

  • Features: This stocky tern has a thick black bill that resembles a gull’s bill and gives the bird its name. The legs are black and short for a tern. In breeding season, the head is black with a white cheek patch.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, gull-billed terns nest in scattered coastal colonies and forage in shallow wetlands and fields. They winter in tropical areas.
  • Fun Fact: More terrestrial than most terns, often feeding far from water along roads and in fields. The bill shape allows them to eat hard-shelled insects and snails unlike most terns.

Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)

  • Features: The largest North American tern with a thick red bill, black legs, and white body with pearly gray back and wings. The black cap is solid in breeding adults with a small amount of white by the eye. 
  • Locations: In South Carolina, Caspian terns nest in isolated coastal colonies and migrate through the state from more northern breeding areas. They winter along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
  • Fun Fact: Named for the Caspian Sea where it was first discovered. They plunge-dive for fish from heights of up to 20-30 feet. The call is a loud croaking ka-ga-ga-ga.

Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri)

  • Features: Medium-sized seabird with gray upperparts, white undersides, black cap, orange-red bill, and legs. Black eyeline extends back from the eye. Outer tail feathers are white.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, Forster’s terns breed in scattered coastal colonies and forage widely in marshes, estuaries and nearshore waters. They winter from the southern U.S. coast to northern South America. 
  • Fun Fact: Graceful fliers, Forster’s terns hover and then plunge headfirst into the water for small fish. They make shrill, twittering calls.

Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus)

  • Features: A large tern with a heavy orange bill, black cap, and pale gray upperparts. In flight, the outer gray primaries contrast with the paler gray secondaries forming a “window” in the inner portion of the wing.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, royal terns nest in beach colonies and forage widely along the coastline year-round. Some northern populations migrate south for winter. 
  • Fun Fact: The royal tern plunges from steep dives into waters up to 20 feet deep to catch fish. Their raucous calls carry as they circle on bowed wings. 

Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis)

  • Features: This medium-large tern has a black cap, gray back, white undersides, yellow-tipped black bill, and yellow-black legs. The crown is shaggier and the bill is more yellow at the tip compared to the Royal Tern. 
  • Locations: In South Carolina, Sandwich terns occur along the coast during the warmer months. They nest in scattered colonies on barrier islands and shoals. They winter along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
  • Fun Fact: Named for the English Channel’s Sandwich Islands. Their harsh call is a nasal sounding “kerrr.” Sometimes called “Crested Tern” due to the shaggy black cap feathers.

Wood Stork (Mycteria americana

  • Features: A very large white waterbird with black flight and tail feathers and a bald black head and neck. The bill is long, dark and curved downwards. The legs are blackish.
  • Locations: Wood storks breed in isolated wetland colonies in coastal South Carolina. They forage in marshes, flooded fields, tidal flats, and ditches. 
  • Fun Fact: Their open-mouthed feeding technique involves wading through water and snapping the bill shut when contacting prey.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus

  • Features: Large seabird with a pale yellow crown and hindneck, white body, black wingtips, and dagger-like blue-gray bill. Displays dramatic 6-foot wingspan in flight.
  • Locations: In South Carolina, northern gannets occur offshore and around coastal fishing areas during nonbreeding months after migrating south from Atlantic Canada and Quebec.
  • Fun Fact: Plunge dives from heights of up to 130 feet into ocean waters to catch fish with their streamlined bodies and spear-like bills.

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

  • Features: A very large waterbird with all bright white plumage except for black wingtips. It has a large throat pouch and heavy yellow bill with an orange tip. The legs are orange as well.
  • Locations: American white pelicans winter on coastal lakes, rivers, and marshes across South Carolina after migrating from breeding grounds further north and west.
  • Fun Fact: The oversized bill and elastic throat pouch allows them to scoop up fish and drain water before swallowing prey. Pelicans work together to herd fish into tight groups.

Great Egret (Ardea alba) 

  • Features: This large elegantly slender heron has all white plumage, a yellow bill, and black legs with yellow feet. Breeding birds have long lacy plumes on the head, neck, and back. The neck is often held in an “S” shape.
  • Locations: Great egrets are found year-round in freshwater and saltwater wetlands across South Carolina. They often forage in dense concentrations along marshy shorelines. 
  • Fun Fact: Able to move extremely slowly and stand perfectly still allowing them to patiently stalk small aquatic prey at close range before spearing with their bill.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)

  • Features: A medium-sized completely white egret with black legs and bill which has a yellow lore spot at the base. Breeding birds have shaggy white plumes on the head, neck, and back. Bright yellow feet. 
  • Locations: Snowy egrets occur year-round in both freshwater and saltwater marshes, ponds, and wetlands across South Carolina.
  • Fun Fact: They use their bright yellow feet to stir and disturb fish by shuffling them in a technique called foot stirring. Their beautiful breeding plumes were hunted extensively in the late 1800s.

Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) – juvenile

  • Features: The juvenile little blue heron is completely white with grayish-green legs and feet. It has a thick dagger-like bill that is gray-black with a blue base. The toes are yellowish.  
  • Locations: Little blue herons occur in freshwater and saltwater wetlands across South Carolina. Juveniles disperse farther from colonies than adults.
  • Fun Fact: Unlike most herons, juveniles are completely white in their first year, resembling snowy egrets. Adults develop slate-blue and maroon coloration.

Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis

  • Features: The cattle egret is a small stocky heron with all white plumage during breeding season. It has a short thick neck and yellow bill. The legs are yellowish. Nonbreeding birds develop an orange-buff wash on the head, neck and back.
  • Locations: Cattle egrets are found year-round in fields, pastures, and wetlands across South Carolina, often near livestock. They expand their range during postbreeding dispersal. 
  • Fun Fact: Originally native to Africa and southern Europe. They arrived in South America likely by ship in the late 1800s and spread rapidly across the Americas.

American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

  • Features: This medium-sized wading bird has completely white plumage, red legs and eyes, and a long decurved red bill. The face is featherless and black. Bright red spots mark where breeding adults grow nuptial plumes. 
  • Locations: American white ibises occur in wetlands across coastal South Carolina year-round. They also breed locally in isolated wetland colonies. 
  • Fun Fact: They probe shallow wetland sediments with their curved bill searching for crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs, and small fish.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

  • Features: This large raptor has a white underside and head with dark brown back and wings. A broad dark eye stripe extends down the neck. The legs are white with dark talons. The bill is dark and hooked for catching fish.
  • Locations: Ospreys occur near waterbodies and coastal areas across South Carolina year-round. They build large stick nests high up on channel markers, trees, towers and utility poles.
  • Fun Fact: Ospreys plummet feet first to catch fish in their talons. Reverse outer toes enable them to grasp fish with two toes in front and two behind. Sometimes called a “fish hawk.”

Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus

  • Features: A gorgeous raptor with black shoulders and back contrasting with a white underside and head. The wings and deeply forked tail are black. The eyes are red. Graceful withfluid flight. 
  • Locations: Swallow-tailed kites breed in small numbers in wetland forests across South Carolina. They migrate to wintering grounds in South America. 
  • Fun Fact: An aerial dynamo, this species catches flying insect prey on the wing with superb aerial agility. It drinks by skimming across ponds and streams.

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss, human disturbance of nest colonies, pollution, illegal hunting, and disturbance at migration stopovers all negatively impact white bird populations. Protecting coastal marshes through parks and reserves is essential to providing habitat. Following regulations on hunting, fishing, and boating also helps conserve these species. Engaging in citizen science surveys helps monitor trends over time.

Citizen Science

South Carolina bird enthusiasts can contribute to scientific knowledge and conservation by participating in surveys and databases like the Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count, and eBird to track populations of the state’s white birds. Photographing and reporting banded bird resightings provides valuable data on movements and longevity. Getting involved creates opportunities to observe these species while aiding protection efforts.

Conclusion

The many gleaming white-plumaged birds found along South Carolina’s coasts, wetlands, and waterways provide abundant natural beauty to the state. Conservation initiatives aimed at protecting ecosystems and reducing human impacts will help ensure the fragile populations of these exquisite white species endure.