Wildlife of Hilton Head

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For a place with so many human visitors, Hilton Head has done a remarkable job of preserving its flora and fauna.

One of the first things we saw when driving into the island was a big blue heron sitting in a lagoon. My sister saw this other one later on. They’re pretty common, as they are in some parts of Virginia.

Photo by Cat Lynch

The beach is lined with sea oats, which are protected and illegal to pick. I’m sure all manner of creatures hide in there … like palmetto bugs. Palmetto bug is a nice term for giant flying roach. They are an omnipresent (and if you ask me, omnipotent) force on the island (and really anywhere down South); you cannot avoid them. In fact, our house manual explained that “palmetto bug sightings are common” and not a reason to call the exterminator. I had a picture of a dead one, but I decided it was too gross to post!

Brown pelicans are really neat birds. When you see them up close, you can see that they have the most beautiful faces. We saw them fly by us in a line multiple times while swimming; at least once they were so close that we could have reached out and touched them. It was also common for the pelicans to float around in groups in the water just yards away as we swam, completely unafraid.

Pelicans fly over the water in single file as a storm rolls in. Photo by Cat Lynch

Alligators are extremely common on the island. They hang out in marshes and lagoons, and we all saw them floating around. At times they sink so low in the water that the tops of their scaly heads can easily be mistaken for a big piece of bark. (My rule was: If it’s got a bunch of yellow-bellied slider turtles sunning themselves on it, it’s a log!) While I wouldn’t want to run into the water and pat one, they never came across as scary or threatening. I imagine this would change if I got too close to a mama alligator, but I think the gators enjoy a very respectful relationship with the people of the island.

Photo by Jim Lynch.

Little anole lizards can be seen running up sides of houses and in bushes EVERYWHERE on Hilton Head. They are relatively small, definitely smaller than a palmetto bug.

Lizard on a palmetto in Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

Pods of dolphins often swim close to shore. They were never close enough for me to get a good picture, but it was fun to see them. They are really playful and sweet creatures, with very sleek, smooth bodies. My sister and I swam with some dolphins in the Bahamas back in 1991 — what an unforgettable experience. I’d love to do it again.

Combing the shore for sea creatures is fun at Hilton Head because you are guaranteed to find many of them. Here’s a conch shell we found that was encrusted with living barnacles — and home to multiple tiny crabs, some of whom appeared to be fiddler crabs. I held one in my hand and he pinched me, but I’ve been pinched by many a crab bigger than he is. I shall fear no claws!

Photo by Eric Mercado

I believe this is a fiddler crab; the picture is out of focus but you can see about how big they are.

Crabs are in abundance on this island, and I don’t mean just in the food. We saw them in the sand, water, sidewalks, and boardwalks constantly. Big ones often run around in the shallow waters right near your feet. Little hermit crabs, conchs, and whelks are also very common, when they haven’t been eaten out of their shells by the seagulls.

One of many crab sightings.

Seagull at the Salty Dog.

A frequently seen nocturnal critter on the Eastern Shore is the ghost crab. Hilton Head is no exception — take a walk at night and you will see hundreds anywhere there is sand. Get close and they take off running for the nearest sand burrow. Eric loved chasing after them, annoying them until they started chasing HIM (or, more frequently, those of us who were unfortunate bystanders). I’m sure the beachdwellers up the dunes probably thought there was a murder going on with all the screaming and frantic running. Eric often boldly grabbed the biggest crab in order to get a closer look at him. Although he didn’t hurt them, the crabs were duly annoyed by his scrutiny and one even succeeded in pinching him till he bled! I have to say they are cute little creatures with real personality. Eric put one big fella back down on the ground who sat there staring at him, claws raised in challenge, then suddenly leaped up and snapped at his leg when Eric didn’t move! They can jump HIGH.

We also found a female calico crab in the wet shoreline one evening. I wish we’d had a camera – her spotted shell was beautiful. She appeared to be dying (or at least pretending), so we let her alone. We had to do some research to find out what type of crab she was, and it seems these crabs are not native to the area or at least not very common.

Live starfish and sand dollars can be found if you spend enough time at the shore. We were walking through the waves once when hundreds of starfish suddenly washed in, almost out of nowhere! Many were missing arms (probably thanks to the gull population), but were very much alive.

Photo by Eric Mercado

Photo by Cat Lynch

Look beneath any of the boardwalks or decks over the water and you’ll probably find mussels clustered there. There are usually crabs scuttling over them. The mussels spit streams of water high up in the air every few seconds and it’s rather noisy.

Around the Salty Dog deck.

Horseshoe crab shells are washed up all over the beach – but so are living crabs. They will usually burrow into the mud and make their way back into the waves with surprising speed. This species of arthropod is literally millions of years old. While not true crabs, they definitely have some large pincers which I would keep away from your fingers at all costs. I like to think of them as gentle giants.

Horseshoe crab in the water. Photo by Eric Mercado

Headed back into the waves

He found the paparazzi irritating, and buried himself in the mud as soon as we put him down!

Horseshoe shells. Photo by Cat Lynch

On our first day on the beach, Eric spotted a giant sting ray gliding smoothly through the water. While I didn’t run into any more of those, we certainly ran into something scarier – a jellyfish (more properly called a “jelly”)! I was last stung by one in 1994, and this one was much more painful. The waves either knocked it into Eric’s foot and my shin, or it may have mistaken us for prey. My wound didn’t bleed like last time, but it left one heck of a scar and eventually became very infected, requiring antibiotics and steroid cream. The scar is mostly faded now and I don’t expect it to be permanent. I just wish I had seen the jelly. Based on the excruciating level of pain, I’m guessing it was a box jelly, but I couldn’t say for sure.

When it began to storm in Hilton Head, we started seeing lots of jellies washed up on the beach.

Giant moon jelly. This one had to be at least two feet in diameter.

The cannonball jelly and the portly spider crab share a symbiotic relationship.

Eric and I found at least two cannonball jellies washed up with a portly spider crab next to it. Research not only caused us to chuckle at the crab’s name (he is kind of portly) but amaze us with how the pair live together. This type of crab literally crawls inside the cannonball jelly and eats the remains of fish that the jelly captures and can’t digest. Wow! Needless to say, the crabs were rather protective of their former homes. One of them was very friendly until Eric started to examine his jelly friend, then the crab reared up on his hind legs and snapped his claws at him!

That’s not to insinuate that this crab has much in the way of claws. You can easily pick him up and let him run around. The top of his portly body is soft, even the little ridges along the back. His spindly legs have tiny pincers that he mainly uses for balance as he runs around — it tickles.

This crab loves his new vantage point. Photo by Cat Lynch

Eric picked up one crab who at first scuttled all over his hands before suddenly deciding they would be his new home. He happily clutched Eric’s palm and refused to let go when Eric tried to gently put him back down. So Eric just walked around for several minutes with his new buddy riding on his hand and taking in the view!

You've got a friend in me ...

Other creatures:

Can you spot the grouper in the water?

Lone katydid on the upper front porch. Photo by Cat Lynch

Loggerhead turtle nests are marked as protected. Photo by Cat Lynch

I've tentatively IDed this as a cormorant. Photo by Cat Lynch.


6 responses to “Wildlife of Hilton Head

  1. Great recap of all the amazing wildlife we saw on the island!! I loved how wild the place was, for such a popular area.

  2. Absolutely loved all the wildlife there. I got to see my first Box Jellyfish and Portly Spider Crab! That was so rad! Sorry you got stung though.

  3. Wow, that’s quite a lot of creatures! We don’t have nearly that many at my beach. I was kinda grossed out by all the insects and contact–I def would not be as into touching them all as you were!

  4. I loved this article! You and your photographers really did a great job telling the story of all of the wildlife. I somehow managed to miss meeting most of these creatures! You and Cat are definitely carrying on Good Unk’s legacy of respect for, love of, and fascination with animals. He would be so proud of you both! Great article in the Wash. Post today about how red groupers create communities for other ocean wildlife. I thought you and Cat would both enjoy it.

  5. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However
    I am going through difficulties with your RSS.
    I don’t understand why I cannot join it. Is there anybody else getting identical RSS issues? Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond? Thanx!!

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