Wildlife Database

Types of wildlife


Platichthys stellatus

Flounder, a bottom dweller in Kiawah’s ocean and rivers, is known for having two eyes on one side of its extremely flat, oval shaped body.  Its dark coloring helps him hide on the ocean floor where he lives.  Both eyes are available to watch for unsuspecting fish swimming by.  Most flounder weigh less than five pounds but can exceed 15 pounds.  Flounder is very popular in local restaurants.

Ghost Crab

Ocypode quadrata

On the upper part of the beach look for ghost crabs, about 2 to 3 inches tall, by finding holes in the sand marking the entrance to their burrows. Ghost crab burrows can reach four feet deep.  If you see one dash into its hole, be patient.  It will likely reappear and go about its business of clearing sand out of its burrow and searching for food including beach fleas, small crabs, clams, and sea turtle eggs.  

Its spooky translucent coloring, eyes that appear to be floating atop of its head, and its startling movements make this animal appear ghostly. He can move forward, backward, and sideways, and can run up to 10 miles per hour!  The ghost crab is very fast and can put a start into any unsuspecting beach walker, especially after dark! Shore birds and raccoons prey on ghost crabs.

Photo by Pamela Cohen


Gulls are the most common bird that you will see on Kiawah’s beach any time of the year. They’re about 16 inches tall, with gray upper bodies, white under bodies, webbed feet, and medium sized stout beaks with a hook on the end.  These highly adaptable birds eat crabs, small fish, crustaceans, and insects, but mostly they are scavengers, stealing scraps of food, garbage, and even other birds’ eggs. They are quick and sneaky birds, often waiting near other birds, hoping that they will drop their lunches. 

Although there are a number of different species of gulls on the Island, young gulls of all species look somewhat alike, with brownish speckled feathers. If you quietly watch the gulls, you may notice some interesting ways that they interact with each other. One gull may display dominance by loudly cackling, nodding his head and upper body, flapping his wings, and even chasing other birds away. Notice how gulls show submission, by turning their heads and walking away. One of the benefits of gulls is that they will eat anything. These assertive and adaptable birds are survivalists, and are quite helpful in keeping our beach clean.

Photo by Jim Chitwood

Herring Gulls

Larus argenatus

Herring gulls, the most widespread gull in North America, are some of the larger gulls on the Island. Adults have white heads, pale gray backs, and yellow bills with a red spot on the lower beak. Immatures are brownish with black tipped pink bills. An easy way to identify a herring gull is by the way that it eats. Herring gulls will fly up in the air and drop a clam on the beach to open the shell, being careful with the timing since he doesn’t want another bird to steal his food. Although herring gulls are seen year-round on Kiawah, they are more commonly seen on Kiawah’s beach and ponds during the winter.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded mergansers are common on Kiawah and can be seen frequently in the Island’s ponds and marsh areas during the fall and winter months. This ostentatiously crested duck is an all time favorite for birders and photographers on Kiawah Island. The adult male (pictured here) is quite a sight. His sharp white chest is set off by a black back and a magnificent black and white crest.  Beautiful chestnut feathers cover his flanks. The females are less lavisly colored with grey brown feather, while featuring a cinnamon colored crest. The hooded merganser is the second-smallest duck in the merganser species. They have narrow, serrated bills that and eat aquatic insects, crayfish and small fish. They nest in tree cavities and often lay their eggs in other females’ nests. However, they only lay eggs in nests of their own species. The female typically lays 5-13 eggs in a clutch. Ducklings typically leave the nest cavity at only one day old.

Photo by Pamela Cohen

Horseshoe Crab

Limulus polyphemus

Horseshoe crabs are about 18 inches-long and resemble an old metal helmet with a tail. They have been around for more than 450 million years and are considered living fossils.  Although they have a menacing appearance, they are actually harmless. Their legs are found under its shell and are used to chew the crab’s food.  The food is passed backward to its mouth, located between the last three pairs of legs.  As a result, it is unable to eat unless it is walking.  The horseshoe crab lives in the surf and in water up to 75 feet deep, and crawls on shore to spawn.  Female horseshoe crabs may nest ten times each season, laying up to 20,000 eggs. 

Unlike humans who have red iron-rich blood, a horseshoe crab’s blood contains copper and turns blue when exposed to air. Scientists use horseshoe crab blood for testing medical equipment to make sure that it is completely sterilized.  The blood is also used extensively in detecting serious bacterial infections such as meningitis. This makes horseshoe crab blood quite valuable, at about $60,000 a gallon.

Laughing Gull

Laughing gulls are medium-sized seagulls. During the summer, they have dark gray backs, black heads, and red bills. As winter approaches, their feathers molt leaving behind lightened white heads with gray smudges and dark bills. Laughing gulls are common year-round on Kiawah’s beaches, ponds, creeks, and marshes. 

If you happen to be eating on the beach, you may hear the loud cackling of laughing gulls before you see them. They often congregate in groups of other gulls and may even intermingle with other species of birds on the beach.

Photo by Pamela Cohen

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Caretta caretta

The loggerhead is one of only seven species of marine turtles still in existence today. Adult loggerheads can grow up to three feet in length and weigh as much as 350 pounds and are believed to have a life span of up to 70 years. The name loggerhead refers to the size of its head, which is larger in proportion to its body than other marine turtles. The loggerheads head and upper shell (carapace) are dark, reddish brown. It’s flippers and lower shell (plastron) are light yellow. The outer layer of plates (scutes) on the loggerheads shell and head can be used to distinguish the various species of marine turtles.

Loggerhead nesting on Kiawah Island usually begins in mid-May and continues into early August. Each nest averages 100-150 eggs. Eggs hatch in approximately two months and the hatchlings after making their way to the surface, travel down the beach, into the surf and continue swimming away from land into the open ocean for several days eventually finding refuge and resting in the sargassum floats. After reaching maturity, female turtles will return again to Kiawah’s beach to repeat the nesting cycle.

Watch the Kiawah Conservancy’s NEW Loggerhead Sea Turtle Documentary


The loggerhead sea turtle was listed as a threatened species in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act and the State Nongame Act. The highly migratory behavior of sea turtles makes them shared resources among many nations; therefore, sea turtles are protected by various international treaties and agreements as well as national laws

Loggerheads face threats on both nesting beaches and in the marine environment. The greatest cause of decline and the continuing primary threat to loggerhead turtle populations worldwide is incidental capture in fishing gear, primarily in longlines and gillnets, but also in trawls, traps and pots, and dredges.


Sea turtle nests on Kiawah Island are monitored annually by the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol, a group of dedicated volunteers. The Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol has been in existence since 1973 and the Town of Kiawah Island has provided funding and logistical support to the program since 1990. During the nesting season, volunteers patrol the entire beach by truck each morning to locate and mark nests that were laid the previous night. Nests found to close to the tide line are moved further inward to protect them from being washed over by high tides. Turtle Patrol volunteers monitor the marked nests daily for emergence of hatchlings. After hatching, each nest is excavated and an inventory is taken of the nest contents. Detailed records are kept of all activities and a report is prepared annually for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Photo by Kelly Bragg

Painted Bunting

Passerina ciris

The painted bunting, like many other birds, is a neotropical migrant, meaning that they migrate from the United States to the Caribbean and South America for the winter. Many neotropical migrants and other ground nesting birds are declining in numbers due to habitat loss, nest parasitism and predation, particularly by feral cats. Feral cats are capable of dramatically reducing songbird populations if left outside.

Painted buntings are common in the spring, summer and fall and can be found in shrubland, marsh edges and dunes.  They particularly enjoy white millet and will visit bird feeders supplying it.

Photo by Paul Roberts

Piping Plover

Charadrius melodus

Piping plovers, small sparrow-sized shorebirds, have pale gray top feathers, white bottom feathers, and orange legs. They are a highly endangered species of birds that prefer the more secluded areas of Kiawah’s beach and mudflats from August to May. During the summertime, they migrate to the northeast Atlantic coast and Great Lakes area of the US and Canada.  You’ll enjoy watching these chunky little pale colored birds, about six inches tall, as they run a few steps, pause, run a few more steps, then peck at the in the sand looking for sea worms, insects, or crustaceans. As you walk along Kiawah’s beach, notice the signs to avoid piping plover gathering grounds. 

Photo by Pamela Cohen

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