WildlifeSouth.com Wildlife and Nature Locations

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge ...

a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge - South Carolina

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 07-23-09

Sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Sundew (Drosera intermedia),
Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley


Located in northeastern South Carolina (Chesterfield County), the Carolina Sandhills NWR hosts and protects a Longleaf pine and wiregrass/scrub oak ecosystem. While most of the 45,000 acres are forested, the refuge also includes thirty or so man-made lakes and ponds and over 1000 acres of grassland and field habitat. Some of the fields appear to be fallowed while others are cultivated for game ('Dove Field A' for instance).

In the center of the refuge right off Highway 145 is the Lake Bee Recreation area which has sheltered picnic tables and restrooms. Lake bee also has two boardwalk platforms, one overlooking the water and the other overlooking a bog area with carnivorous pitcher plants.

The Oxpen Lake area hosts three small lakes and two observation towers while the Martin's Lake area has an observation tower on one side and a photo blind on the other.

One can obtain on site information at the refuge office/visitor center on 'Visitors Drive' right off of Highway 1. The refuge office is closed on weekends but there are usually pamphlets about the refuge including fishing and birding in the kiosk near the office parking lot. These same pamphlets are offered online in a pdf format from the refuge website.

Camping is not allowed at the refuge, but camping is allowed at nearby Carolina Sandhills State forest. The closest motels can be found in Hartsville SC to the south and Cheraw SC to the northeast.

Nature Perspective

There are 3 habitats one might find especially interesting in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge during the spring and summer; the longleaf pine forest, the open field areas, and the boggy seepage areas. All three environments provide good birding opportunities. The longleaf pine areas provide habitat for woodpeckers and Bachman's Sparrows, the open fields contain desirable game species along with songbirds, and the seepage areas provide habitat for carnivorous plants. In addition to the those habitats, there are ponds and lakes which offer migratory waterfowl a refuge during the winter season.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Carolina Sandhills NWR
- Joe Kegley

Longleaf Pine Forested areas

Probably the most famous resident in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge is the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. A colonial woodpecker that nest in mature pines with rotting heartwood, this refuge supports the largest population found on federal refuge lands.

Two characteristics make the Red-cockaded Woodpecker unique. It is the only woodpecker that excavates its nesting cavities in living trees (usually mature longleaf or loblolly pines that often have red heart disease). Second, the species lives in cooperative family groups where offspring from the previous breeding season help to incubate and raise the young.

A good time to observe the Red-cockaded Woodpecker at the refuge is during late May and early June. This is the nesting season and the family groups can be observed near their excavated cavities. Family members will be taking turns with the incubation or helping feed the chicks.

Pines with excavated cavities are usually marked with a painted white stripe around the trunk. Note that just because there is a cavity in a tree does not mean it is being actively used as a nest or roost.

Red-headed Woodpecker, Carolina Sandhills NWR

Red-headed Woodpecker, Carolina Sandhills NWR
- Joe Kegley

A colony typically has multiple trees that have been excavated in its nesting area. Some trees (including previously marked areas) are not in use. Look for the freshest paint around the trunks or even better, the freshest sap near the excavated hole. Red-cockaded woodpeckers regularly peck around the entrance of an active cavity to produce sap, apparently a deterrent to predatory snakes. When the birds are unable to make sap flow around the hole, the excavated cavity is abandoned.

I had fairly good luck with observing (and photographing) Red-cockaded Woodpeckers during the late May through early June time period near the end of Rt 16 (a sand/dirt road). Route 16 intersects Visitor's Drive. If you are heading north on Visitor's Drive from the refuge office, Rt 16 intersects Visitors Drive just above one of the open field areas on the left. I took a right onto Rt 16 across the road from the field on Visitors Drive. (Zoom out on the map below to see the balloon marker for Rt 16)

Another area I was able to observe Red-cockaded Woodpeckers was the Lake Bee Recreational area. This area has many marked pines dispersed among the picnic tables. Realize there are many marked colony areas throughout the refuge besides the ones on Rt 16 and at Lake Bee.

In addition to the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, late May and early June are also good times for birding if you enjoy songbird observation.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Eastern Wood-Pewee, Carolina Sandhills NWR
- Joe Kegley

If you are interesting in more natural history about the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers found in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, I suggest you visit the refuge website. A link can be found at the bottom of this page. The refuge has put together some very good information specific to this species.

Another relative found in abundance in the Carolina Sandhills NWR is the Red-headed Woodpecker. I have personally encountered these birds on every visit I made to the refuge during the spring and summer of 2009. They seem to be everywhere in the pine forest. Realize I have no strategy for observing these beautiful woodpeckers, they just always show up during the 4 - 5 hours I am out and about in the area.

Other woodpeckers observed within the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge included Red-bellied, Downy, and the Northern Flicker.

Other bird species observed in the Longleaf pine areas were Pine Warblers, Bachman's Sparrows, and Eastern Wood Pewees. The Pine Warblers were pretty much everywhere. Listen for the Pine Warblers repetitive trills to locate these small yellow birds. The Wood Pewee is fairly easy to find because the bird frequently calls its name out ... 'peeooweeee'.

Bachman's Sparrow, Carolina Sandhills NWR

Bachman's Sparrow, Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

The Bachman's Sparrow is a little more difficult to find.

They appear to be particular to specific areas within the pine forest habitat. Bachman's Sparrows were usually found in areas where the trees were spread out and there was good ground cover, but the ground cover was not very scrubby or high.

One specific environment the Bachman's Sparrow seemed to enjoy were areas thick with ferns growing knee high. These areas also had a few scrub oaks, though not as numerous as other areas.

One example of this type of environment can be found on the way to 'Dove Field A' once you leave Visitor's Drive. Following the signs to 'Dove Field A', look for an area with heavy fern growth on the right. I observed the Bachman's Sparrows in late spring and early summer in this area.

Open Fields

The open field environments can be found in the Oxpen Lake Area, Visitor's drive, at 'Dove Field A', and along Rt 9 on the way to May's Lake. These fields provide excellent wildlife habitat for Wild Turkey, Bobwhites, American Kestrel, Eastern Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Bluebird, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Eastern Meadowlark, American Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrows, and Field Sparrows.

Northern Bobwhite, Carolina Sandhills NWR

Northern Bobwhite, Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

The fields along Visitor's Drive, Rt 9, and 'Dove Field A', are very open areas with little scrub growth. This areas are obviously managed to keep them that way.

The Oxpen Lake field area is pocketed with scrub and trees, creating a slightly different environment than the previous mentioned fields.

Some areas, 'Dove Field A' for instance, are cultivated and food crops are grown for wildlife such as deer, turkey, quail, and dove.

Other open areas are left more natural with only an occasional strip plowed here or there.

Every visit in the spring and summer of 2009 included hearing and frequently observing Northern Bobwhites, Blue Grosbeaks, and Eastern Meadowlarks.

In fact the Blue Grosbeaks were so numerous one could not go from field to field without at least hearing their song. The Orchard Orioles occurrence appeared to be more scattered, some fields had them, in others the bird was not observed. One could usually count on the Field and Chipping Sparrows to be in the vicinity of every field. Indigo Buntings were not observed as much as one might expect during my visits in 2009.

Orchard Oriole, Carolina Sandhills NWR

Orchard Oriole, Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak, Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

Seepage Bogs

Seepage bogs are common in the Appalachian Mountains and the sandhills of the upper coastal plain. These bogs are usually associated with very slow moving springs that wet soil over a broad area forming a 'bog'. These bogs are usually inundated with nature and wildlife.

The soil usually has a sand base with peat (from various decaying sources) mixed in. Typically the soil is acidic with low nutrient value. While Sphagnum moss may grow in and around a sandhills seepage bog, these bogs are not the same as the large Sphagnum bogs found in Canada. However a seepage bog may exhibit some of the same characteristics as a Sphagnum bog. Seepage bogs are usually found in low lying areas between hills. Seepage bogs provide an environment (consistently wet with acidic soil, some pools) conducive to carnivorous plants and serve as breeding grounds for the endangered Pine Barrens Tree Frog.

There are seven species of carnivorous plants found in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. Most are associated with seepage areas.

Utricularia fibrosa

Bladderwort, Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

  • Bladderwort (Utricularia fibrosa) - Vacuum Trap. Bladderworts are typically aquatic and found in ponds and streams associated with bogs. Look for small yellow flowers (approx 2 cm in length) growing out of the water to locate Utricularia fibrosa.

    The bladder traps are submerged and operate under a vacuum. When the trapdoor is triggered (by a mosquito larvae for instance), the door opens and the prey along with water are sucked into the bladder.

    One can find Bladderworts at the Carolina Sandhills NWR in the Oxpen Lake area right below the new viewing platform (with the long accessibility ramp) over looking Honker Lake. The platform is located next to the dike separating Oxpen Lake and Honker Lake.

  • Butterwort (Pinguicula caerulea) - Adhesive Trap. Found in sandy damp savannas. Not associated with standing water. Starts flowering in February. Typical flower is pale violet with prominent veins.

    May be difficult to find when not in flower and growing beneath leaves of bunchgrass. The green leaves spread out in a star shaped pattern somewhat parallel to the ground.

Sarracenia purpurea

Purple Pitcher Plant, Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

  • Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) - Pitfall Trap. Probably the most widely distributed pitcher plant in North America. This is the only species with an erect hood that does not cover the pitcher opening. The leaves form a low-ground rosette and the plant can be hidden when surrounded by taller grasses and sedges. The tell-tale sign is the long stem and flower extending straight up among the other taller vegetation. The leaves are typically a mixture of purple and green with definite purple veins.

    Sarracenia purpurea can be found in the bog in front of the second viewing platform at the Lake Bee Recreation area at the Carolina Sandhills NWR. Realize you are probably not going to see this plant from the viewing platform but will need to actually enter into the bog. Please be extremely careful of where you step so as not to damage the plants in the area.

Sarracenia flava

Yellow Pitcher, Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

  • Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava) - Pitfall Trap. Also called the Trumpet Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia flava is the classic savanna carnivorous plant. It is found in standing water and seepage bogs.

    This species is known for growing in dense congregations.

    The Lake Bee area at the Carolina Sandhills NWR has a good representation of this species. You can find them off the second boardwalk overlooking the bog. The leaves are tall with a yellowish green tint that stands out against the other vegetation. Look for the folded hood over the pitcher. Many of the plants have purple veins running through the leaves and hood.

  • Sweet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia rubra) - Pitfall Trap. Flower fragrance is strong and rose like, which is probably where the common name was derived from. Leaves are green with occasional red/purple veins. Hood not as pronounced as the Yellow Pitcher plant. Hood and leaf can resemble a snake standing erect.

    Note that subspecies occurring in the mountains have a different shaped hood and do not resemble a snake head at all.

    In savannas this plant can be found on the margins of bays and streams. Inland species grow in seepage bogs found in the sandhills or mountains.

Drosera intermedia

Sundew (Drosera intermedia), Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

  • Sundew (Drosera intermedia) - Adhesive Trap. One of the longest stemmed sundews. While some stems may grow up to 20 cm long, expect a large specimen in the sandhills area to have 8 - 10 cm long stems.

    Prefers extremely wet habitat, sometimes growing on floating debris. The plant is most robust on the margins of stream, ponds, and other very wet areas.

    The flower of most sundews grow out from the center of the rosette. Drosera intermedia is the exception, its flowers grow from between stems making identification easier.

    The leaf stems on Drosera intermedia form a hemispherical pattern which is unique among sundews. Others sundews common to the Southeast form a rosette.

    Drosera intermedia can be found in the Lake Bee Recreation area at the first boardwalk next to the boat launch. Walk the boardwalk and look down and you should see these guys. This species can also be found in a seepage area next to Oxpen Lake. This seepage area is on the left side of Oxpen Lake when facing the lake from the dike.

  • Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia variety capillaris) - Adhesive Trap. Also labeled as Drosera capillaris. Grows in sandy/peaty soils in savannas and on edges of shallow bodies of water. The most ubiquitous sundew in the Southeast, this species is often found where other carnivorous species do not exist. Stems are much shorter than Drosera intermedia and do not form a hemispherical shape but more of a rosette. Flower grows from the center of the rosette.

    This species can be found in a seepage area next to Oxpen Lake. This seepage area is on the left side of Oxpen Lake when facing the lake from the dike.

Sarracenia flava

Yellow Pitcher Plant, Carolina Sandhills NWR
- Joe Kegley

Drosera intermedia

Sundew (Drosera intermedia), Carolina Sandhills NWR
- Joe Kegley

Wilderness Experience Perspective

It is fairly easy to find solitude when on (or off) the forest roads during the spring and summer months. The ponds get an occasional fisherman, but traffic at the ponds is still relatively light considering. I have not visited in the fall or winter but would suspect that hunting would be going on during these seasons.

If you want some alone time, it is relatively easy to find an area to yourself in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has a few designated hiking trails. In addition, many of the gated forest roads are used for hiking.

Photography Perspective

The photography challenges for birds within the longleaf pine forest are not unlike other forested areas. Positioning oneself close enough for a shot, trying not to shoot at too high an angle, and dealing with dark shadows and highlights are common obstacles to overcome.

Shooting in the fields offers much better lighting and frequently lower angles. But getting close enough for a good shot can still be a daunting task.

Shooting plants in the bogs eliminates problems with a mobile subject, though frequently the background is cluttered with natural litter. Occasionally there is foreground obstacles that partially hide or cover the perfect subject.


Buttonbush, Carolina Sandhills NWR
- Joe Kegley

Nymphoides cordata

Little Floating Heart (Nymphoides cordata),
Carolina Sandhills NWR - Joe Kegley

Gear/equipment Suggestions

  • Canoe/Kayak - Canoe/Kayak to explore the various ponds and lakes.

  • Insect Repellent - The mosquitoes are not that bad, but the flies are, especially in the summer. Be prepared to tolerate them because repellent doesn't seem to work well on the flies.

Location and Points of Interest

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge (Google interactive map)

Not shown are Martin's Lake photoblind, Rt 16, Rt 9, and the Refuge Office. You must zoom out (or grab and move south) to observe those markers.

left double click to zoom in
right double click to zoom out
click and drag to move
hover over markers to see descriptions

Additional Information

Back to Top | Home | More Nature and Travel Destinations

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge ... a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.

Copyright 2017 WildlifeSouth.com. All photographs appearing on this site are the exclusive property of said photographers and are protected under United States and International copyright laws. The photographs may not be used without written permission from the author.

Home | Contact Information | Webmaster