Dewees History

Holiday Celebrations past and present

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In the tradition of online media’s “Throwback Thursday,” wherein people post photos of past events and wardrobes, I thought I would share this photo from (probably) 1926, when the Huyler Family lived on the island, and went out with Jane the mule to chop the Christmas tree.

Bringing Home the Christmas Tree circa 1927

Getting to the island with a tree still takes some logistical maneuvering, but Santa manages to find us anyway. These photos show the O’Leary family getting their tree to the island this week:


Jack Huyler left us his memoirs of living on the island. He remembers a Christmas Eve as a young boy, worried that Santa wouldn’t find them on Christmas (something my own children can probably relate to!) It’s easy to see Declan’s excitement in the above photo and imagine a youngster his age, frantic with worry when his family ran aground on Christmas! He writes,

At high tide the trip from Charleston to Dewees with building materials, furniture, and/or food took approximately an hour and a half; three when the tide was low. Twice that long for a round trip if we did not run aground. On Christmas Eve we ran aground!

The most exciting voyage of the season was the trip to Charleston in the V-V to fetch Dad that Christmas Eve.

I was in a dither. What if we were not back by the time Santa Claus came? … Off we went in plenty of time for Gwyn, Charles, Coulter, and Mum to do last minute Christmas shopping in the city, as well as for Mum essential grocery shopping. As you can imagine, we did not voyage to the city frequently, because of the 3-4 hours required just going and coming.

All of us were at the railroad station in plenty of time to see Dad step down from a Pullman Car. While all the hugging and kissing were going on, I danced up and down, “Dad! Dad! Let’s go! We’ve got to get to the boat so we can be home in time for Santa Claus, Dad!”

What was the matter with Coulter, Charles, and Gwyn: they didn’t seem worried at all. What’s the matter with them? “Dad! Dad! Let’s go!”

Dark was descending rapidly as the V-V left Adger’s wharf, crossed Charleston Harbor, and headed into the channel. I was beside myself! Santa might be coming right then, and we weren’t home. Things got a bit better when someone assured me that [the staff] would see to it that Santa left our presents… But we really ought to be there.

Mr. Moore at the helm puffed imperturbably on his pipe as he steered from one channel light to the next. Then it happened! The V-V ran aground. The grownups said that one of the channel lights had burned out. There we were; and we had struck ground on an ebb tide! It would be 12 hours before the V-V would float free on her own. If I was worried before, I was anguished now. Over the side into the cold water went Coulter and Charles and Dad. As Mr. Moore reversed the engines, the man and two boys pushed as hard as they could. Dad was a powerful bull of a man. Every minute there was less water as the tide carried it to the sea. The V-V was grounded at the prow; so Mum and Gwyn moved all the cargo and themselves aft.

By some miracle and every ounce of their strength Dad and those teenage boys managed to move that boat an inch or two; then six; then she floated free and the three men climbered aboard, [sic] wrapped themselves in the Army blankets which Mum always kept at hand for emergencies; and hovered over the stinking engine for warmth.

The spark of hope was re-ignited in me. Maybe– just maybe– we would reach home before Santa Claus did… We reached home shortly after midnight to a roaring fire, a hot dinner, and some tears of relief.

Jack Huyler’s entire Dewees memoir can be read here. Jack died in early 2014– you can read more about him here. We have a lot of these cards printed as holiday cards– let us know if you’d like some.


Birds and Birding

Winter Bird Notes: Northern Gannet

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I had heard of people watching Northern Gannets diving right near the shore in the winter, but so far, every time I have been watching the beach in the winter, I haven’t been able to catch this in action. Yesterday, I was actually grumbling about that to a friend on the beach when we looked up and saw a Gannet emerging from the waves. After awkwardly running off the water and into the air, the bird rose to a height above the blustery waves, and then plunged headlong into another wave. We watched a few of them for a while, and it really was thrilling. I read something in the paper one winter about people watching them from the Ravenel Bridge.

The Northern Gannet, Morus bassanus, is one of the largest seabirds in our area. They have large webbed feet, and a wingspan of 72 inches. They feed by plunge diving, and can dive from heights of 10 to 40 meters to a depth of 22 meters. According to Cornell University’s All About Birds site,

Most plunge-dives are relatively shallow, but the Northern Gannet can dive as deep as 22 meters (72 feet). It uses its wings and feet to swim deeper in pursuit of fish.

There are only six breeding colonies on our side of the Atlantic, three of them in Newfoundland off the Labrador coast, and three in Quebec in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Adults greet each other by clacking bills together, seen here in this video. Before chicks can fly, they plunge from the cliff nest into the water and begin swimming as part of migration. While there are many predators of Gannet eggs and chicks, the only specific predator of adults is the Bald Eagle. They winter at sea, with many traveling to the waters off Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. In February, migration north begins. They feed on fish schooling near the surface of the water, and they can fly in storms and high wind. Here is a video clip showing them diving from above and below the water. It has a sad ending, but the video footage is great!

Gannets are so striking that they did not escape the attention of early Naturalists to our area. Mark Catesby, an English naturalist who lived in Charleston, wrote of colleague John Lawson, who described the Gannet’s commercial value:

His fat or grease is as yellow as saffron, and the best thing known to preserve firearms, from rust.

Catesby in Natural History of Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, published between 1731 and 1743.

This was a new bird for me… if you are not participating in the Dewees Island Big Year contest, you can join us at any time!

Birds and Birding

Eagles Are Nesting on the Island

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The buzz circulated yesterday afternoon as Ginny and I discovered the nest within a few hours of each other. We have been watching this pair of eagles since December, when we noticed that they were spending a lot of time over the impoundment. In the mornings, the pair would be atop an old osprey platform, and as the sun warmed the water, they would fly off. We assumed they were just roosting, because the platform is much smaller than we expected eagles could nest on. But we did see them gathering sticks, and adding them to the platform.
On December 30, the pair spent a long time in the impoundment, looking at the ducks and fish, but not hunting. Perhaps they had other things on their minds, because they waited until dusk, and chose a small hummock in the impoundment for mating. As the pile of sticks on the platform grew, we could see the eagles on the platform in the early morning and at night, and then this weekend it looked like there was only one. “What had happened to the other?”, we wondered. Our telescope is not powerful enough to see that what looked like a bump on a stick was actually the head of one eagle, who appears to be sitting on eggs. As I drove by yesterday, I noticed that she was still there, hunkered down in the nest.
I immediately called Lori, who checked with her contacts at DNR about the likelihood of eagles raising a successful brood atop an osprey platform. We had lots of questions… will cart traffic disturb the nest? Would the pair return year after year and grow the nest to those two-ton massive structures you read about? What if the ospreys come back?

They thought that the pair is either an experienced pair whose nest was somehow destroyed, and she needs a place to lay eggs right now, OR that this is a starter home for a new set of parents, and this represents their first nest attempt. (Because of the fact that this pair seems to have been investigating this site since just after Thanksgiving, I am inclined to think this is the starter home situation.) In either case, it is not particularly likely that they will nest here for years, because the platform probably won’t support that sort of enormous nest. If ospreys return to that platform, they may throw eaglets out of the nest. (Does anyone remember if a pair nested there last summer?)

According to Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, the eagles will continue to add leafy twigs throughout the nesting period, and the outside diameter of the nest may get to be six feet across- or larger. They usually lay two eggs over several days, and the older sibling may starve or kill the second, depending on available resources.  The eggs hatch 35 to 46 days after being laid, and the babies are born covered in downy gray feathers.

The Norfolk Botanical garden has a webcam on an eagle’s nest: you can see it here. In Oklahoma, here is a nest with babies that have hatched already.  We can’t wait for this to unfold and watch what happens.  Try not to disturb the eagles if you spot them from the road.


Winter Sunsets Are Stunning

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If you’ve never been to Dewees in the winter, you should consider it. The sunsets are great. The shelling, especially on the North Beach after a storm, is spectacular. The ducks and loons are here in large numbers. The dolphins are playful.

Sunset December 26, 2011
Winter Sunset Over Chapel Pond

Island Living

Time to Winterize your Golf Carts

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Bobby Postlethwaite of Best Golf Carts suggests the following strategies for winterizing your golf cart, or for when it will be sitting for an extended period of time.  Most of this information is from

  • Turn the key switch to the “off’ position, remove the key, and leave the forward/reverse switch in the “neutral” position during storage. Then place the tow/run switch in the “tow” position. Note: since the battery warning light does not illuminate with the key in the “off” position and the tow switch in “tow,” do not use the warning light as an indication of the batteries’ charge state.
  • Clean the battery packs, tops and terminals using a battery acid neutralizer (1 cup baking soda per 1 gallon water). Check, clean, and treat battery terminal connections with a battery terminal protector spray. Tighten all battery cable connections.
  • Check the water levels in each battery cell. If water is required, fill the cells to cover the plates, charge the set, and then use distilled water to top off each cell at least ½ inch above the plates or to the level indicator.
  • Plug the battery charger into the car. Leave battery chargers plugged in during storage. If cars are equipped with an onboard computer, the OBC automatically will activate the charger when needed.
  • If the battery charger is left plugged in during extended storage, check the electrolyte level and the charger function at least once a month to ensure that proper operation is maintained. To check charger function, disconnect the DC cord (stationary charger) from the vehicle or the AC cord (onboard charger) from the power source and wait five seconds before reconnecting. The charger is functioning properly if the ammeter indicates current.
  • If AC power is off for seven days or more, the OBC will not function or charge the vehicle again until it has been restarted. To restart the computer, make sure AC power has been restored, disconnect the DC cord (stationary charger) from the vehicle or the AC cord (onboard charger) from the power source, wait five seconds and reconnect.
  • If any of the following conditions exist, disconnect the batteries for the storage period:

1. The charger cannot remain plugged in continuously
2. AC power will not be available during extended storage
3. If electrolyte levels will not be maintained

(I asked Bobby how to disconnect the batteries, and he said, “take one battery cable off the terminal to interrupt the flow of electricity, making sure it is not near any battery terminal posts during this process.”

  • Check tire pressure and inflate to 18 to 20 PSI, or as called for in the owner’s manual.
  • Perform all semiannual lubrications.
  • Thoroughly clean the front and rear body, seats, battery compartment and underside of vehicle.
  • Make sure the facility has adequate outside ventilation.
  • Do not engage the park brake, but secure the car from rolling.

I wrote him back and asked him a few clarification questions about Dewees-specific concerns.  In addition to the one above, I asked what he would recommend for Dewees long distance owners who leave their carts under their homes.  Here is his answer:

As for leaving the golf car plugged in, the charger is set-up to be plugged in continuously. Ideally, if someone could charge the car every 4-6 weeks and then unplug the charger that would be best. That way if you had a storm and a power surge the golf car would not be plugged in and out of danger. Since the unit is not being driven the water levels would only need to be checked about every other month. Evaporation is what lowers the water/electrolyte level. Heat increases evaporation, so in the winter months, evaporation is not as much of a concern.

Summer heat, frequent driving, and charging the batteries all generate more heat and thereby increase the evaporation rate, which means the water and electrolytes need to be checked and replenished more often.

Bobby can be reached at or 843-224-9326.

Featured Creature

Portuguese Men o’ war on the Front Beach

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Dewees Environmentalist Lori Sheridan Wilson sent out a warning to Dewees beachgoers yesterday to look out for Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish on the beach. This is about a week after this Post and Courier article about them washing up on Folly Beach.

According to the SCDNR taxonomic page,

the man-of-war is not a singleanimal. It is actually a colony of numerous organisms called polyps (or zooids) that are sospecialized that they cannot live without each other.
Four main types of polyps make up the man-of-war. One individual polyp becomes thelarge gas filled float (pneumatophore) that sits horizontally on the surface of the ocean.
The float can be up to 15 cm above the water and is generally translucent, tinged withpink, purple or blue. The other polyps become the feeding tentacles (gastrozooids), thedefensive/prey capturing tentacles (dactylozooids) and the reproductive polyps(gonozooids). The tentacles of the man-of-war can hang down in the water 165 feet (or
50 meters).

According to Lori, she counted over 75 Portuguese Man-of-War on the beach between Osprey Walk and the Osprey platform. Jill Cochran walked the beach this morning and also reported seeing a lot of them! The Post and Courier article reports that water is warmer than usual this year, which might have something to do with it:

The winds lately have been southeast. One telltale hint that they are around is sargassum along the beaches. It too blows or floats in from the Gulf Stream.

Man-of-wars might be more common in the summer, but the waters offshore are several degrees warmer than usual for this time of year.

At the Folly Pier the temperature is in the low 60s, said Charlie Vance, assistant pier manager. At the Edisto Buoy some 40 miles offshore and closer to the Gulf Stream, the temperature is about 10 degrees warmer.

Click here for a graphic on how they sting.

Birds and Birding

Winter Birding brings different species

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Our winter birds are back, providing birders with new glimpses of birds we haven’t seen since last winter. While on the ferry, watch for loons feeding and diving in the waterway. Loons have a similar silhouette to cormorants– they sit low in the water, but they have a sharper beak and white underparts.
Another similar bird that fished the water near the dock is a Horned Grebe. We have also seen them at the north end of the island, fishing the surf. They sit much higher in the water and have a much shorter bill than a loon does.
Also on the ferry, look for American Oystercatchers, especially at high tide. We have a great population of these every winter, and it is fun to see them fly in large flocks on the shell islands that flank the waterway.
Winter ducks are returning: Hooded Mergansers, and Bufflehead have both been seen in the impoundment, and we are keeping watch for American Coot, Scaup, Teal, Widgeons, and Gadwall; all of which have been part of our winter counts before.

Featured Creature

There are Plenty of Living Creatures on the Winter Beach, too.

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Moon snail beneath the surface of the sand

The winter beach has evidence of the life-and-death search for food everywhere you look.  Here is a moon snail cruising just below the surface of the sun-warmed sand, looking for its next coquina or other creature to snack on.  Our further exploration showed it rapidly pulling into its shell and sealing the doorway quickly with its operculum.

you can see just the tip of the shell in the sand

We made sure to cover it back up so it doesn’t wind up exposed to the next predator, likely a bird.

We also found a stone crab at the wrack line– alive, but moving slowly.

Winter is a wonderful time to watch the shorebirds and seabirds on the beach.  The Christmas bird count group scouted the beach the day before our count, and found flocks of shorebirds in the thousands. (they were nowhere in evidence the day of the count, but that’s another story.)

mixed flock of semipalmated plovers, dunlin, and dowitchers

Yesterday I was able to watch a group of Dunlin probe for small crabs and clams in an exposed ancient pluff mud bank, and some sanderlings run back and forth in the edges of the gentle waves.  If you are interested in identification of shorebirds, Lori just put a new, great poster at the ferry dock which shows the relative size and coloring of our common winter shorebirds.


Winter brings cold-stunned animals to shore

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sea stars and sea cucumbers

When the waters change temperature abruptly, some sea creatures don’t have time to move downward into the mud, or offshore into warmer waters fast enough.  Moving sluggishly and suffering from hypothermia, they wash up onto the beach and often perish when exposed to the wind.  We have seen quite a number of sea stars, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and even several types of crabs on the beach during the last few cold snaps.  In many ways, this is a natural part of winter, and it’s a really interesting way to learn more about what is going on in the water nearby.  It was at this time last year that we found several intact giant tun shells on the beach, and learned about how they function in the ecosystem. Yesterday and today we walked on the beach and found some fascinating things.

Spider crab, mid-molt

We found a spider crab that had begun to molt, but hadn’t made it out of the older shell.  Here, you can see the soft shell crab emerging from the hard, smaller shell.  The soft shell must not have provided enough protection from the cold.  It was not an isolated event– we found another one in soft shell stage further down the beach.

The Post and Courier had an interesting article in December about cold-stunned wildlife and the effect the temperatures may have on the fishing and shrimping industries, and Charleston Waterkeeper was looking onto a fishkill of probably cold-stunned menhaden on Folly Beach last week.  The Post and Courier also had a story about that fish kill.