Horry County Landfill
by Chris Hill
The Horry County Landfill in winter features a large gull flock (estimated at 15,000–19,000 in January 2009) dominated by Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, but with hundreds to thousands of Herring Gulls, dozens of Great Black-backed, usually between 5 and 20 Lesser Black-backed, and occasionally an Iceland or Glaucous Gull (or a flyover Bonaparte's). In January 2010, a California Gull was found here, and in January 2016 an adult Thayer's. This site is probably the best location in South Carolina for both white-winged gulls. In winter, in addition to the gulls, you can expect 2–20 Bald Eagles, Fish Crows, Savannah Sparrows, various icterids including Boat-tailed Grackles, Turkey Vultures and a couple thousand Starlings. The ponds used to be good for waterfowl but are not as of January 2017.
The Horry County Landfill is off Route 90 across from Sterritt Swamp Rd. in Conway, SC. The landfill is closed Sundays, but they allow birders to come in on other days. They close Saturdays at 4:30pm no exceptions. As you drive in, stop at the scale house and ask if it's OK to go up and look for birds. Stay out of the way of trucks to keep the staff birder-friendly. The phone number of the Solid Waste Authority is 843.347.1651.
The landfill gets reshaped every few years, most recently in January 2017. There are two giant hills. The one to the left as you enter is now capped, and the one to the right is where they are now dumping. Here's how I would now bird the landfill:
- If there's more than one birder present, see if you can all get in one car. After getting the OK at the scale house, take an immediate hard right up and over a rise, then bear left at the bottom. You will be taking the same route as the garbage trucks to almost where they are dumping. At your next chance you (and the trucks) will turn left, then right up the main hill to where the dumping takes place, but at the top, when the trucks go right, you stay left all the way to the top to a flat area they call the plateau. From the plateau you can scope through the gulls that are feeding on, and roosting near, the active tipping area. There should be plenty of eagles around as well as gulls. You can also, scan the big roosting gull flocks on the “old” hill, now capped with a green liner. There may be several thousand gulls roosting on that liner, quite far away, but close enough to pick out a white-winger if you have a scope.
- If you want to explore further, you can drive back down the hill and drive the perimeter road that circles both hills. It goes above the capped hill, so you may be able to look down on roosting gulls there, and you'll get a different angle on things as you circle the area. You can get out of your car but just keep out of the way of trucks and away from the active working sites.
- I haven't written up a site guide to gulling at Myrtle Beach, but an alternative to the “landfill experience” if you're coming to the area and want to study gulls and look for rarities is to head to Myrtle Beach in the afternoon. The birds that feed at the dump sleep just beyond the breakers at offshore, and from noon to sunset, you can find the same birds (minus the eagles) loafing and bathing on the beach, especially where fresh water drains cross the beach. The sunlight is at your back, you and can walk right up to the gulls since they're habituated to people, so it's better for photography, and it smells better, too. It's pretty routine to find Lesser Black-backs there, and I have found Iceland as well, even though I have not spent much time looking. A fat-tired bicycle would probably be the optimal vehicle, but there is public access every block or two, and you can work your way up and down the beach and scan quite a few gull flocks. The area from 30th to 65th Ave. North is usually a good place to start.
Wear boots for a dump trip. Put rubber floor mats in your car. It can get muddy in there.