Matt Stanis is driving in the dark, no headlights. He knows this path between pine woods and a farm field that well.
Depending on your perspective, it’s either exceedingly late or very early on a Friday in April. Dawn is still nearly an hour from breaking, and the hunting party is in an electric cart at Orange Hill Plantation, an over nine hundred-acre property off of Bohicket Road on Johns Island. A bird’s call, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, cuts through the darkness as we park near a farm shed.
Stanis hops off the cart and clicks on a flashlight that casts a red beam. Townsend Clarkson, chief operating officer at Kiawah Development Partners, carefully lifts the shotgun that he’ll carry on the hunt. Following their cues, I move deliberately and try not to add much noise to the scene. “It’s good to be outside as the sun comes up,” Clarkson says quietly, “to listen to nothing but the wildlife.”
Particularly, we’re listening for the gobble of a turkey, a bird known for eyesight so good that it can “spot a tick on a tree at a hundred yards,” according to Stanis. The birds should wake soon, with the light. To be less visible, we are all wearing camouflage colors of green and brown, like the sandy soil and grass at our feet. As the darkness brightens slightly, we follow Stanis to a copse of brush surrounding a massive live oak.
Stanis feels confident that Eastern wild turkey are roosting nearby. He’s observed the fowl all spring, driving the property’s unpaved farm roads with binoculars in his truck and stopping often to look for hens, gobblers, and the young male “jakes.” Turkeys range about, he explains, frequently changing their roosting locations. It takes a dedicated pursuit to keep track of them.
Guiding hunters is a sideline to Stanis’s primary work as landscape superintendent for Kiawah Development Partners. The tall, lanky South Carolina native grew up around Lake Murray near Columbia, graduated from Clemson with a degree in horticulture, and now directs a staff of about thirty at Kiawah. Watching and listening to him, his knowledge of the state’s land appears both learned and instinctual.
“The ocean used to be here,” he explains when we join him on an evening scout a few days earlier. In his truck this time, Stanis drives on roads through the clay shooting course of the Kiawah Island Sporting Club, which uses the land for shooting sports. Each year there’s an annual drawing among interested Club members to join one of a limited number of dates available for a guided turkey hunt. (This year, the two Club guides led just ten hunts.)
On a pre-hunt scout, Stanis’s goal is to locate where the Eastern wild turkeys might be roosting for the night. Just before nightfall, the birds fly up into trees, seeking a suitable horizontal branch for sleeping. Often they choose a live oak, he says. Meanwhile, the mated hens begin laying eggs in spring—only one egg every day or two. She eventually gathers a clutch of ten to fifteen eggs together in a grassy nest on the ground, and then she will sit on the nest for four weeks straight to incubate the eggs. Often six or seven poults will survive and thrive, joining her in flocks the following summer and fall.
The Johns Island property is the backdrop and habitat for turkeys but also for flying squirrels, foxes, wood ducks, owls, deer, herons, and songbirds, according to Stanis. He explains that the rolling topography includes ancient sand dunes and troughs once part of the ocean floor. I learn later that not only is the land historically fascinating, but also the birds within it are linked to ancient history, too. Recent DNA studies have shown that the wild turkey native to America are among the closest living relatives to the dinosaurs. Turkey chromosomes “have undergone fewer changes than other birds since the days of feathered dinosaurs,” according to the best seller The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman.
Maybe that’s why the turkeys’ behavior can seem exceptionally primal. We step out of the truck onto a section of farm road that’s powder-dusty dry. Earlier in the spring, after rainy weeks, Stanis says, some lower sections of the property became wide stretches of shallow water. But now the road is marked with long scratch marks and meandering lines—the markings of the three long toes of these modern-day, mini dinosaurs on the South Carolina Sea Islands.
At a power line easement we see a gobbler and a deer grazing within yards of each other—under power poles that Stanis notes were originally installed when power was brought across Johns Island to reach Kiawah. Over the past several years, he’s coordinated the wildlife management efforts on the property, including some select timbering to create open areas, along with the planting of crops that can be food for wildlife, including mustard and turnip greens, sunflowers, wheat, oats, corn, and millet. In all, we see a dozen wild turkeys during our drive-around, and Stanis says he sometimes sees dozens more.
AROUND THE OLD OAK TREE
Back to the morning hunt. Clarkson is the hunter, Stanis is guiding, and I’m observing from several yards back. A South Carolina native as well, Clarkson says he never hunted for turkey growing up because the wild population was so sparse. Because of unregulated hunting and habitat loss, the birds’ population had dipped so low that they were nearly extinct in the U.S. by the early twentieth century. It took decades of state-by-state restoration efforts for wild turkey populations to rebound by the 1980s and 1990s. Habitat loss is still a concern, but today wildlife officials report flocks in all forty-six counties in South Carolina, and the hunting season—which lasts only for a few weeks each spring—is continually monitored and regulated.
Once in place, we each settle on a cushion of pine straw at the base of the tree trunk and stay as motionless as possible. Turkey hunting is a patience game. Stanis and Clarkson have a clearer view to the open fields ahead, and we’re all listening to the woods wake up with birdsong. Crows are calling. It feels like a jungle in this stand of pine and cherry laurel around the live oak. I think about the brambles that we pushed through at the edges, the blackberries just ripe enough to pick.
We hear a turkey gobble. It sounds distant. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources regulations allow for only male turkeys to be taken, so this is what a hunter is waiting for.
Stanis has a “call” made of black walnut and butternut wood that he scratches to make soft squeaks and clucks in an imitation of the sounds of a turkey hen. There’s another gobble, and the noise of it is coming from a different direction, and sounds nearer. Stanis gives a thumbs up. His goal is to attract the tom turkey. And after only a few minutes, in the nearest field rows that are planted with sunflowers, a gobbler is strutting. “He’s just down the field,” Stanis whispers.
I can’t see the large male turkey, but Clarkson and Stanis can, and they use the wide trunk of the sprawling live oak as cover. Clarkson crouches low and begins to move toward the bird that’s puffing out its chest and has its tail feathers unfurled in a showy fan. “Hey, I’m looking for somebody,” is what Stanis tells me later that he imagines the turkeys are communicating to each other.
Everyone watches and waits. About thirty minutes into the morning hunt, Clarkson lifts his shotgun into position and fires. Everyone rushes forward. It’s a successful shot, and the twenty-four-pound bird falls instantly, a gorgeous gobbler with a nine-inch-long beard (really a bristly, modified feather) and sharp spurs about one-and-a-half-inches long.
I think of stories the men shared earlier of how turkeys often outsmart the hunter. Stanis recounted how the majestic, wily bird is known to be unpredictable, and may appear and disappear “like Houdini” during a hunt.
On other mornings, it goes differently, but this time, the hunter gets the bird. We step closer. I’m amazed at the vivid blue skin on the gobbler’s head, and I reach down to touch the brown, white, and greenish feathers with reverence—a dinosaur descendent in the very colors of the spring landscape and sky around us. —S.L.