Collage showing things to do on the Grand Strand

Bird Island Reserve, NC

The most famous structure on this tiny island is a large metal mailbox named the Kindred Spirit

Johnnie Bailey: Author

Bird Island Aerial

Walk southwest along the beach from Sunset Beach, North Carolina and you will encounter a 1400+ acres of salt marsh and tidal creeks called Bird Island. Only about 130 acres are solid ground. About a quarter mile of the island extends into South Carolina.

Decades ago the then privately owned island was separated from the mainland by Madd Inlet. Visitors would have to wait for low tide to wade to and from the island.

Mother Nature at Work 

You can thank Mother Nature for that. It took her several decades but by 1997 she had instructed the inlet’s currents to slowly stack the sands underneath its waters into a narrow land bridge. She gave the land bridge a great boost when she guided hurricane Bonnie to the island in 1999. Today a sturdy land bridge connects Bird Island to the mainland.

Finally, you could get onto the island without getting your feet wet.

But this easier access caused concern among the many people who were and are dedicated to the preservation of this beautiful habitat. With that preservation in mind, the State of North Carolina purchased the island in 2002. The area is now a protected coastal preserve used to conduct research and study of wildlife. The state regularly hosts educational walks during the summer.

There are no houses here — no cars and no traffic. No restaurants or gift shops. There are no restrooms either. In fact, there are only a few man-made structures on this Island.  The most prominent one is a huge pile of granite boulders at the southernmost tip of the island that forms a protective jetty along Little River Inlet. The jetty marks the North Carolina and South Carolina state line.

The most famous structure is a large metal mailbox named the Kindred Spirit

Kindred Spirit Mailbox

Exactly who planted the Kindred Spirit mailbox on Bird Island is the stuff of legend.

And no one knows exactly, the legend would have you believe, when it was ‘planted’. The legend also says that the person who did it left a note which basically said:

“27 years ago I visited this island. As I walked along the low tide line, off in distance I saw the silhouette of what I believed to be a mailbox. I could not reach it, for it was a mirage. I returned days later to plant the Kindred Spirit mailbox.”

The first Kindred Spirit note began a tradition and gave birth to a legend

Inside the box are pens and pencils and journals filled with visitor’s stories and observations. Thousands of people have rested on that wooden bench while they read journal entries or write their own.

And each entry begins with the phrase, “Dear Kindred Spirit”

Letter found in Kindred Spirit mailbox on Bird Island

They are not all stories exclaiming the beauty of the island although many do. Some write prayers. Others tell tales of luck, good and bad. Many stories are jubilant; some sad. Some are heart-warming and others are heart-wrenching.

The mystique of the Kindred Spirit continues to expand

Legend has it that the completed journals are periodically and secretly collected by the Kindred Spirit. He (or she, or it) reads every entry and then preserves them for all posterity. However unrealistic, it is a pleasant thought nonetheless.

But history tells a different story

According to a March 2019 article in Island Life NC Magazine the ‘mystery’, at least to many of the long-time local residents, is no mystery at all. But it is one that most of them have little interest in solving. It is, after all, a harmless tale.

It began in the late 1970s. It seems that a local gentleman named Frank Nesmith actually planted the mailbox at the behest of his then romantic interest, a girl named Claudia.

The mail box’s original location was not Bird Island

The original location of the mailbox was on a small patch of sand in Tubbs Inlet, not far away. But Mother Nature eroded that sand away so Claudia moved the mailbox in 1983 to its current location.

She divulged the secret to only a few people. Claudia passed away in 2013.

We can only wonder who collects and reads those journal accounts today.

How to get to Bird Island and the Kindred Spirit Mailbox

Driving/Walking to Bird Island

Drive over the Sunset Beach Bridge down to the oceanfront. Turn right and drive to the last public access area.

From here you will walk southwest along the ocean side shoreline of the island. Walk approximately a mile and a quarter and look for a (second) flagpole displaying an American flag. There you will find the mailbox.

It is an hour or so round-trip walk. But give yourself some time to explore this beautiful island and, of course, add your story to a mailbox journal.

You’ll want to take along some water and maybe a picnic lunch. By all means don’t forget the sunscreen. The only significant shade on the island is the shadow thrown by the mailbox.

Bird Island by Water

Boating to the island is very popular among boating enthusiasts. On a summer day you will likely find several shallow draft boats anchored on the western sound side of the island.

To get there from the waterway, head east towards Little River Inlet. Bird Island Reserve will be on your left just as you approach the rock jetty.

If you don’t own a boat consider renting a pontoon boat, even jet skis, to make the trip. I personally prefer to boat to the island because the boat allows me to pack in lots of supplies. And a boat canopy can provide welcomed shade.

Bring along some binoculars for wildlife and people watching. Cell phones work fine here so you won’t be too detached from civilization, just enough to relax and enjoy Mother Nature. Put your phone in airplane mode and breathe deeply.

Hear the water slosh against the boat. Hear the gulls screeching. Please don’t feed them.

Please leave it like you found it

For you former scouts, I’ll remind you of our rule to leave the places we visit in better shape than when we arrived. It’s not hard. Just take out more trash than you brought in. Obviously that includes soda and beer cans but it also includes the cleanly-gnawed bones from your picnic fried chicken and the like. Haul out every single piece of trash plus that of some ungrateful idiot.

Here are some other rules and suggestions

  • Enjoy the wildlife — but don’t disturb it. They don’t need your help (probably).
  • Don’t forget the sunscreen and a hat.
  • Pets are welcome. That is a big plus with me. But you must keep them on a lease AT ALL TIMES when on the island. Off-leash pets can disrupt nesting animals and plant structure (not to mention kicking sand onto other visitors’ bologna sandwiches).
  • Be sure to clean up after your pet.
  • Speaking of food, the island is a perfect place for a beach picnic.
  • Do not leave personal items behind.
  • Keep your clothes on. Know that public nudity and nude sunbathing are not allowed —even on your own boat if it is in view of other visitors.
  • The research equipment on the island is off-limits to visitors unless you are a researcher with the required permit (that excludes most of us).
  • If you plan to fish or hunt you will need the required NC or SC license.
  • Did I mention bring the sunscreen?
  • NO overnight camping is allowed.
  • Fires of any size are not allowed.
  • Fireworks are not allowed. Yes, that includes sparklers.
  • Kids (and adults) love to play in the sand but please fill any holes before you leave the beach.
  • Recreational/off-road vehicles are prohibited (duh).
  • There are NO facilities. That means NO restrooms.
  • Did I mention the sunscreen?
  • No firearms allowed.

Birdwatchers will be elated with their feathery find at Bird Island

Along with the normal beach-bird finds one might expect to be present here, there is a unique bird.

Reddish egret wading

The Reddish Egret is a large and rare wading bird. It is considered unique because of its feeding habit. Its feeding routine is one of running through the inlets and marsh while flapping its wings to frighten its prey into revealing itself. A unique but effective ploy.

The birds frequent this area from July through September.

Keep an eye out for these species as well:

  • Seabeach Amaranth, Amaranthus pumilus
  • Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger
  • Least Tern, Sterna antillarum
  • Eastern Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris ciris
  • Wood Stork, Mycteria Americana
  • Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus
  • Wilson’s Plover, Charadrius wilsonia

The islands’ most famous wildlife is nesting loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta)

sea turtles hatchlings

Be advised that the island (and Sunset Beach) are sea turtle sanctuaries.

May through October is when they are the most fragile.

Let’s protect them.

  • Don’t shine lights on a sea turtle or take flash photography. (It may distract them from their routine or may disorient them.)
  • Keep your distance. Never disturb a nesting sea turtle.
  • Don’t leave holes on the beach. They are a death trap for turtles.

Got it? Let’s go. Pack that picnic lunch, crank up the Mercury outboard and head on out to Bird Island Sanctuary for a day of fun in the sun.

By the way…. don’t forget the metal detector. You never know.T

You never know what's under that sand on Bird Island! But here is how to find out.

Professional Metal Detector

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