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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia and South Carolina

Birding the American Civil War: Savannah to Charleston

2016 Narrative

In Brief: We had a delightful week on the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, no rain, moderate temperatures, and an enjoyable variety of birds. Highlights of our week included close studies of the hundreds of Black Skimmers and Royal and Sandwich Terns, four Piping Plovers, three species of rails, which included a King. We had excellent and prolonged views of several Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites, swooping and diving above our heads for elusive dragonflies. A single Eastern Screech-Owl (during the day), a pair of Barred Owls, Red-headed Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, and a stunning adult male Painted Bunting.  Plus two of the group had brief views of an Eastern Kingbird at Fort Pulaski.  During our week we visited a number of Civil War sites, notably Fort Pulaski and Fort Sumter, enjoyed historical walking tours of Savannah and Charleston and delight in several evenings of fine southern cuisine. 

In Detail: Our first full day of birding took us to Tybee Island, off the Georgia coast, where we spent a full morning viewing hundreds of terns, mostly Royals, but also many Sandwich and hundreds of Black Skimmers.  A sub-adult Lesser Black-backed Gull stood out amongst the many other gulls.  We watched a large flock of Sanderlings running back and forth along the water’s edge along with numerous other shorebirds.  Nearly all, except for two, were in basic plumage, the alternate plumage for most won’t be acquired until May.  This reflects the high arctic breeding grounds and a later breeding season, mostly (for North American populations) in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  Within the Sanderling flock there were two migrant Semipalmated Sandpipers.  Other shorebirds included several American Oystercatchers and four cooperative Piping Plovers.  These were of the Atlantic coast nominate subspecies with a broken breast band.  Later after a relaxed lunch we visited Fort Pulaski, our first Civil War site.  It was here in 1862 that the invention of the rifled canon and the ability to fire continuously at one spot, rendered these forts obsolete.  In 24 hours the Union artillery had destroyed one corner of the fort.  The fort soon surrendered.  Fort Pulaski was one of a number of forts constructed along our coast between 1820 and 1850, largely as a reaction to the War of 1812.  Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, Florida, is probably the best known by birders. It became a Union prison during the Civil War.  Near the actual Fort, we found it to be very good birding in the picnic area.  Here we had stunning views of an adult male Painted Bunting and heard several others.  These are of the nominate subspecies with slightly deeper and darker colors than the subspecies (pallidior) farther west.  These birds remain and molt on the breeding grounds before migrating south.  The more westerly subspecies migrates earlier and molts on the winter grounds in Mexico.  Some have argued the two should be recognized as separate species, although no vocal differences have been articulated between the two subspecies.  Other species of note included a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatch, Carolina Chickadee, and Pine Warbler.  Two Wood Storks flew over and a couple of our group saw a Gray Kingbird fly by with several Eastern Kingbirds.  Later after a brief stop along the Savannah River at Fort Jackson, we checked in to our hotel in the historic section of Savannah and later walked to Molly MacPherson’s for dinner.

The second morning of the tour we visited Savannah National Wildlife Refuge just across the Savannah River in South Carolina.  Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, herons, Ibis (both Glossy and White) and Wood Storks were numerous in the various pools.  We also saw numerous Gull-billed and several Least Terns.  There were some migrant land birds, a few Yellow-rumped, a female Prairie, and several singing Yellow Warblers.  At one clump of trees we called in a Eastern Screech-Owl (seen by most) and a Common Nighthawk roosted overhead on a bare branch.  What we will remember Savannah Refuge mostly for the rails.  We had outstanding views of three species:  Sora, and Virginia and King Rails.  The King Rails were particularly cooperative walking by the side of the van.  This is the first time we have seen this species on the tour.  Later we dropped down to Fort McAllister south and west of Savannah, one of the last battles before the Confederate Army withdrew from Savannah and allowed Sherman to move in and present his Christmas present to Lincoln.  While there we had fabulous views of a Yellow-throated Warbler.  Shortly we returned to Savannah for our walking tour of the historical area.  Our walking tour took in many of the beautiful squares of Savannah as well as many of the historical homes and buildings.  Later we dined at Paula Deen’s, Lady & Sons, one of many famous restaurants of the South.

The next morning after breakfast we drove to Webb Wildlife Management Area where two Northern Bobwhites ran in front of us crossing the road.  Species of note at Webb included Wild Turkey, a pair of Barred Owls, Red-headed Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Prothonotary Warbler, and Bachman’s Sparrow.  The sparrows took some time to locate but eventually we had stunning views.  (This secretive southeastern species has been steadily declining over the last half century.)  We were unable to locate a Red-cockaded Woodpecker but we did here one while scouting here a few days earlier.  Later we moved on to Donnelley and Bear River Wildlife Management Areas.  Bear River was full of shorebirds.  More memorable was the field we stopped at along the way, it was full of kites, both Swallow-tailed and Mississippi, wheeling around catching dragonflies.  We watched them for over thirty minutes and finally reluctantly left them.  That evening after checking in to our hotel we had dinner in the historic district at 39 Rue de Jean’s.

Our birding destination the following day was the famous Ion Swamp northeast of Charleston.  It was here that Wayne found multiple nests of Bachman’s Warbler in the late 19th century as well as Swainson’s Warbler.  Valid sightings of Bachman’s here continued into the late 1940’s and early 1950’s and within the Charleston area, a few sightings continued. The last valid one, anywhere, was in 1962.  The species is now almost certainly extinct. In our morning at Ion, we found nothing dramatic but did add Ovenbird, Hooded, Black-and-white, and Northern Parula to the list.  We had a tasty lunch at Seewee Restaurant and then continued to Patriot’s Landing where we boarded the boat to Fort Sumter. 

It was here that the Civil War started on 12 April 1861.  Why the Confederates fired on the Union Fort in the pre-dawn hours is a question that I will always have.  In any event with that dramatic start to the war, all sides were enjoined.  Four years later the South would lie in ruins. Fort Sumter today looks little like it did in early April 1860.  Between the southern bombardment, and particularly a few years later by the Union Navy, the assault left the Fort a pile of rubble.  At the end of the century, it was refurbished during the Spanish American War and that is how it looks now.  That evening we dined at the Darling Oyster Bar followed by yummy ice cream treats at Splendid Ice Creams.

On our final day of birding we began at the Pitt Street Extension where we had outstanding views of several Clapper Rails.  Other species of note included a cooperative adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a Bald Eagle, and several cooperative Gull-billed Terns.  We also found nests of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the (grayish) griseus Marsh Wren.  Later at the inlet separating Sullivan’s Island from Isle of Palms we found two late (and scarce at any time) Black Scoter and watched a diving immature Northern Gannet offshore.  We also found a flock of Red Knots at the point across the channel.  We found lunch at Home Team BBQ to be a delicious experience.  Later back in Charleston we rode the trolley car into the heart of downtown Charleston where at Washington Square we were led on an excellent historic walking tour by Denny.  He had been our guide on our Wings tour many years ago.  Denny was an excellent guide in showing us the numerous beautiful homes and buildings and was well versed in the history of Charleston.  For our final evening together we dined at the Cru Café and celebrated our successful and memorable week together birding and exploring the history of Georgia and South Carolina.

- Jon L. Dunn

Updated: June 2016