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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia and South Carolina

Birding the American Civil War: Savannah to Charleston

2019 Narrative

In Brief:

We experienced fine weather during our tour and had a fine variety of birds in addition to visiting historical Civil War sites and touring the historic districts of two 18th century cities of the Old South. Both of these cities figured prominently in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Ornithological highlights included Clapper Rail (six), Swallow-tailed Kite, Swainson’s Warbler, Bachman’s Sparrow and Painted Bunting. Nearly 50 Roseate Spoonbills were tallied in South Carolina and we had superb views of multiple Least Bitterns.

In Detail:

Our tour began with a meeting in the lobby followed by a short walk and a delicious dinner at Sam Snead’s Oak Grill and Tavern. The next morning we drove through Savannah and continued down to the coast at Tybee Island. We took a very leisurely walk on the beach and looked at large flocks of terns, mostly Royals, but with a scattering of Sandwich Terns, a few Forster’s, and some 325 Black Skimmers. Shorebirds included numbers of Sanderlings and some 20 Whimbrels. Two female Black Scoters were a bit late and were at the southern end of their regular winter range on the Atlantic Coast. After lunch at CoCo’s Sunset Grille we visited our first Civil War site, Fort Pulaski. This masonry fort was one of a series of forts built along the coast for our coastal defenses. Fort Sumter was, of course, the flash point for the start of the Civil War, in April 1861. Fort Pulaski was taken without opposition by the Confederacy, but was retaken the Union army the following year. Robert E. Lee predicted that the fort could not be taken, but this was before rifled cannon. With these accurate cannons, the Union forces  pounded one end of the fort into rubble. This necessitated the fort’s surrender. From this point on these types of coastal forts were rendered obsolete. A Common Ground Dove, a declining species in the East, was seen in flight, our only one of the trip. Across the highway we watched Gull-billed Terns crabbing at the low tide on the mudflats. That night we had traditional southern cooking at the famous Lady and Son’s in historic Savannah.

The next morning we visited Savannah NWR across the Savannah River in South Carolina. This is an excellent location for waterbirds and there are raised islands of vegetation that support passerines. Waterbirds we saw included a half dozen Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Mottled Ducks, Anhingas, three Least Bitterns, White and Glossy Ibis, Wood Stork, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a variety of shorebirds.A small number of Least Terns were seen. Land birds included Marsh Wrens, Carolina Chickadee, a variety of wood warblers (adult male American Redstart, “Western” Palm Warbler, Prairie, and Yellow-throated), Blue Grosbeak and Painted and Indigo Buntings. Some 20 migrant Bobolinks were also seen. An Eastern Screech-Owl was heard. Also seen were three American Alligators. We had lunch at Crystal Beer Parlor back in Savannah. Here we met Bonnie Terrell who led us on a most informative walking tour of Savannah. That night we ate at the Shrimp Factory.

We left the next morning for Webb WMA in South Carolina. These forested pinewoods, hardwoods, and swamps produced a number of species. Foremost among them were several endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and the threatened Bachman’s Sparrow. Wood warblers included Prothonotary, Northern Parula, Pine and Prairie. Summer Tanagers were also present as were two Barred Owls. An American Goldfinch was late. After lunch we headed to Bear Island WMA where we encountered a variety of wading birds, including a Least Bittern, two Wood Storks, and 47 immature Roseate Spoonbills. Shorebirds were plentiful too and included four Solitary, forty Lesser Yellowlegs, five Wilson’s Snipe, 75 Long-billed Dowithers, 50 Semipalmated Sandpipers and 44 American Avocets. Eastern Kingbirds were numerous. A dozen American Alligators were tallied, including some very large ones! That night we had an excellent dinner at Hooked Seafood in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina.

The following morning we ventured northeast to I’on Swamp, home more than a half century ago to the now mythical and almost certainly extinct Bachman’s Warbler. The species was last seen here in the early 1950’s and the last reliable record of the species was from near Charleston in 1962. We drove the roads and birded - the main highlight being a singing Swainson’s Warbler. Also a Swallow-tailed Kite flew over and a female Wild Turkey ran across the road. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was heard. After a delicious lunch at Seewee Restaurant at nearby Awendaw, SC, we headed on to Patriots Point where we took our boat trip to Fort Sumter. Named for the Revolutionary commander who fought separately with Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox”) in South Carolina, the latter being far more effective, this fort was the flash point for the Civil War in mid-April 1861. While the fort was surrendered after 24 hours of bombardment, a victory for the Confederacy, it would lead to the South’s eventual destruction some four years later. Later in 1863 the fort was bombarded into rubble by the Union Navy. Still is remained in the South’s hands until late in the war. By the end of the century it was rebuilt in a different and more subdued style in advance of the Spanish American War. A Lesser Black-backed Gull was seen on our boat trip. That evening we had dinner at an excellent BBQ  restaurant (Sticky Fingers) in Mt. Pleasant.

The next morning we went to the Pitt Street Flats at Mt. Pleasant. Here we had excellent and very close looks at waterbirds. These included direct comparisons of both subspecies of Willet, Short-billed Dowitchers, American Oystercatcher, and six waynei Clapper Rails.  Some 25 Purple Martins were also seen. After an early lunch at the Rarebit near our hotel, we took a street car down to our meeting point for our walking tour of Charleston. Here we saw some very fancy 19th century homes and learned much about this historic city. After the tour we had our final farewell dinner at the Coast in the historic district, then drove to our hotel near the airport where our tour concluded.

Jon Dunn

Created: 13 January 2020