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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia and South Carolina

Birding the American Civil War: Savannah to Charleston

2022 Narrative

Our tour this spring was a combined historical (American Civil War) and birdwatching tour. For the historical parts, we visited historic Savannah and Charleston, taking walking city tours of each and visited Fort Pulaski (near Savannah) and Fort Sumter, the site of the beginning of the American Civil War in April 1861. Our birding excursions produced 121 species and included Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and Bachman’s Sparrow along with a variety of wood warblers and shorebirds, including territorial Wilson’s Plovers on Folly Island, South Carolina. The weather was very good apart from heavy rain for part of one morning with the passage of a cold front.

Our trip began in the lobby of Holiday Inn Express near the airport. We walked to dinner at Sam Snead’s Oak Grill and Tavern. The next morning, Easter Sunday, we headed down through Savannah to Lighthouse Beach on Tybee Island. Here we walked west and looked through the large flock of terns and Black Skimmers (some 250), noting a handful of Sandwich Terns amongst the many Royals and a few Forster’s. A large flock of Sanderlings were also present along with 12 Whimbrel, a “Western” Willet and a Ruddy Turnstone. A few Bottlenose Dolphins cruised by and Boat-tailed Grackles were much in evidence. After an early lunch at the picturesque Crab Shack we visited Fort Pulaski, one of the coastal forts that were quickly occupied by the Confederates soon after hostilities commenced in 1861. The following year the Union forces returned. The battle took place on 10-11 April 1862 and rifled Union artillery soon destroyed the northeast corner of the fort. It was this battle where it became quickly apparent that these masonry types of forts were useless and not defendable. Birds at Fort Pulaski included Eastern Kingbirds and Eastern Bluebirds, including a fledged juvenile. A Bald Eagle nest was noted as were two adult male (recently arrived) Painted Buntings. Later in the afternoon we arrived at our next hotel, the Hampton Inn, in the historic district of Savannah.  We walked to dinner that night at Churchill’s, a pub restaurant. 

Since Savannah National Wildlife Refuge was closed the entire spring due to extensive road repairs, we headed to James W. Webb Wildlife Management Area to the north of Savannah in South Carolina. We noted a Wood Stork on the way. Shortly before we arrived, we were hit by heavy rain and this led us to wait out the storm. Once the rain stopped, the birding was excellent and we saw lots of birds, notably Eastern Wood Pewee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-eyed Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Prothonotary, Pine, Prairie, and Yellow-throated Warblers along with Northern Parula, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager and Painted and Indigo Buntings. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was briefly seen. Notable were the abundance of woodpeckers with lots of Red-headed and Red-bellied and three endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. The most numerous species encountered was Chipping Sparrow. Along with the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, our best birds were a few Bachman’s Sparrows and a single well-seen Swallow-tailed Kite. Butterflies noted included several Palamedes Swallowtails along with Eastern Commas and a beautiful Red-spotted Purple. Several Green Treefrogs were heard. Our lunch consisted of snacks out of the van. Later that afternoon, Bonnie Terrill (Bonnie Blue Tours) led us on a fascinating walk of old Savannah. We visited many of the town squares and she taught us about its founding by James Oglethorpe in 1733 (the oldest settlement in Georgia) and up through the Revolutionary and Civil wars. She focused too on the slavery years, plus the post war period. Dinner at the Shrimp Factory was decidedly mediocre. During our walk we got our best views of Carolina Wren just a few feet away, and in the garden of where General Sherman was headquartered during his visit of Savannah in late December 1864 and much of January 1865. Several American Robins were heard singing. The species nests here, an isolated southern outpost.

The next morning, we departed for Bear Island WMA, roughly halfway between Savannah and Charleston, in South Carolina. This is a significant wetland area, and we noted a variety of waterfowl including numerous Blue-winged Teal, two Wood Ducks, and several Mottled Ducks (introduced, but established for decades). Shorebirds were present too: Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets, Lesser (some 200) and Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers, Dunlins, and a dozen Stilt Sandpipers feeding with the dowitchers. An Anhinga and a Sora were present along with a variety of herons and six Glossy Ibis. Somewhat unusual were the half dozen lingering Bonaparte’s Gulls (all immatures, hatched in Canada in 2021). Also present were Alligators, including one with baby gators. From here we continued north to Folly Beach for lunch at Chico Feo and later looked at the preserve at the north end of Folly Island (Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve). On the short walk to the north end of the island we noted a Common Nighthawk in flight along with a Cooper’s Hawk. A single “Western” Palm Warbler was also noted. The views of the Morris Island Lighthouse to the north were stunning! Gazing to the northwest of the lighthouse on Morris Island we could see the general area where Battery Wagoner was. Here, the largely Black 54th Massachusetts, led by Col Robert Gould Shaw, frontally attacked the well-defended Confederate earthen fort. The assault failed with horrific casualties and the story is pretty accurately told in the film, “Glory.”  The fort itself along with portions of the northern end of the island were completely destroyed by storms in the late 19th century. On the beaches at the north end of Folly Island, we noted several American Oystercatchers, including one on a nest, and compared “Western” and “Eastern” Willets, the former a breeder. A few Least Terns were also present. Wilson’s Plover nests here and we had three, one of which we saw very well. From here we headed to the Hampton Inn in the historic district of the city. Dinner that night was at the Coast, excellent food but it was partly open to the elements and after the cold front, it was a little drafty.

The next day we looked at the Pitt Street Extension at Mt Pleasant across the bay from Charleston. There weren’t that many birds there, but those we saw, we saw very well. These included a Clapper Rail (subspecies waynei), “Western” Willets, Whimbrels, various herons, including a Little Blue and Tricolored, and Least and Gull-billed Terns. The Gull-billed Terns were hunting crabs on the flats. This species in its own genus (Gelochelidon) does not plunge dive like most other terns. Land birds present included a pair of Orchard Orioles, and we obtained good views of the dull and gray subspecies of Marsh Wren (griseus). When we arrived, we noted a Wood Stork departing, and also had inadequate views of a flying Accipiter. I rather think that under certain conditions the migration at this location might be pretty good, particularly in the fall.

After a quick lunch at Subway, we went to Patriots Point where we caught our boat to Fort Sumter, the site of the Confederate bombardment of the Union fort and the beginning of the American Civil War on 12 April 1861. From the Confederate point of view, it might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but upon reflection….  

Sumter himself was an American general in South Carolina. He was decidedly mediocre and needlessly exposed his soldiers to more capable British soldiers, resulting in high casualties. Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox,” was more effective. The fort today bears little resemblance to 1861. The Union Navy bombarded it into rubble in 1863 and when it was rebuilt in the late 1800’s prior to the Spanish American War, it was in a completely different style. While walking the ramparts, a northbound Whimbrel flew by. I talked to a ranger there. While his job was answering questions about the battle, he also looked at birds and was quite excited to tell me about the Snow Bunting that was there once late in the fall. We had a very good dinner that night at 39 Rue de Jean, a French restaurant, very close to the Hampton Inn.

The next day we went to I’on Swamp to the northeast east of Mount Pleasant. It was here that Bachman’s Warblers were present in the 1940’s. The last sightings were closer to Charleston in the spring of 1962. At a center nearby, Robert D. Johnson showed us Red Wolves in an enclosure and told us much about their ecology and former distribution.  After a quick Subway lunch, we returned to Charleston and late that afternoon we went on a most informative walking tour of Charleston with our guide, Skip Evans. Amongst other stops for Skip was the church where the reverend John Bachman preached. Bachman was an accomplished ornithologist, and the Bachman and Audubon families were quite close. In fact, Audubon’s son, John, married Bachman’s daughter, Maria in the early 1830’s.

Afterwards some of us visited the Historic Charleston City Market and then walked to dinner at Ely’s Table (Skip’s recommendation) where we had, by far, our best dinner with superb food, service, and atmosphere in a quiet corner of the small restaurant. That evening we drove north to the Holiday Inn Express, not far from the airport where the tour officially concluded. The next morning a few of us returned to Pitt Street Extension for a few hours of additional birding before our afternoon flights.

- Jon Dunn


Created: 02 September 2022