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Georgia's Enchanted Birding Lands

Georgia's coast offers birding option to fit any time frame.

Giff Beaton & Peter Stangel
Posted: May 28. 2013, 6:15 p.m. PDT

WildBird Magazine Logo Emerging from the moss-draped oaks onto the open beach, we could see why the Creek Indians called the Georgia coast "the enchanted land.” Before us stretched more than a mile of white-sand beach. Towering pines grew just back from the dunes, and weathered driftwood littered the beach. Most importantly, small flocks of shorebirds decorated the wet sand. In just a few seconds, we set up our spotting scopes and began enjoying the bounty of birds and beauty on Blackbeard Island, a national wildlife refuge accessible only by boat.

If not for the two shrimp boats trawling a quarter-mile offshore, we would have completed this field trip for the inaugural Colonial Coast Birding Festival in complete isolation from other humans. Such solitude is a rare luxury today but not at all uncommon on Georgia’s coast. Vast salt marshes, undeveloped barrier islands and dense forests offer fine birding and a glimpse of what the coast must have been like before people outnumbered birds.

Thanks to the determined efforts of federal, state and private conservation organizations, birders today can search for southeastern specialties such as Painted Buntings, Wood Storks, Gray Kingbirds and Anhingas on an impressive array of protected sites that line the coast.

painted bunting
When you travel to Georgia's coasts, you may see birds like this painted bunting.

Georgia’s coast offers something for birders of every skill level. Whether you’re looking for a wilderness immersion experience on Cumberland Island National Seashore or just a brief break from travel on Interstate 95, you’ll find great birds, dreamy scenery and Southern hospitality.

Following are two perspectives on birding this region. Giff Beaton, one of the state’s leading birders, shares tips on out-of-the-way sites for those with time on their hands. Peter Stangel, whose coastal birding experiences usually occur between business meetings, describes hotspots that are just a few miles and few minutes from I-95.

Beaton's Coastal Barrier Islands
Those with more time or a sense of adventure should consider several barrier-island beach birding opportunities from drive-up-and-scan to boat-over-and-camp. With a few notable exceptions, similar birds will visit all the beach spots.

For all of these spots, a few general rules will increase your enjoyment and bird list. Foremost, know how the tide or the season will affect the birds you seek. Depending on the site, the tide has a huge influence. At roost sites, like South Beach on Jekyll Island, the beach will be mostly empty at anything but high tide, when many species roost in groups near the water’s edge. Also check above the high-tide line for species roosting in the sand, like many of the smaller shorebirds such as plovers and sandpipers. Remember to scan offshore for waterfowl or gulls feeding or resting just off the beach.

A few birds are on all beaches at all times of year, but to find the most individuals or species, bird the beaches during spring and fall migration -- approximately late March to mid-May and mid-July through October. If you want to see specific species, check various references to make sure that you go at the right time.

Tybee Island: About 30 minutes east of Savannah, Tybee Island offers great beaches and a rocky breakwater known as the only dependable spot in the state for Purple Sandpipers. This is also the best spot to search for Red-throated Loons.

If you tire of birding, you can explore Fort Pulaski National Monument, located on the road to Tybee. The grounds include the fort plus an interesting museum and areas to bird. Portions of this fort were designed by then-Lt. Robert E. Lee upon his graduation from West Point. The island also includes a lighthouse built in 1773.

St. Simons Island: Heading south, the next easily accessed beach is on St. Simons Island, specifically at Gould’s Inlet. You can look out over the southern tip of Sea Island to view birds over the water or watch them forage and rest on Sea Island or the East Beach of St. Simons. A scope is almost essential, but this site has the best viewing of the "drive-up” beaches. Check for Reddish Egrets during summer, especially to the left up into Gould’s Inlet.

A nearby Coast Guard station offers parking and a great beach for walking, and the northern part of the island includes more history in the form of Fort Frederica, a British fort built in 1736. If you head toward the fort, a side drive to The Cloister on Sea Island takes you to breeding Gray Kingbirds.

From St. Simons Island, you can visit the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island. Along with well-appointed cabins and amazing food, birders benefit from a staff of naturalists who will help you to discover wildlife on the private island.

Jekyll Island State Park: Just south of St. Simons is Jekyll Island State Park, one of the best birding spots in the state. South Beach is best for beach birding, and the north end of the island is good for ocean ducks in winter, especially Greater and Lesser Scaup and Black Scoters. Surf and White-winged Scoters usually occur here during winter. Inspect the many gulls for jaegers in winter, usually Parasitic, from both ends of the island.

Any forested section can be good for landbirds in migration, especially the north end and south end scrub areas or The Amphitheater. The Convention Center usually has Gray Kingbirds in summer.

Make a brief stop along the Andrews Island causeway. Even though the road leads to an off-limits spoil site, it’s always worth a quick visit for shorebirds along the beach or mud when either is exposed, ducks in the channel, or Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. This is one of the best spots for American Avocets.

Cumberland Island National Seashore: Easily the most remote site, the last beach to the south may be the most beautiful and the most work to reach. Cumberland Island National Seashore is accessible only by National Park Service boat for day trips or camping. Reservations are strongly advised, especially during winter.

You are likely to be the only one birding on this gorgeous island, and if you manage the 2-mile walk to the south tip, you probably will see birds the entire time. Because this beach gets little walking traffic, it routinely holds more birds than some of the more heavily used ones. During summer, look for Reddish Egrets working the flats. On the way back, investigate the ruins of the mansion at Dungeness, where several buildings date back to the late 1700s.

Stangel's I-95 Favorites
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge: This 28,000-acre stretch of coastal marshes, freshwater impoundments and forests is the largest, federally protected area on Georgia’s coast. The property almost evenly straddles South Carolina and Georgia, and the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive, a 4-mile auto route, is close to I-95 in South Carolina. Just inside the start of the drive, scan the big oaks to the left of the road for nesting Great Horned Owls during winter.

Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive straddles a portion of the 3,000 acres of wetlands on which refuge personnel practice water management. By carefully timing the presence and depth of the water, they control vegetation and create ideal habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl.

If waterfowl are your quarry, this is the place. Refuge staff estimates that more than one-quarter of South Carolina’s winter population of ducks -- about 250,000 birds — occur here. Watch for Mallards, Northern Pintails, Green- and Blue-winged Teal, and Ring-necked Ducks in large numbers from late fall through early spring. Canada Geese, occasional White-fronted Geese and Tundra Swans round out the waterfowl list.

During winter, watch for Northern Harriers skimming the vast marshes and perched Bald Eagles. One spring, an adult Bald Eagle cruised not 50 feet above our heads as we birded from the wildlife drive. Its talons held an enormous stick that it was carrying to a nest.

During spring and fall migration, leave the car, and bird the mixed hardwood hammocks along the drive for warblers and other migrants. The relative paucity of woodlands on the refuge turns these hammocks into mini-migrant traps. Yankee birders will especially enjoy Southern specialties such as Swainson’s, Worm-eating and Prothonotary Warblers.

Summer here is hot but worth the trip to see Purple Gallinules and often-large numbers of Wood Ducks. The real stars of summer are alligators, which can be quite large and abundant along the dike.

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge: Travel another hour south to encounter Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, less than 7 miles off the interstate. Fewer people visit this site, and it’s not unusual to have the 4-mile auto tour to yourself.

Refuge personnel here have been successful in creating the only man-made nest structures for Wood Storks, found in abundance at times. This refuge is interesting also in that it includes an abandoned World War II Army airfield; you can see remnants of the runways as you drive the tour.

My co-author, Giff, suggests in his book that visitors take enough time to bird the magnificent oaks and other hardwoods that comprise the maritime forest at the start of the drive. Here you can find nesting Yellow-throated, Parula and Hooded Warblers and other migrants during spring and fall.

Where the road turns sharply left, park and walk a short distance to the dike that creates Woody Pond. Set up your spotting scope, and enjoy the birds of Southern swamps. Wood Storks nest here, as do White Ibis and other waders. Purple Gallinules and Common Moorhens occur here, the latter in abundance. Anhinga perch at many locations around the water's edge and fly overhead. Look up frequently, because kettles of Wood Storks sometimes pass by. The wet woodland behind you is a great place for Louisiana and Northern Waterthrush during migration.

Continuing down the auto tour, you will leave the forest and enter scrubby habitat — a prime area for Painted Buntings in summer. During fall migration, the marshes and scrub of Harris Neck and other coastal sites can be loaded with swallows. Tree Swallows in particular occur by the thousands.

Hooded Warbler
A bird you might see Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a hooded warbler.

Altamaha Wildlife Management Area: After another short jog south on I-95, take Exit 49 to the Altamaha Wildlife Management Area. Located on the remains of an old rice plantation, this freshwater impoundment was created through a partnership between Ducks Unlimited and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Walking the dikes is a great way to see lots of snakes (mostly water snakes) and is one of the state’s best bets for American Bitterns during winter. Study your rail calls before visiting, because you might hear a King Rail, Virginia Rail or Sora. This is one of the few places in Georgia to see Mottled Ducks.

During low water levels, shorebirds can be abundant and include Black-necked Stilts as well as waders such as Glossy Ibis. During fall and winter, this area is a gold mine for sparrows, including rarities such as Clay-colored. Bald Eagles and other raptors frequently appear. Given that this area is just a few minutes off I-95, it is well worth a stop, even if you have only a short time to bird.

Georgia’s many charms include its birding possibilities. Stay for a week, or stop for an hour. Either way, you’ll become enchanted with its coastal birding.

Seasonal Birds of the Barrier Islands
Year-round residents: Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron (marshes), American Oystercatcher, Willet, Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer

Winter (most also found in migration, a few in summer): Greater and Lesser Scaup; Bufflehead; Red-breasted Merganser; Northern Gannet (flying over the water); Black-bellied, Semipalmated and Piping Plovers; Marbled Godwit; Ruddy Turnstone; Sanderling; Western and Least Sandpipers; Dunlin; Short-billed Dowitcher; Bonaparte's, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls; Forster's Tern. More rare but worth looking for: all three scoters, Red-throated Loon, American Avocet, Lesser Black-backed Gull

Summer (some can be found in small numbers in winter, too): Reddish Egret; Wilson's Plover; Gull-billed, Sandwich and Least Terns

Migration primarily: Whimbrel, Red Knot, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Caspian and Common Terns, Black Tern (fall)

Excerpt from WildBird July/August 2004, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird, click here.

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