Sunday, November 20, 2011

Donnelly WMA -- A Favorite Birding Site: Part 2: One Summer Day

Donnelly WMA -- 1st impoundment just beyond park office -- looking towards egret and wood stork rookery -- July 2011

        The evening of July 16, the weather forecast for the next day called for an unbelievably low, cool morning temperature of 65 degrees and low humidity -- in the sultry Lowcountry!  So often in July, our morning temperatures hover around 78 - 80 degrees.  This was indeed a treat and we needed to treat the day accordingly.  With a vote taken in the Miller household, we unanimously decided to visit a favorite refuge, Donnelly Wildlife Management Area (WMA), an hour south of Charleston, in hopes of seeing a would-be life bird  -- the Purple Gallinule.  We really are at the limits of its northern summer range so there was no guarantee of finding this bird.  However, a friend had recently seen one there.  So why not try? 

Donnelly WMA -- 1st impoundment just beyond park office -- looking towards egret and wood stork rookery -- July 2011

         After "bathing" in the requisite bug spray, we set off before dawn.  We delighted in watching the temperature reading on the car's thermometer drop as we left our garage and headed south in the cool crisp air!  We arrived just before 6 am right after first light and headed down a dike that looks out over an impoundment just beyond the park's office.  And we spent more than an hour in that area watching young wood storks feed and compete for perches as well as other egrets and herons perching and flying over.

Young Tri-colored Herons -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Tri-Colored Heron -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Storks feeding at dawn -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Stork flying over -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
Young Wood Stork flying over -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Storks sharing a perch -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Stork balancing -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Storks -- sharing becomes competing when the perch becomes crowded -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Wood Duck flyover -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Eastern Kingbird hunting insects -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

           Carl and I heard an unfamiliar bird call and searched to identify its source.  We discovered that the call was coming from a rather bold Black-Bellied Whistling Duck!  It was the first time we had ever heard the call as it is the first time we had ever visited Donnelly at the height of their breeding season.  The hot summer temperatures and the thick and ferocious mosquitoes have served as reasonable deterrents in the past!  This guy was not at all shy and very happily posed for us for as long as we wanted.  This gregarious behavior was quite different from what we have usually observed in these ducks.  I have read that the breeding season for Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks is rather long and can range from mid-May to mid-September and this would explain why I have actually seen a pair of Black-Bellieds with chicks in Donnelly in October!  According to data on eBird, Black-Bellieds have been spotted in Donnelly in all the months from April to December. 

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

           Carl and I also learned  that day that these ducks are cavity nesters and make use of nest boxes. This makes me wonder about possible competition with Wood Ducks for boxes in places such as Donnelly.  Although, Wood Ducks tend to nest as early as February, they are also known to produce a second clutch in April/May.   So after researching the question on Birds of North America, a subscription service site with detailed accounts of research conducted on multiple species, I found evidence that showed interspecific parasitism can happen with egg dumping (when a female will lay her eggs in another's nests) resulting in mixed Wood Duck / Black-Bellied Whistling Duck clutches of chicks.  Another species with which there exists documentation of nest parasitism is the Muscovy Duck.  Reseach shows that apparently Black-Bellied Whistling Duck chicks hatch successfully when brooded by either of the above species.

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
       We were delighted to have the opportunity to watch the Wood Storks, herons, egrets, etc. and to photograph our gregarious duck but we had not forgotten the goal -- the Purple Gallinule.  So we scanned all of the lily pads to no avail.  We left that area and continued past other impoundments with lily pads.  Again, we had no luck finding the Purple Gallinule.  Eventually, we arrived at an old rice impoundment known as the Savage Backwater, where a small overlook is built off of a small dike reaching out into the impoundment.  The sun was getting high in the sky and the quality of light for photography was beginning to diminish.  Carl decided to explore the woods and look for an opening in the brush allowing him a better view of the impoundment than what the overlook seemed to afford.  I decided to bird the edge of the road and then move out on the dike and onto the small platform which facing into the sun.  However, the water lily pads were very thick behind the platform where the light was good.  But alas, there were no Purple Gallinules.  As I preceded towards the dike, I saw a pair of small yellow, brown and white birds -- the size and shape of a green heron -- fly into the marsh adjacent to the dike.  I preceeded slowly and quietly down the dike.  One of the birds flushed.  But I found the second one on the opposite side -- perched on the marsh grass -- a Least Bittern! 

Least Bittern nesting in the Savage Backwater impoundment -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

      It was my second Least Bittern ever and it certainly was a much better view than that provided by the first one a couple of years ago!  I was thrilled.  This bird did fly off.  But as I settled down on the observation platform to watch the wildlife, both of these bitterns eventually returned.  Though I did not see an actual nest, I suspect that this clump of marsh grass probably contained a Least Bittern nest.  Thankfully, I saw the red hornets' nest before I bumped into it where it was attached under the rail of the platform.  It was easy to see that these bugs were very busy going about their business at the nest, and that as long as I did not bother them, they would not bother me. 

Hornets under the rail of the observation platform -- Savage Backwater, Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
I call these "red hornets" but I really have no idea what kind of hornet they may be. Perhaps, one of my go-to  "bug men," (my entolmologist friends about whom you can read here in a previous post) will let me know! 

            While waiting for Carl to return from his foray into the woods and while scanning the lily pads for the elusive Purple Gallinule, I also watched the other wildlife.  The gators were initially fairly active and I was glad they were in the water and not on the dike.  I also watched a mother Common Gallinule (formerly known as Common  Moorhen) foraging with her chicks.  At one point, I was fairly certain that I was going to see gator feeding on gallinule!

Gator stalking Common Gallinule family -- Savage Backwater, Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
       But the gator changed his mind.  And the birds moved on.  Even though I never got my Purple Gallinule, the water lilies were in bloom and were lovely.  Carl eventually returned and was able to see ever so briefly the Least Bittern.  All in all, it was the loveliest of July mornings and we are so glad to have been able to enjoy it at Donnelly.

Water lily with ant -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
          On the way home, we stopped ever so briefly at CawCaw Interpretive Center.  Carl thought that  CawCaw might provide us the opportunity to see a a Purple Gallinule.  At the desk, however, they told us that there had been only one record of this bird at CawCaw.  Nonetheless, we briefly  wandered out onto the dikes and saw these magnificent water lilies -- and no PGs! 

Waterlilies at CawCaw -- July 2011
          By this time, it was noon, we were hungry, the heat of the day had developed and the bug spray had worn off.  It was time to head home -- content with a beautiful morning and fabulous views of wildlife!  And so ends "Donnelly WMA -- A Favorite Birding Site: Part 2:  One Summer Day."  I eagerly anticipate continued enjoyment of this wildlife rich area on a future visit.  Do you want to come along?


  1. looks like a small bee on the water lily to me. are you sure the white flowers are water lilies? or could they be lotus? - - - - - - - - - - - - Ed Blitch

  2. Hmmm ... Well, Ed, I confess that I do not know my lotus from a water lily. Time to dig out the resources to see what I can learn.

  3. Ok, so here is what I have learned from A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina by Richard Porcher: The white flower above is commonly known as a "Fragrant Water-lily" or a "Sweet water-lily," Nymphaea odorata. And the yellow one at CawCaw is commonly known as "Sacred Bean" or "Water chinquapin," Nelumbo lutea in the Nelumbonaceae or the Lotus-lily family. Thanks for the treasure hunt, Ed! Always good to learn something new!