Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Discovering the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge

     It was August and the migration clock was beginning to tick.  The summer birds were going to leave and if I did not take some serious action, I was going to miss again an opportunity to add the Purple Gallinule to my life list!  If you read a previous post entitled, "Donnelly WMA: A Favorite Birding Site:  Part 2:  One Summer Day," then you know already that I struck out on this particular quest at Donnelly WMA in July.  Having heard that the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge was the best local (relatively speaking) hotspot for this species and also having learned that the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive through the refuge had recently been re-opened after a long-term closure, the refuge became the obvious destination.  Thus, in the pre-dawn hours of August 13, Carl, myself and one of our best birding buddies, Andy, were driving Highway 17 South towards the refuge.  We arrived just after 7 am, and stopped at the Little Black River trailhead, the first pull-off on the north side of Highway 170, which runs through the middle of the refuge.

Map from the US Fish and Wildlife Service: Click here for larger view

The mosquitoes, as expected, were extremely thick and we were well-prepared having doused ourselves thoroughly with repellent.  And, eureka!  Within five minutes, we spotted our target -- the Purple Gallinule -- Life Bird no. 315 for me!

First Purple Gallinule of the Day -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011
Purple Gallinule pair -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011

Purple Gallinule -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011
I am sorry to say that those are the best photos I could shoot as the birds kept their distance.  Nonetheless, we were thrilled to have met our goal.  And we saw several Purple Gallinules as well as their chicks!  While exploring the area open to us on the North side of Highway 170, we also saw several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Wood Ducks, Green Herons, Common Gallinules, Great Egrets, Anhingas, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Osprey, Belted Kingfishers and Red-Winged Blackbirds.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011

Common Gallinule chick -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011
Common Gallinule -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011

Green Heron -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011

 Our target bird was in the bag early.  But certainly, it was not time to go home.  We came to explore!

       We decided to continue to the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive -- a four mile loop on the south side of Highway 170.  Carl had hoped to walk a good portion of it.  But after walking through the wooded areas where he practically breathed in mosquitoes, he changed his mind.  We drove the loop slowly with the windows down and stopped frequently when we spotted wildlife and to also explore on foot some side trails.  

Snowy Egret -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011
Andy and I found this beautiful Eastern Corn Snake!  I was surprised at how angular his body was!  I do not recall ever seeing a snake which was not round.

A very long Eastern Corn Snake -- Savannah NWR -- August 13, 2011

Eastern Corn Snake with dewdrops on head  -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011
Andy holding the Eastern Corn Snake -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

In the wooded areas, there were large numbers of Yellow Warblers.

Yellow Warbler -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

We saw huge flocks of White Ibises and we were able to view at very close range a smaller, but significant flock of Glossy Ibises.  It is the most Glossy Ibises I have ever seen in one location!

Glossy Ibis -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

Glossy Ibis -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

Glossy Ibis -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

Hordes of dragonflies were available for a variety of birds such as this Loggerhead Shrike.

Loggerhead Shrike with dragonflies -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

We enjoyed the sight of a large flock of Mississippi Kites hawking the dragonflies right over us and, from a greater distance watched Swallow-Tailed Kites doing the same. 

Mississippi Kite -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011
Mississippi Kite going for the dragonfly -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller
          Shorebirds had begun returning to the area from their breeding grounds much further north.  Several Black-Necked Stilts were feeding in the impoundments.We also saw Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers.

Spotted Sandpiper -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

Black-Necked Stilt -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

We came across a fish kill and the gators and Black Vultures that had been feasting on it for some time apparently.

Gator with lunch -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011
Black Vultures -- Clean-up crew -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011
Feasting Black Vultures -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011
Adult and juvenile Black Vultures -- Negotiating -- Savannah NWR -- August 2011

         Though the breeze through the car windows helped keep the mosquitoes at bay, the noon time sun had begun to take a toll on us human visitors.  The birds, too, had settled down into a siesta mode.  Our morning visit was complete and we were indeed content with our adventure.  The birdwatching and opportunities for photography had been superb.  As I look back on my eBird records, I see that I recorded 51 species! 

        We understand that this refuge is quite the hotspot for overwintering waterfowl and we have placed it on our list of must-go-to destinations for this winter season.  Perhaps soon....


  1. arrrrghhh! snakes!

  2. Crazy alligators but a great place to stay in savannah, for the animals that is...:)