Saturday, January 14, 2012

'Tis the Season: My CBC no. 3: Santee National Wildlife Refuge -- Bluff Unit

Map of the Santee National Wildlife Refuge -- Click here to see a larger version -- Image from the US Fish and Wildlife Service

             The Santee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Christmas Bird Count (CBC) became an immediate favorite for Carl and myself when we began doing it 3 years ago.  On Thursday, December 22, 2011, we joined up with our friend, David McLean of Charleston and drove to Santee in the wee hours arriving at the Visitor's Center at 6:30 am happily ready to bird again.  Though we were willing to bird anywhere they needed us, we were very delighted to join again with the talented Roger Smith,  territory leader for the Bluff Unit.   Other members of our group included Lewis Burke, Kent Bedenbaugh and Susie Heisey, FWS Park Ranger.

Map view of the Bluff and Dingle Pond Unit of the Santee NWR -- Image from the National Fish and Wildlife Services
            Most of the Bluff Unit is closed to public access from November through February due to the need to protect the migratory species which use it during these months.  These birds need the rest and reprieve from humans in order to be able to recover from the Fall Migration and then to prepare for the long flight back to their breeding grounds in the Spring.  So it is a special privilege to be assigned to such a sanctuary area as this on a Christmas Bird Count.  If you study the maps above, you will see the Bluff Unit is a little finger of land that juts out into Lake Marion.  The red-dotted lines in both units represent the nature trails open year-round.  In the Bluff Unit, the black lines to the north of the nature trail are in the area closed to public access during the aforementioned fall & winter months.  

            A 40% chance of rain had been in the forecast but the temperatures were also guaranteed to be quite agreeable.  The skies were cloudy when we began with a temperature of 62F -- quite balmy for the first day of winter!  When we started  in the dark, we were intent on listening to discover the birds who were just beginning to call.  The more expert among us identified the chip notes and calls of Carolina Wrens, Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Northern Cardinals and Yellow-Rumped Warblers as we progressed down the wooded road towards the first open field area.  We had continued past the nature-trail, which is heavily wooded and, which we would thus bird in the afternoon after having completed the outer loop of the northern end of the Bluff Unit.  In the open field, we tried to identify the many sparrows that were popping up and diving back down into the grasses.  But for the most part, these little sparrows disappeared too quickly in the low light.  I found it frustrating but knew that eventually, with more daylight, we would be more successful on our identifications.  We were in the area where the Sandhill Cranes are known to arrive to forage in the morning but the skies were relatively quiet.  We did observe an American Kestrel circling the field.  We continued to the left towards a boat landing.  From there in the gray, early morning light, we caught sight of a long train of Double-Crested Cormorants leaving the cove moving out in 2 or 3 long continuous lines onto more open water.  Conservatively, we estimated 2500 birds!
Double-Crested Cormorants leaving the cove -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 --  Photo by Carl Miller
                  The first area we visited just beyond the boat landing had been rather birdy on previous counts.  This time it was relatively quiet with the exception of a close-by, but unseen Red-Shouldered Hawk.  Yet, as we moved back out onto the main road that circles the unit, the bushes and vines along the roadside bustled with more and more birds.  Everyone was waking up!  The Ruby-Crowned Kinglets seemed to be in surplus like the Song Sparrows, White-Throated Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows!  We also found a Gray Catbird, Northern Cardinals and Eastern Towhees.  We heard American Goldfinches and Northern Flickers.  Eventually, we also spied a Northern Creeper while we were trying to follow a Downy Woodpecker!  Peering through the brush across the grassy fields, Carl was the first to spot the Eastern Meadowlarks popping up from time to time in the grass.  At the same time, we noticed to the northeast large flocks of Great Egrets flying in and landing in the distance.  We would find these same birds later in the early afternoon foraging on a pond on the eastern side of the unit.  We were also beginning to see small flyovers of Red-Winged Blackbirds.  We were still hoping to soon see the Sandhill Cranes, wondering what the hold-up was and worrying that we might miss them for this year's count.

          We continued heading north on the west side of the unit when Roger decided to leave the road and cut through the stand of hardwoods to reach the lake which was blocked off from view.  There, where we came out to the water's edge, we found a large mixed flock of mostly Common Grackles and some Red-Winged Blackbirds feeding at the water's edge and then flying up into the treetops.  After habituating to our presence, they descended again to feed along the shoreline where they were joined by a small group of White Ibis.

Large flock of Common Grackles with a few Red-Winged Blackbirds -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

Common Grackles and Red-Winged Blackbirds -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
Kent Bedenbaugh, Carl Miller and Lewis Burke scoping birds -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

By cutting through the wooded area, we also gained a wonderful view of the lake with the bare bald cypress just beginning to glow in the first glimmers of sunshine peeking through the clouds. 

Bald Cypress illuminated by first rays of sun breaking through clouds -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

         Our team also began scoping for ducks, cormorants and wading birds.  We found a few Wilson's Snipe, Bufflehead, Anhinga, Cormorants, Great Egrets, an Osprey and Great Blue Herons all at a distance too great for good photos.  Ah but the trees lighted against the dark sky -- that was magic!

         More magic to be found:  Our mild Fall meant that we could still find a few straggling, but colorful maple leaves on some trees.

Sweet Gum leaves on the first day of winter -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

David McLean & myself -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- photo by Carl Miller

       Back to the road, David McLean and I lagged behind the group slightly.  I heard rustling close by in the grasses on the side of the road.  So I began to phish.  Then I caught a brief glimpse and called out to the group that I had a Sedge Wren.  We could see the grasses moving, and so I continued to phish.  It seemed the bird was coming closer.  And so I phished more.... and finally, ta DA! -- the loveliest, little Sedge Wren that I have ever phished out of the grasses!  Camera ready!  Clickity-click!

Sedge Wren -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
Sedge Wren -- Santee NWR CBC -- December 22, 2011

          I am surprised when people tell me that they find the Sedge Wren to be very elusive.  And yet, I have had regular success phishing this bird out of the grasses.  Marsh Wrens, on the other hand, seem to be far more frustrating for me.   Perhaps I "speak" Sedge Wren better than Marsh Wren.  At any rate, I was pleased that this little guy finally decided to pop out to give us all such great views!

         We had also by this time begun to encounter a few Eastern Phoebes.

Eastern Phoebe -- Santee NWR CBC -- December 22, 2011

              I was still lagging behind a bit, which allowed me to acquire this shot of our birding team in action.

Santee NWF CBC Bluff Unit Team: Roger Smith, David McLean, Carl Miller, Kent Bedenbaugh, Susie Heisey, Lewis Burke December 22, 2011

           We had also seen by this time perhaps our third Northern Harrier, a bird for which I am still trying to acquire a great shot!  In the meantime, I will be content with these photos.

Northern Harrier -- Santee NWR CBC Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

Northern Harrier -- Santee NWR CBC Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
               While we were watching the harrier, we suddenly heard the magical call of several Sandhill Cranes!  It had been a year since I last heard it, but this call is unmistakeable.  If you click on the link, it will take you to a site where you can play the sound of these birds and then you will know what I mean!  We spotted the flock of 20 flying towards us!  Again, I had lagged behind and someone called back to me.  "I got 'em!"  I replied with my long lens already pointed upward.  So I took a few shots, adjusted the camera settings and then shot again.  It was a gray sky and the birds were backlit so I am not thrilled with these images.  Do not worry, I had another opportunity later in the day so there are better photos further down.  No peeking ahead!  Do check out their call by visiting the link above.  I remember Roger saying that he would like to have the call of the Sandhill Crane for his morning alarm clock!   

Sandhill Cranes -- Santee NWR CBC Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

Sandhill Cranes -- Santee NWR CBC Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

        The Sandhill Cranes decided to circle away while we continued to bird around the loop.  We had reached the apex -- the northern most part of the loop and found this particular area to be rather birdy with several bright blue Eastern Bluebirds, more Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-Rumped Warblers.  The Eastern Phoebes, Song Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows were also there.  In addition, we found a Carolina Wren, a House Wren and a Common Yellow-Throat.  The sun was beginning to shine full force now and we were thoroughly enjoying our day.  We estimated that the temperature was perhaps now 77F.  As we continued down the eastern side of the loop, we checked Wood Duck boxes for evidence of Eastern Screech Owls and came up empty.  Yet, we were lucky enough to flush a Barred Owl out of the bush along side the road!  We were not expecting ducks on the inland ponds on the unit since they were dry from the drought.  But we did hope to be able to count some via the scopes along the eastern side of the Bluff Unit in the cove called Cantey Bay.  And we were indeed successful in finding, numbering in the low hundreds, Green-Winged Teal, Gadwalls, American Wigeon, and Mallards, as well as a couple of American Black Ducks, a few Northern Shovelers and a couple of Lesser Scaup.  In addition, we counted well over 300 Canada Geese, but sadly, no Snow Geese this year. 

        We were delighted to have already spotted a few Bald Eagles, when this poser showed up and showed off for us flying towards us and then right over us!  Thank you Mr. (or Mrs.) Bald Eagle!

Bald Eagle -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

Bald Eagle -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

Bald Eagle -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

            We then arrived at the one pond in the Unit which still had water.  It was occupied primarily by the Great Egrets that we had seen earlier in the day as well as several shorebirds such as Killdeer and Least Sandpipers.  We also spotted 4 Wood Storks which are rather rare in this part of the state!  A few Gadwall flew in and then left.  We also spotted several Wood Ducks in a flyover.

Great Egrets -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
          Continuing on our path, I finally was able to photograph well one of the MANY Ruby-Crowned Kinglets!  They were quite active, frequently chasing each other. 

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
          Along the roadside, Carl spotted this interesting phenomenon of gnats swarming over an ant bed.  Susie conjectured that perhaps they were drawn by the warmer air radiating from the sand.  Indeed, the air over the ant mound was warmer.

Gnats over ant mound -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller

Gnats swarming over ant mound -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller

Swarm of gnats -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller

              Before we arrived at another area along the eastern side of the unit where we would have a clear view of Cantey Bay, I had looked through some trees and I was able to spot some Sandhill Crane resting on a sandbank in the lake.  I knew that we needed  to approach the cleared area stealthily in order to be able to see them up close.   Sure enough, we did manage a quick look at them on the sandbar before they took flight!

Sandhill Cranes and Gadwalls -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
Sandhill Cranes -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

Some of the team: not all of us are paying attention to the returning Sandhill Cranes!  -- OK, so I realized it soon enough to get the next shot!  -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller

Sandhill Cranes -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
          Such a beautiful moment seeing these large elegant birds moving over us with their rythmic, slow wingbeats and listening to their musical lute-like, yet throaty calls!

           After the Sandhill Cranes had passed, we concentrated on the ducks before us.  It was then that I spotted the Peregrine Falcon in the same tree where we had seen one last year!  Carl, Roger and I told stories of how we had witnessed a much smaller Merlin harassing the Peregrine in this spot and then a few minutes later, we saw the Peregrine bullying a larger Red-tailed Hawk!   Well no Merlin arrived on this day to add more drama and the Peregrine tired of us peering at him through the scope and left.  We scoped more ducks and geese and then we took a short-cut through some tall grass back to the road.  As we progressed, we flushed many Savannah Sparrows up out of the grasses! 

Front to back:  Lewis Burke, Susie Heisey, David McLean and myself -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011  Photo by Carl Miller

           At this juncture, we had completed our route in the off-limits sanctuary area and had returned to the nature trail.  By this time, it was about 1:30 or so in the afternoon.  Susie, Kent and Lewis needed to leave and Roger led them out as he returned to his car to retrieve his lunch.  Carl, David and I had carried our lunches with us so we sat on a bench in the wooded area overlooking Cantey Bay.  While we ate, a few birds showed up to investigate, including this Golden-Crowned Kinglet.

Golden-Crowned Kinglet -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
              Waiting on Roger to return, we had begun to investigate the sandflat in front of us (which was actually one time the lake bottom).  I had heard that a group of birders had seen American Pipets in this area a week earlier.  And that morning we had already missed on the American Pipets where they had foraged in the fields the year before.  Sure enough, as I headed out across the sandflat, I found Savannah Sparrows, Killdeer and American Pipets.  On a wide-open sandflat, I could never get close to the Pipets before they flushed but I managed a couple of so-so photos of them in flight.

Savannah Sparrow -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
American Pipet -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

Killdeer -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller

         Soon, I had another target -- I had spotted the Peregrine again in a tree on another sandflat.  I took advantage of a zigzag approach to try to photograph the bird at closer range.  While approaching, I was also photographing him at a distance.  This is how I managed to capture an additional 31 Northern Shovelers for our count!

Northern Shovelers flying over Peregrine -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
            Unfortunately, the Peregrine Falcon was rather sensitive about my approach and took off as well but not before I captured this photo. 

Peregrine Falcon -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

            When Roger returned he found us out exploring the sandflat.  He then informed us that he had completed a preliminary tally of species and we were already into the 80s!  We were quite delighted at that news!

David McLean, myself and Roger Smith -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller
             While I was concentrating on Savannah Sparrows, the American Pipets and the Peregrine Falcon, Carl was working on photographing the above Killdeer and this interesting tiny bloom that you can see at our feet in the above photo.   

Interesting flower on the sandflat -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller
        Next, we returned to the Nature trail for our woodland species.  We stopped at the observation deck momentarily.  From there we saw a coyote in the far field and another Northern Harrier cruising over the grasses in front of us.  I regret to say that the coyote was too distant for a decent photo.

Northern Harrier -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

         Then, Carl spotted a faraway dot in the field.  Through our binoculars, we could tell it had the coloration of an American Kestrel or of a Peregrine.  The photos eventually revealed that it was indeed again the Peregrine who, we believe, was standing on his prey.  The photos at that distance though were not blog-worthy.  Hmmm.... is it time to add a 2x extender to the camera equipment?
          Before catching up to David and Roger who had progressed ahead, I ventured back out towards the boat landing to try to capture a picture of the sun shining through the trees now out of the west. 

Afternoon sun at the boat landing -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011
           We were able to add a few more species to our list as we progressed through the woods.  I learned from Roger how to identify a Blue-Headed Vireo call, and then later used it to locate another one at the Visitor's Center, which was also part of our territory.  Even there, at the Visitor's Center, our last stop before delivering our tally sheet, we got 2 more species that we had missed during the day -- Tufted Titmouse and American Robin!  In the end, we tallied 93 species!  What a great birding day for this Christmas Bird Count Team!

Carl and David birding on the nature trail over the wetlands area -- Santee NWR CBC, Bluff Unit -- December 22, 2011

           Carl and I want to thank everyone on the team for helping us to learn and also for your delightful company!  We look forward to birding with all of you again, hopefully, in the near future.  There is, by the way, a Charleston Audubon birding field trip to Santee NWR next Saturday, January 21.  I plan to be there!  Though we will obviously not be intruding upon the birds again in the closed-off area,  we will have more time to explore other wonderful areas of the Santee NWR!  In the meantime, Happy Birding, everyone!


  1. Thank you all for sharing your finds both species and sights of the Santee National Wildlife Refuge -- Bluff Unit! Cathy certainly brought the reader up close and into the action with her story and wonderful photos by the Millers. I enjoyed the outing and look forward to others vicariously.

  2. As usual, Such amazing pictures and what a great adventure.

  3. WOW! Glad to "find" your blog here thanks to the folks at the Center for Birds of Prey! Living here in North Texas, I treasure my two weeks in June along the SC coast north of Georgetown. This summer the Santee NWR WILL get a visit from me!

    Cheers & Happy New Year!

  4. I always enjoy your postings. My favorite pictures from today's post are the Sedge Wren (I've not forgotten your lesson of continually phishing to bring them forth), the Bald Eagle flying in profile, and the Killdeer. Great pictures accompanied by text of remarkably complete recall and nuanced impressions--I've always just been pleased to end the day with a checklist of the birds seen. I'm looking forward to more postings.

    David McLean

  5. Thank you everyone for your kind comments! I am very happy to hear that you enjoy the blog. More to come soon...