Sunday, November 10, 2013

November Birding: Charleston Natural History Society Visits the Savannah NWR

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge -- for larger view of map, click here -- courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife
          Saturday, November 9, 2013, I served as trip leader for the Charleston Natural History Society (CNHS) (aka Charleston Audubon) field trip to Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  This beautiful and wild landscape at the southern most border of our state has been featured 3 times previously in this blog.  For an introduction to this wonderful refuge, you will want to read my post from December 6, 2011, "Discovering the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge."   If you are interested in what delights this property may hold in mid-summer, check out my July 31, 2012 post, "Oh Limpkin, Where Art Thou? -- Savannah NWR? -- Roadtrip!"     Last February, in the blog post, "This Past Weekend: The Chase for Three Extraordinary Life Birds!," I recounted our visit to the refuge to see the famed, "lost" Cinnamon Teal.

          Last November, I had gone on the CNHS field trip to Savannah NWR.  On that excursion, I had seen my first LeConte's sparrow!  A new life bird!  Thus, I was eager to return this November to see what this wondrous property might reveal to us this time.  We arrived at the entrance of the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive eager to bird this always birdy place.  Unfortunately, many of the trees and shrubs surrounding the entrance had been cut down and resultingly, there were far fewer birds.  Nonetheless, we did find multiple Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, a Palm Warbler and a Black and White Warbler among a few interesting sparrow species:  Chipping, Swamp, Savannah and Song.  There were also a couple of Northern Flicker and Red-Bellied Woodpecker flyovers and several Tree Swallows.  A Northern Mockingbird stood guard over a berry bush while Carolina Wrens fussed from within.

          As we began the drive, we scoured the marshes alongside for additional Sparrow species ... still hoping for a specialty bird, like last year's LeConte's.  But these marshes only gave us the same as the ones previously noted.  Along this first stretch of the drive, we noted also noted Great Egret and Blue-Winged Teal flyovers, the always elegant Northern Harrier, a few White Ibis, some scattered Common Gallinule, Pied-Billed Grebe, Little Blue Heron, and American Coot.

White Ibis -- Savannah NRW -- November 9, 2013
           A fellow birder from Brevard, NC pointed out this wonderful American Bittern to our group  which gave several of us a fabulous photo opportunity!  One in our own group spotted the elusive Sora!          

American Bittern -- Savannah National Wildlife Refuge -- November 9, 2013

          As the winds began to pick up and the morning wore on, I became concerned that we might miss out on the early woodland birds if we remained out in the open scouring the impoundments for birds that we were likely to see all day long.  Thus, we pushed forward to the first wooded area and sortied from the cars to bird a stretch and to explore.  Though it was a bit late in the morning, this area was still birdy.  We added American Goldfinch, Golden-Crowned Kinglet, House Wren, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Cray Catbird and Northern Cardinal to our lists.  A few different butterfly species flitted about, including a favorite, the Zebra Heliconian.  Normally, this species is a bit hard to come by.  But this day, we saw several!

Zebra Heliconian -- Savannah National Wildlife Refuge -- November 9, 2013

         Just beyond this first wooded area, the Plantation Trail extends out to another wooded hummock.  A few of us continued to scour the marsh edges for interesting sparrows, still hoping for a specialty, while others moved on down the dike.  We found more Blue-Winged Teal and we found three female Northern Shovelers as a flock of Blue-Winged Teal with 4 Northern Shovelers flew over.  The Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and Tufted Titmouse continued to show themselves in abundance.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013
The sparrows, though, continued to frustrate us by popping up and then just as quickly, back down into the marsh.  One has to be truly patient and lucky to successfully find the specialty sparrows.  Though we were patient, we were not lucky this time.  Lady Luck was smiling though as one in our group found this delightful Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker posed nicely in a roadside willow.  He quickly became one much photographed bird!

Juvenile Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013
The following photo shows the trait (not often visible) for which he is named.
Juvenile male Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013

        After visiting the hummock, we drove slowly to our next stop at the corner, the southern most tip of the loop.  Here again, we exited the cars to walk a bit along the dike on the Raccoon Island trail.  Almost immediately, I spotted a raptor perched in a snag overlooking the two parallel dikes.  Views through the scope helped us to identify the bird as a female Merlin!

Merlin -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013

Our group split up and took the 2 dikes that paralleled a canal.  While my group was enjoying close-up views of the Merlin, the other group having a more extensive view of what was around the bend called out that we were coming up on a male American Kestrel.  We were thrilled at the prospect of being able to study a Merlin and an American Kestrel at the same time.   The American Kestrel then helped us out by flying in closer to the Merlin.

Male American Kestrel -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013

 Click on Pam Ford's photo below and you will get a larger view of where the two birds perched in relation to one another.  They are at the far left and right edges of the photo.

Female Merlin (left) and male American Kestrel -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013 -- Photo by Pam Ford
The American Kestrel did not stay perched there too long.  After a stare down, he took off and I turned my lens back to the beautiful Merlin.  I also watched her for some time through the scope for a close-up view.  I was mesmerized.  I could have studied her all day.  I started to take more pictures of her.  Shooting a big lens at that distance with no tripod, you can never be sure which of your pictures will be sharp.  It is a good idea to take many photos.  When I started a shoot, all of a sudden I saw the American Kestrel arrive through my viewfinder and attack our Merlin!  The little bully!  It was pure luck that I had the camera up and shooting at that moment.  Kestrels are one of the fastest falcons!  I exclaimed, "Oh my God!" and kept shooting.  The others had looked away for moment -- perhaps distracted by the sounds of small birds in the brush in front of us -- and I think most of them missed it ... until I showed them the photos on the back of my camera!

Male American Kestrel attacking female Merlin -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013

Female Merlin regaining her balance after attack by male American Kestrel -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013

Female Merlin regaining her balance (and looking annoyed) after attack by male American Kestrel -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013

           Wow!  What a wonderful day of birding!  We continued to watch the two birds -- primarily the Merlin as the American Kestrel flew in and then flew off a few times -- while waiting for the other group to finish the loop around the dike to join us.

            Carl had been in the other group.  Carl and my envy of each other's best shots is notable and drives us both to improve.  The family competition is thus fun and productive.  As such, it was fun to show Carl my shot of the Kestrel attacking the Merlin once his group joined up again with my group.  He made some grumbling remarks and then set off to get a close-up shot of the Merlin.  I have to say that though he did not get the action shot that I got, he did get a closer and clearer shot of the Merlin.  His photo below merits a place in this blog post for truly capturing the regal beauty of this bird.  I am indeed envious!
Merlin -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller

          After these long observations of this lovely bird, we decided it was time to continue our loop around the drive to the area where large numbers of ducks are usually found in the winter.  Close to the 3.5 mile marker, we arrived at our destination and yes, there were hundreds of ducks -- easily visible with a scope!  Thankfully, we had several scopes!  In the greatest number, we saw American Coots (400+) and then Ring-Necked Ducks (250+).  Two different observers spotted a larger duck with a light brown head, light gray back and a ski-slope black bill -- a female Canvasback! -- Truly a great find!  We were all thrilled!  It had been at least a couple of years since most of us had seen one in South Carolina!  None of us photographers in the group were set up to digiscope so, unfortunately, we do not have a photo of our special bird.  The photo below, taken at Huntington Beach State Park in December 2010, shows an example of the female Canvasback species that we saw through the scopes on Saturday, November 9 at Savannah NWR -- our Bird of the Day!

Female Canvasback -- Huntington Beach State Park -- December 29, 2010

Other ducks found in the large expanse of waterfowl included some Wood Ducks.  A couple of people in our group had the luck of finding American Black Ducks and Mallards.  While those experienced with the scopes attempted to count the ducks for our bird lists, others of us amused ourselves with photographing a Northern Harrier who approached close above us.

Northern Harrier -- Savannah NWR -- September 9, 2013

         I also wandered down a side trail and found a butterfly -- one that I am sure that I have never seen before.  I am in discovery mode when it comes to butterflies.  I am beginning to feel the need to become a lister and to begin cataloguing my new "discoveries."  I took the photo, and at home, I was able to use my trusty copy of Butterflies of the East Coast; An Observer's Guide, to identify a rather rare one for South Carolina -- the Tropical Checkered-Skipper!  This species generally prefers the state of Florida.  However, the guide notes that "a handful of strays reach[ing] Georgia and the Carolinas."  The map shows specific triangles where it has been sighted.   One of those triangles sits right on top of the southeastern corner of the state -- where we were!  The Tropical Checkered-Skipper differs from the more common Common Checkered Skipper (known to inhabit SC) by two small spots on the wings on the Common and the steely blue hairs on the body and the inner wings on the Tropical.  This was such a great way to finish out the day -- a rare to SC butterfly -- the Tropical Checkered-Skipper!

Tropical Checkered-Skipper -- Savannah NWR -- November 9, 2013

         Indeed, our group from the Charleston Natural History Society spent a beautiful day in the field at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge!  Our group's total count for the day was 73 species!  We were particularly thrilled with our close-up views of the American Bittern, the American Kestrel, the Merlin, the Northern Harrier and then our marvelous find, our female Canvasback!  It proved to be quite an opening to our winter season of birding.  We are looking forward to more wonderful finds!  Our special butterfly finds of the day were the frosting on the cake!   

          I wish to give a special thanks to Andy Harrison and David McLean for serving in the capacity of list keepers.   Bob and Monica Bradley also provided wonderful suggestions for places to stop along the wildlife drive all of which proved to be productive for us bird-wise.  I also want to thank Pam Ford and Carl for their photographic contributions as well as for their entertaining banter in the car.  And then to all of the participants in this field trip, I thank you all for your observant eyes and warm camaraderie!  We should all bird together again -- and soon! 


1 comment:

  1. Pretty pic Zebra butterfly, wonderful day! Lovely post, Pam