Discover the unexpected joys of birdwatching along Georgia’s coastline
In the 1980s, the United States’ only true native stork teetered on the brink of extinction. But today, the long-legged Wood Stork, with its lanky gait and 5-foot wingspan, can be found roosting by the hundreds along the Georgia coast. The past few seasons, the rookery at the edge of Woody Pond at the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge has been so robust and cacophonous with the Wood Storks, one local birder likens the scene to “Jurassic Park.”
A few years ago, my husband introduced me to the refuge at Harris Neck, built on land that once belonged to Black landowning families, taken by the government for the construction of a World War II-era Air Force base in the mid-century. Crumbling runways are still visible beneath the brush, the territory of resident armadillos. Now, people like my husband visit this land to appreciate nature. And one of his favorite pastimes would become mine, too: engaging with nature and paying attention to birds that inhabit it.
We’d come to see the Wood Stork rookery on a spring day, and I stood on the narrow grass causeway along Woody Pond, sometimes strewn with lazy alligators, and looked skyward at a most incredible sight: a muster of storks flew right overhead, in such tight formation, so near to the ground, that I could hear the slow, hypnotic woosh-woosh of their elegant, black-edged white wings. I was transfixed. And then I heard another sound, like big fat raindrops plunking on the soft grass around me: stork poop.
I had a lot to learn about birds — and a lot to learn about birdwatching.
In the past year, the time I’ve spent dedicated to this activity has increased tenfold. I make morning excursions with my new binoculars. I add lifers — a birder’s first-time sightings — to my life list in the Audubon app. I’m in good company; during the pandemic, many have flocked to the pastime.
Georgia is no exception. Adam Betuel, director of conservation of Georgia Audubon says the organization’s membership has been on the rise. “It‘s obvious to me that more people are getting into birds,” he says. “The pandemic forced people to slow down from their normal grind, depending on what the job was, and a lot of people — a lot of people — turned to birds.”
And as it happened, the pandemic gripped the U.S. right at the start of spring 2020. When it comes to falling in love with the feathered neighbors who frequent our backyards, Betuel says the timing was just right. “In spring, there’s lots of birdsong. There’s lots of movement. There’s lots of color. The coincidence of the timing might have really pushed people to notice birdsong and to pay attention,” he adds.
Perfectly timed to this surge of attention, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently put new energy into the Colonial Coast Birding Trail that stretches the entire length of the Georgia coast, overhauling the website, which features a handy downloadable map and bird checklist for a series of 17 discrete stops — avian habitats from marsh to beach to wooded swamp.
Destinations within a two-hour drive of Savannah include Harris Neck, along with the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area (WMA), various beaches on St. Simons and Jekyll islands, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Cumberland Island National Seashore. Several other destinations are right in and around Savannah.
In the summer at Fort Pulaski and sometimes Tybee Island, birders seek out the Painted Bunting, a near-threatened member of the cardinal family with feathers in a vibrant rainbow of blue, yellow, lime green and orangey red. It can also be spotted at Skidaway Island State Park, along with the strawberry red Summer Tanager.
Another Savannah local, the golden yellow-headed and blue-gray winged Prothonotary Warbler, is said to take its mouthful of a name from Roman or Byzantine scribes who wore bright yellow hoods, just as it appears to. Also known as the Swamp Canary, its population declined as its wooded swamp habitat has disappeared, but it can still be spotted singing high in the trees at the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum & Nature Center on Savannah’s east side.
Those are Savannah’s summer sights, but in spring and fall, hundreds of migratory species stop off along the coast. “And in winter, Tybee is one of the most reliable spots in Georgia for Purple Sandpiper,” Betuel says. “That’s a bird that normally overwinters further north, but they do come down the coast, and they really like rocky beaches or rocky substrate like the Tybee Island jetty.” Often flocking with the sandpiper are Ruddy Turnstones and other shorebirds — the Black Skimmer, Surf Scoter, Common and Red-throated Loon and Northern Gannet, to name a few.
Around Fort Pulaski, one might spot the Salt-marsh Sparrow, an increasingly rare winter visitor. “Oftentimes they’re out in the marsh and the spartina, so they’re difficult to find unless you’re in a boat or wading out into the water at Fort Pulaski,” Beutel says. “These birds are in real danger due to coastal development, climate change and the sea-level rise that goes with it. They’re trending in the wrong direction pretty quickly. So, those are some special birds at Fort Pulaski and Tybee that I always try to make time to see if I can.”
When pressed for a favorite stop along the trail, Beutel thinks of Altamaha first — a DNR-managed wildlife area where he goes for Georgia’s rarer breeding wetland birds, along with shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers (there are only about 8,000 Piping Plovers left in the world), Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Snipe, Least Bittern and the stunning Purple Gallinule.
Other frequent flyers here include the Mississippi Kite — a small, graceful raptor known to migrate as far south as Argentina in winter — and the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, leggy and boisterous, with a squeaky, high-pitched whistle of a call and a bubblegum
Like several other sites on the Colonial Coast trail, the Altamaha WMA is a place to engage with history, too. Birder and artist Isaiah Scott, 18, of Rincon, says that for him, one bird here in particular marries nature and human history: a black-and-white member of the Blackbird family, with a yellow nape and a bubbly birdsong that earned it its name, the Bobolink. Though, from the late 1700s until the Civil War, when the defining human presence at Altamaha was the Butler Island rice plantation, the Bobolink was known by a different name.
“It was nicknamed the ricebird back then,” says Scott, who was awarded a grant to support his work on a birding field guide that celebrates the Gullah-Geechee connection to the land. “This was a bird that enslaved Africans had to sort of deal with, using different techniques to scare them away from the crops, like gunshots and loud noises. To me, these interactions really connect the birds and nature of the place to the history.”
Scott’s practice showcases how birding can be about so much more than just accumulating lifers. “To be able to go back and visit these former plantations and rice fields — where my ancestors were forced to work in extreme conditions, the pain they experienced — really makes me feel empowered in a certain way, just to have that privilege to be able to come back and really see through the eyes of their labor,” Scott says. “The same plants are still there, the same vital habitat and food source for birds and waterfowl and wildlife.”
While rice is no longer cultivated on Butler Island, the ricebirds keep returning — a reminder of the past. And along Harris Neck’s Woody Pond, the Wood Storks, almost extinct not so long ago, will yield fledglings by the hundreds later this summer.
Paying attention to them, in this place that has been instrumental in rescuing the species from the impacts of habitat depletion, is a way of engaging not only with the Georgia coast’s natural environment, but with its history and future.