Days 66-68 – The Sea Islands of Georgia

Friday October 10 (Muriel)

We left Charleston right after breakfast and headed south, beyond Savannah, for Jekyll Island, GA.  We needed to register for the Colonial Coast Birding and Nature Festival at the Jekyll Island Convention Center in time to take our boat cruise of the Altamaha River Delta.  We registered, got directions, and drove about one-third of the way back toward Charleston to the dock at the delta.

After a quick lunch next to the dock, we boarded the JP Morgan with about 30 other birders for a cruise of this huge delta and its islands.  While we waited for the boat to leave the dock, a Great Blue Heron stood atop a post, the long skinny tail of a fish sticking out of its mouth.  Every now and then it would unsuccessfully try to swallow its catch the rest of the way, eventually flying off with the tail still protruding.

We learned that the Altamaha River System, which we had never heard of, has the largest flow of any river system east of the Mississippi.  This is flat, flat, low country.

We could see whitecaps on the open Atlantic, but even where we saw no land between us and the Atlantic, there were sandbars, separating the delta from the turbulence of the open ocean.  For long stretches we saw no birds, but there were large numbers at some of the undisturbed beaches.  Some beaches that were undisturbed by humans were bare of shorebirds because Peregrine Falcons lurked.  Highlights were a single Wood Stork standing in shallows before flying off, large flocks of Black-bellied Plovers, Red Knots, Marbled Godwits (rare in the east), Ruddy Turnstones, Royal and Caspian Terns, and a look at a resting Peregrine.  There were some smaller terns, but we did not see them well and could not hear the leader’s identification of which were Common and which were Forster’s.  On a tall tree on the mainland, a pair of Bald Eagles posed, already preparing their nest for December nesting.

BIRD PHOTOS FROM THE J.P.MORGAN  (Wood Stork, 2 Flocks of Oystercatchers, one larger than the other)

Other Sitings

We drove back to Jekyll Is., pleased that the forecast thunderstorms didn’t happen during our outing.  Thunderstorms and showers were forecast for the entire birding festival.

Saturday October 11 (Muriel)

We wandered the grounds of our motel, finding Mourning Doves and a Collared Dove, as well as Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Blue Jays.  Then we set off to tour Jekyll Is. on our own.  It is one of Georgia’s Golden Isles, one of the four that are accessible by car.  Jekyll Island is green and flat, attached to the mainland by a long causeway and bridges.  In the late 19th century, the island belonged to a group of millionaires, including ones named Goodyear, Gould, J.P. Morgan, Pulitzer and Rockefeller.  After World War II, the millionaires sold the island to the State of Georgia for use as a state park.

In addition to a convention center, there are quite a few hotels, a small mall or two, perhaps 1,000 homes clustered into small neighborhoods, and a historic district of old millionaires’ “cottages” – all on land leased from the state.  There is a parking/entry fee of $3 per day.  Apparently the funds from the fee are used to provide an outstanding level of maintenance of the open space.  There are open grassy areas, forests of mixed broadleaf and pine trees, all heavily draped in Spanish moss.

We drove to the north end of the island where we parked and wandered out onto a fantastic beach of white powdery sand that we could walk on without our feet sinking into it.  A family used a along net to catch shrimp and mullet, standing in the water to hold the net.  They filled several coolers with their catch, apparently replacing bottles of beer with fish in one.  Brown pelicans dove.  Laughing and Ring-billed gulls and terns fished in the water and grabbed tiny fish from the family’s net when it was pulled onto the beach.  We enjoyed watching a gull try to swallow a small flounder that was not cooperating.

Toward the interior was dense woodland, with areas of dead wood between open beach and the woodland.

Small crabs scurried, almost invisible on pieces of dead wood.  A small Blue Crab on the white sand stared at us.  The white sand extended to the calm water.  Beyond the blue water we could see more low land, tall bridges, and a few industrial looking installations.  Beyond all of that was an edging of thunderclouds.

After exploring the beach as far as we could go before being blocked by a stream crossing the sand, we tried birding along the adjacent wooded bike path.  We saw a few Carolina Chickadees, lots of Northern Mockingbirds, grackles, a Baltimore Oriole – and fled to the car for bug goop when mosquitoes began to feed on us.

We drove to the south end of the island, looking at the huge Victorian “cottages” of the millionaires in the historic district, and on to a picnic area.  We parked and again walked out onto a white sand beach.  We walked beyond a point to an area with large numbers of Pelicans, Royal Terns and Black Skimmers.

We watched fiddler crabs with one small claw and one huge one scurry over the sand.  We spied other small crabs, perhaps female fiddlers, scurry into holes centered in volcano shaped mini hills of sand.  Eventually we drove toward the convention center, finding lunch at a restaurant on the way.

IMAGES FROM THE SOUTH END OF THE ISLANDS (Mixed flock, Skimmers, Blue Crab)

At the convention center we visited some of the displays and watched a between show demonstration by a bird rehabilitator with an un-releasable Bald Eagle.  We attended a seminar on Birds, Tides, and Marshes.  The focus of the seminar was on the tremendous habitat changes that will occur in this very ecologically rich area if the mean sea level rises the predicted 12 – 14 inches over the next 100 years.

We cleaned up for the banquet dinner.  We found ourselves at a table with friendly, interesting people.  Pete Dunne was the keynote speaker, talking about the 24 most important changes to birding.  I found his presentation on Alexander Wilson at SFVAS’s centennial banquet much more appealing.

We left the convention center, stepping into a very wet world.  There was water at least an inch deep everywhere, although the rain was tapering off.  The rain stopped altogether before we were back at our motel, but we needed to run the windshield wipers because the outsides of the windows kept steaming up.  We sloshed from our car to our motel room through around two inches of water.

Sunday October 12 (Muriel)

We were back at the convention center at 8:15 to travel with the group participating in the field trip to the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area.  We caravanned about a half hour to the location.  Through the morning the weather kept changing.  At one point we endured a drenching rain that soaked through our pants.  Fortunately the weather was warm, so we were not chilled, and our nylon pants dried quickly.  For our pains we saw female Indigo Buntings, a Yellow Warbler, Red-winged Blackbirds, Boat-tailed Grackles, Tree Swallows and had excellent views of Palm Warblers.  There were some coots and Pied-billed Grebes, and a greater number of Common Moorhens on the ponds.  We saw Bald Eagles, an Osprey, a Merlin and a Northern Harrier.  We saw one Sora and heard many more of them.  We heard what was identified as the call of a Clapper Rail.  We got decent looks at a couple of mature Little Blue Herons and a Tri-colored Heron.

Much of the time we were surrounded by swarms of gnats.  Slathered with bug goop, Allan and I each received only one mosquito bite.  However our legs itched with largely imaginary bug bites.  Our itches increased after one of the guys in the group stepped into one of the many ant hills along the dikes.  The ants swarmed up his legs.  Fortunately they were small black ants, not the fire ants that also have their hills here.  He only got a few bites that weren’t too nasty.  We decided to leave the group when we got back to the cars.  It was well after 1:00 by that time.  We were tired and hungry, as well as itchy.

We headed a short distance to the town of Darien for an enjoyable seafood lunch with typical old south trimmin’s.   My crispy flounder was delicious and Allan was delighted with his fried blue crabs.  Afterwards we drove back to our hotel, rested and caught up with computer stuff.  We decided to nibble on nuts and apples from the car rather than going out for dinner.

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