Monday, June 10, 2013

Things That Fly, Slither, Hop, and Scurry in the Swamp

When we lived in south Florida, spring migration meant having our pick of any number of great places to find warblers and thrushes, ranging everywhere from Miami in the south, and north to West Palm Beach. We've had plenty of luck in Savannah over the past year, but there are fewer spots where they're likely to concentrate in the numbers and variety we could find there. These include Forsyth Park, which we feature here regularly, and Solomon Tract, which Maureen wrote about in her last post. One other, lesser known place, is at the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum.

Prothonotary Warbler

One of our most memorable birds of 2012 was a singing Swainson's Warbler, which staked out a territory right along one of the trails at the canal. Although they breed here, they're few and far between, with prime habitat difficult to come by. None were singing this spring, although we did find other, more common birds associated with swamps, like Prothonotary Warblers, and a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Our visit to the canal was fresh on the heels of a bonafide thrush mystery: faced with either a Gray-cheeked or a Bicknell's Thrush, we needed only for the thrush to call (which it never did). We would have been ecstatic to see either one, but not knowing for certain which, was brutal. Well, the birding gods never did resolve that ID challenge for us, but we did finally manage a lifer Catharus thrush after all. Maureen was the first to spot it, and before we could get better looks, it started giving a distinctive call, like the sound accompanying the death of an 8-bit video game character. Veery! We tried tracking it as it flitted alongside the paths, but kept flushing it because its song sounded much more distant than it really was. It stayed fairly hidden, but we saw it well enough to feel good about our new bird. It was especially gratifying to somewhat compensate for the agony of leaving our other thrush a mystery.



The woods were also filled with other, even more eerie noises, with a pair of Barred Owls hooting to each other, and the bizarre knocking sounds of Yellow-billed Cuckoos calling practically everywhere we went. Never have we seen or heard so many cuckoos! One highlight was seeing a female repeatedly wag her tail straight up and then straight down. Apparently she was giving the "all-clear", when a second cuckoo mounted her a moment later.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Another rare sight was of a Swallow-tailed Kite. It's not unusual to see these spectacularly graceful birds during Spring and Summer, but I had just remarked a few days earlier that we'd never seen one perched. The trails at the canal have a dense canopy throughout, but at one point, it opened up enough for Maureen to spot a Swallow-tailed Kite directly above us at the top of a snag. We craned our necks straight up until they hurt, watching it preen. And then just when we thought our heads were about to fall off, the kite unfolded its wings and ridiculously long tail and soared off.

Swallow-tailed Kite

The birds were certainly amazing that day, but plenty of other native critters on display, too. I nearly tripped over a massive snapping turtle in my excitement chase down a bird (further evidence in support of my mom's worry that I'll someday step on a snake). So still was the turtle that we thought him dead at first. Eventually, though, we did notice his eyes track slowly toward one of us, and then the other. Later, we also played hide-and-seek with a broad-headed skink, and located a green water snake swishing through the long disused canal.

Common Snapping Turtle

Southern Toad

Skink - either a Five-lined, or a female Broad-headed

Green Water Snake

After the canal, we had one more stop to make. For the past several years, a pair of Gray Kingbirds has made a summer home of Savannah, nesting around the parking lots of the trolley tour companies downtown. We didn't see them last year, but we weren't going to miss them again (especially with our county lists approaching 200). After a couple of false alarms (Eastern Kingbirds spotted from afar), we finally found them perched on the wires above the Old Savannah Tours lot. These are pretty common in south Florida, but rare up here. Their bills are just massive. We told a birding friend where to find the kingbirds and he made it down a few days after us. One of the employees at the trolley company asked him what he was doing, and he replied, "looking for a bird". Their reply was "it's probably at the refuge" (10 minutes away, in S.C.). At least the employees that we had spoken to seemed interested to know they were there, and gave the impression that they might even take notice of them from time to time. Or, it's nice to think so.

Gray Kingbird

Gray Kingbird

Gray Kingbird


  1. That's a really red head on the skink. I would have guessed it was a male, but I don't know my Eastern species all that well. The lines are much lighter than I am used to seeing in 5-line skinks so I think you are right on broad-headed.

    1. Thanks JK, I knew it was a tough call and I'm glad for your input

  2. I like your description of a Veery's song...very apt!