Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Return to Webb Wildlife Center

Our local Audubon Society chapter consistently organizes excellent field trips, and one of our favorites last year took us to Webb Wildlife Center, in Hampton County, SC. It's pretty far, by field trip standards, but it's nevertheless become an annual pilgrimage for some Ogeechee Audubon members, and manages to draw some of the largest crowds. The trip is a must for local birders hoping to find either Bachman's Sparrows or Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and last year we had excellent looks at both. In fact, it was chiefly with those two species in mind that we pressed our luck and returned to Webb again this year, filing into the sizable convoy our cohort made as we advanced down the driving trails.

A super tiny frog! There were quite a few of these little guys around the entrance to the wildlife center
One immediately salient difference from last year was the weather: dark and gloomy, as opposed to sunny skies overhead. Fortunately, it didn't stop the sparrows from singing, and Bachman's Sparrow was one of the first birds heard (and then seen) for the day. We would pick up Red-cockaded Woodpeckers a little farther down the road, too, but they passed quickly from tree to tree, and mostly kept the trees between them and us. In fact, a lot of what we saw up in the trees that day was seen only briefly, or distantly, or was difficult to photograph because of the lighting.

The heron rookery is a favorite stop along the driving trails at Webb

Look carefully underneath the Cattle Egret, and you can just make out a blue egg peeking out over the edge of the nest

There was, however, plenty going on down low in the leaf litter and the undergrowth. Case in point, the trip leader at one point stopped the convoy and got out of the car. When we made our way up to the vanguard to see what was going on, we were treated to a beautiful Eastern Glass Lizard right in the middle of the dirt road. Glass lizards aren't snakes, but legless lizards in the genus Ophisaurus. Unlike snakes, they have eyelids and ear openings, and they can break their tails off when circumstances would seem to require it (which is how the name "glass lizard" originated).

Eastern Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis)

A little later we all left our cars to look and listen for Prothonotary Warblers. While we were keeping our eyes and ears out, somebody thought they heard a distant Kentucky Warbler, but it stayed far away, denying us a chance to even the score with what's become quite the nemesis to us. Less shy was a lone opossum tracking down in the mud, alongside the path. It's a mammal we don't often encounter, although they're quite numerous. Even though they're vicious little vermin, it's pretty amazing that we've got a native marsupial species at all. (Fun fact: opossums have more teeth than any other mammal in North America).

Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

The mammal that really floored us, though, was a gorgeous black, white, and brown Fox Squirrel. The only other Fox Squirrel that we've seen was on a trip to Macon, when we saw a gray individual with a black mask. Unaware of how widely Fox Squirrels vary from one another, we were at a loss when we saw this new one. It was so big (about twice the size of a Gray Squirrel), and had such bold coloration that we found ourselves captivated by this charismatic rodent.

Fox Squirrel -- and a handsome one at that!

Meanwhile, the trees held their treasures, too (they were, after all, the reason for the trip). A nice surprise was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher returning to its little bowl-shaped nest made of lichen and spider webs. And a favorite of ours, Yellow-breasted Chats, were active at several different areas within the wildlife center. The only other time we'd seen them was on last year's field trip. It was great hearing these chunky not-warblers give their bizarre combination of whistles and clucks.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest

Inconspicuous atop her camouflaged bundle of lichen and spider webs

Yellow-breasted Chat

Somehow we managed to avoid the rain all morning and see some pretty excellent wildlife. In contrast, as soon as we turned out of Webb and back onto the road home, our first sight was a most un-wild one: half a dozen free-roaming guinea fowl. The field trip once again managed to live up to its reputation as one of the best of the year, and gave us the opportunity to see quite a few species that we may not see again for a while… at least until next year.

Guinea Fowl

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