Tuesday, October 6, 2015

South Carolina, Pt. 2

Part 1 can be found here: South Carolina, Pt. 1

This is the second post, covering the second day, of my trip down to South Carolina two weeks ago. I am currently taking Ornithology (the study of birds) at Ohio University. This class is one of the required classes for my Wildlife and Conservation Biology major, and also one of my most-anticipated classes of my college career. We go on weekly field labs (You can read about each one at this link), but we also get to go on two big trips. One of these trips is to Lake Erie, which is coming up in November, while the other trip is coastal South Carolina. The point of this trip was to expose us to birds we would normally never see in Ohio.

Hunting Island State Park
We awoke before sunrise to get a start on the day. While everyone got dressed and ate breakfast, I had some time to sneak off to watch the sunrise on the beach and snap a photo or two. Daylight wasting, we quickly loaded the vans and left Hunting Island State Park. Our goal for the day was to head a tiny bit farther south and closer to the South Carolina-Georgia border. The first stop of the day was at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located near the tourist town of Hilton Head, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is a collection of islands and tiny hammocks. The main (Pinckney) and surrounding islands have a very extensive history. Archaeological sites have shown Native American activity going back all the way to 7000 BCE, with intensive use from 1000-1500 AD. Temporary settlements built by the French and Spanish dot the 1500's and 1600's. The first permanent settlement was in 1708, and this began a period of intensive change. In 1804, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who had been an officer in the Revolutionary War and a founding father, moved to the islands and began a cotton plantation there. The land was cleared, drained, and worked by 200-300+ slaves, leaving a natural, and humanitarian, scar on the islands. After the Civil War, the islands changed hands multiple times and experienced periods of continued agriculture and management as a game preserve. 1975 saw the land and surrounding waters become a dedicated national wildlife refuge. Nowadays, several miles of gravel pathways are used extensively by the residents of Hilton Head, tourists, and nature-watchers.

White Ibis South Carolina
A variety of habitats can be found throughout the preserve, making for great birding. Salt marshes held birds like the White Ibis pictured above. Willets, Greater Yellowlegs, Tricolored Herons, and others made appearances too. The island also features several small freshwater ponds which held the likes of more White Ibises, Common Gallinules, Black-Crowned Night-Herons, Anhingas, Green Herons, Pied-Billed Grebes, and more. Pine forests and scruffy secondary growth held songbirds like the Boat-Tailed Grackle, various warblers, Brown-Headed Nuthatches, Fish Crows, and more.

Gulf Fritillary
Of course, birds weren't the only creatures out and about. One of the many eye-catching insects of the day was the Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae. We saw dozens and dozens of these incredible butterflies; I have never seen such a vibrant butterfly in person. The Gulf Fritillary has a wide range that extends from southern South America, through Central America, and into the southern portions of the United States. Although this species is found primarily in the south-central and southeastern portions of the US, the Gulf Fritillary is a species that will often "wander" northward. Ohio pretty much has a one-state buffer zone around it from this species' normal range, but these can be occasionally found in Ohio. Most recently, 2008 proved to be a very large invasion year of Gulf Fritillaries in Ohio, as Jim McCormac covered in his blog. As he points out, global warming, coupled with the fact we are seeing more and more individuals farther north, suggests that the Gulf Fritillary might possibly be a new Ohio resident in the future.

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge
Six or so miles of walking and several hours later, we left Pinckney Island NWR and headed inland to Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Savannah NWR lies several miles away from the Atlantic Coast, which is just enough for a whole new set of habitats and animals to come into play. The refuge straddles the Georgia/South Carolina border, with half the park being in one state and the other half being in the other. We stayed in the South Carolina section the entire time, choosing to drive the length of the 4 mile Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive, a one-way gravel road which winds through portions of the park. This road passes mostly through freshwater wetlands, but also passes through hardwood hammocks like the one pictured above. A hardwood hammock is essentially an "island" of trees which can persist in a marsh due to the ground being only a few inches higher than the surrounding marshland. Notice in the case pictured above (click to enlarge), the hammock consists primarily of Southern Live Oak, Quercus virginiana. Also notice the distinctive and characteristic Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides, hanging from the Live Oaks. Spanish Moss is a species of flowering plant that is actually an epiphyte, meaning it grows harmlessly on trees and absorbs water and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris that collects around it. As a result, Spanish Moss only uses the tree for support instead of parasitizing it.

Solitary Sandpiper

One of the main features in the freshwater marshes at Savannah NWR were dikes. Dikes are man-made levees that help control water levels and flow in marshes. Back in the 1700's, much of the land in the refuge was managed rice fields. These altered marshes remained and natural vegetation came back. Now there's a whole range of birds that make this refuge home at some point of the year. A few shorebirds were present when we went, including this Solitary Sandpiper pictured above.

Common Gallinule
Other birds present included 3 species of rails. Rails are a cryptic and elusive bunch, with most species preferring dense marsh grasses and reeds. The species Ohioans are most familiar with is the American Coot. We saw several of the coot's cousin, the Common Gallinule (pictured above). The Common Gallinule can be found in Ohio, especially along Lake Erie, but it is definitely a more uncommon species there. The Common Gallinule is much more common down along the southern coasts. The most exciting bird of the day was a Purple Gallinule that I spotted along the banks of a ditch. Like the Common Gallinule, the Purple Gallinule is also a rail, but an incredibly colorful one. This truly tropical-looking rail can be found extensively throughout the tropics, but is restricted to the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coast here in the US. In fact, Savannah NWR is even approaching its northern limits. Another species of rail we observed here was the Sora. Sadly we only heard them instead of seeing them.

Another strange southern specialty in the US is the Anhinga. Although it superficially resembles cormorants, the exact relationship between the Darters (which includes the Anhinga) and the Cormorants is uncertain. They are certainly related, but how closely is still up in the air. The Anhinga is a freshwater-loving species, and prefers the marshes and swamps of the southern US. They can often be seen drying their wings on the banks of waterways, like the one above.

Other interesting birds we observed at Savannah NWR included Cattle Egrets, Northern Harrier, Great-Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcons, and various migrating warblers.

American Alligator
Of course, it wouldn't be a trip down to the South without one of these guys. This is the American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis. Savannah NWR is known for its Alligator population, and we saw over 12 individuals during our time there. A large crocodilian reptile that reaches lengths of 9-15 feet on average, the American Alligator can be found throughout freshwater marshes, lakes, and swamps in the southeastern US. The American Alligator was once very endangered, but has staged an incredible comeback in the past few decades.

Birding in South Carolina
Part of the class on the beach at Hunting Island. I am the one in the green hat and shirt looking through the spotting scope. Photo credit: Michelle Ward
We left Savannah NWR at sunset and made the hour and a half van ride back to Hunting Island where we camped for a final night. It was an incredible trip, and I added 19 bird lifers in the end. I personally finished with 75 species of birds over the two days in South Carolina, but I know I missed a few species that others on the trip saw or heard.

Here's my complete eBird lists for the two locations of the day for those interested:
1. Pinckney Island NWR
2. Savannah NWR

I have to admit I fell in love with the southern maritime forests and the salt marshes over the course of the trip. I am planning on going back to this region on a birding trip over Christmas Break, and if that happens then I'll have many more in depth posts on this amazing region. Thanks for reading!

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