Marts recounts trip to Harris Neck, marvels at trove of bird species

Posted by JEFF KIDD on August 29, 2013 

Karen Marts of Hilton Head Island is what I would call one of Untamed Lowcountry’s “early adopters.” A blogger in her own right, Marts has enthusiastically provided photos and has shared blog posts written for her blog at the Yahoo Birding Friends group.

This week, Marts again shared an entry with Untamed Lowcountry readers, this one about the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge south of Savannah.

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She writes:

A single photograph of numerous wood storks at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge prompted me to seek out fellow birders to join me for a trip that may have changed my life forever. Bill Nicol, former president of the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society, graciously offered to drive the group to one of the seven refuges that is part of the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex. “The opportunities we have within the complex are amazing, and year round,” Nicol said. “Some are by invitation only. You see different species, depending on the migration pattern.”

Joined by master naturalist Rita Kernan and Marian Trenis, who I consider the “Bird Whisperer” because she feeds songbirds out of her hand, I felt like I was in good company. We departed at 7:30 a.m. Aug. 17 and headed to McIntosh County, Ga.

We wasted no time spotting mourning doves on a wire along the highway and stopped to gawk at seven black vultures in a tree near a gas station. We saw chipping sparrows near the visitor center, then drove a short distance to Bluebill Pond. A northern cardinal chirped as we unloaded our gear and headed down a path through the woods laden with pine needles. A blue jay and Carolina wren were a fine start for the day, but I was anxious to view the wood storks. Six man-made freshwater ponds, along with grand salt marshes, open fields, and a hardwood and pine forest, seem to attract a wide variety of wading birds. We approached a clearing and marveled at what was before us.

“It was so surreal,” Rita said. “It was like viewing a life-sized wildlife diorama, where it’s impossible to see everything at once. Alligators slowly emerged from the background. As your eyes adjusted to this magnificent vista, numerous bird species revealed themselves.”

We spent the next two hours watching birds and alligators. Four-foot alligators were everywhere, with two 8-footers also were in residence.

A tri-colored heron stalked the edge of the pond, casually fishing. These elegant birds are common inhabitants of salt marshes, and are often found in colonies with great egrets, snowy egrets, and wood storks, which were all present on this day. Beautiful reddish brown feathers on the head and neck are contrasted with a long white stripe down the front of the neck to the belly, with gray wings. Lanky greenish legs with webbed feet and long toes supported the bird’s weight.

Marts and Kernan argued over the identification of several rails floating around the pond. The upper part of the bird was brown, the lower half was dark gray.

I was confident I had discovered a new species! Alas, it turns out they were juvenile common moorhens. Several adults came into sight with their tell-tale red facial shield and bright yellow beak. Thank God Bill provided a spotting scope, courtesy of the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society, which helped us zero in on specific details.

A little blue heron white morph quietly monitored his section of the pond, while cloudless sulphur butterflies eased in and out of the vegetation. We noticed seven adult wood storks high atop the pine trees, standing still like sentries. Their large bodies were covered in bright white feathers, with a black trim lining each side of their chests, as if donning a fancy sport coat. Their bare heads were dark against the sky, with a formidable beak that makes them look prehistoric. Eleven wood storks stood below, the juveniles with pale pink beaks and spiked feathers on their necks and heads. Even with our binoculars and scope, we did not notice the two bands on one of the wood storks’s legs. The camera photos led me to send a report to the Department of Natural Resources. The group was mesmerized by the harmony between the alligators and their avian neighbors.

Marts also spotted common moorhens, American coots, black crowned herons, great egrets, anhingas and belted kingfishers.

We wrapped up the day with one more stop, and luckily got to see several glossy ibis. This was a “life-list” bird for me, as I had never seen one! The front of the bird was a chestnut color, but the wings were charcoal gray with green and purple iridescent feathers shimmering in the light. It was preening on a sandbar amongst many white ibis. Little semi-palmated sandpipers ran around, one with a limp.

Cindy and Ken Groff, the birding power couple from Hilton Head Island, showed up as they made round two of the refuge. The epitome of the early-bird-gets-the-worm philosophy, the Groffs left home before our group was even awake! Together we watched a mustard-colored prothonotary warbler flit about in the trees, and then a glue-gray gnatcatcher flew by. It was such a fun day, and I was grateful to be birding with such knowledgeable birders. Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge was spectacular! The harmony I witnessed between all the birds is something I will never forget.

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