Day 17 – Pick up day

Common enough – although we didn’t start seeing them until we reached North Carolina – American Robin

Today was the day when we met up with Bob & Sue and Andy, who have joined use for the rest of our GABRaT ll adventure. As the drive from the Outer Banks to Raleigh Durham airport was around four hours, we had to change vehicles and then drive 100 miles further north, to our overnight accommodation in Collinsville Virginia, we had very little time for birding other than an early morning return to Bodie Island lighthouse and stuff we saw from the car. We had fully expected it would be a ‘dot day’, as far as the GABRaT ll list was concerned, but as we were checking-in to our motel a couple of birds popped up on the grassy roadside verge – Song Sparrow – a welcome addition to the list. Given the relatively short stay in the State and the generally poor weather we were pleased to have managed to get our North Carolina list into three figures – 103 to be precise. Tomorrow we’re doing a few local sites before heading for the Allegheny mountains the following day.

Reminds me of home – watching Herring Gull squabble over a crab snack

Day 16 – could have been a wash-out

On a day of overcast skies and near continuous rain bird photography proved difficult – here is Bufflehead, a GABRaT ll tick

We woke this morning to heavy rain and a forecast which indicated wet until 5.00pm. We took the opportunity of a leisurely breakfast and then sea-watched from the hotel terrace and later from the near-by pier. Not a great deal happening but there were several Common Loon (Great Northern Diver to you and me) off-shore, a Great- Black-backed Gull on the beach and a selection of terns and waders flying by. A brief break in the weather allowed us to venture south to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Here we added a couple more trip ticks – Marbled Godwit and Bufflehead – and quite a few State ticks, before the rain meant a hasty retreat back to the hotel. By four the weather improved sufficiently for us to head out again, this time to Brodie Island Lighthouse. The birding was good with more trip ticks – Saltmarsh Sparrow and Gadwall and yet more State ticks including: Belted Kingfisher, American Oystercatcher, Common Yellowthroat and a few more besides. Tomorrow we head back inland to Raleigh Durham International to collect Andy and Bob & Sue – ready for the next stage of our GABRaT ll adventure.

Common Yellowthroat in the bushes at Brodie Island
A North Carolina tick – Ring-billed Gull
The fishing is evidently good on the Outer Banks! – Double-crested Cormorant and Brown Pelican take full advantage

Day 15 – to the Outer Banks

Pileated Woodpecker – one of five woodpecker species seen over lunchtime at Goose Creek SP

We spent the day travelling to the Outer Banks, calling in at a number of birding locations on the way. Our day started before breakfast in a local park – Smith Creek – where we got our North Carolina State list off to a good start. Top bird was the much anticipated Eastern Towhee, feeding quietly by the trail. Our first stop on the drive was Martin Marietta Park – a former quarry but now restored to a superb wildlife park – provided more additions to the list including Ruddy Duck – last seen near Peterborough in 2022. Then it was on to Goose Creek State Park for lunch – in the company of five woodpecker species! Final stop, before arriving at our Outer Banks base in Nag’s Head, was the gigantic wetlands site of Mattamuskeet NWR. Winter home for 10,000 Tundra Swans, thankfully there were a few stragglers remaining to make a welcome addition to the list. Looking at tomorrow’s weather forecast it could be a very damp day sea-watching and migrant spotting!

Ruddy Duck was a welcome addition to our GABRaT ll trip list
Left over from the wintering population of ten thousand Tundra Swan at Mattamuskeet NWR
A common and widespread sparrow but still rather pretty – Chipping Sparrow

Day 14 – travelling day

Yellow-throated Warbler at the start of the mosquito-infested Iron Swamp trail

Today we’ve moved further north, crossing from South Carolina into North Carolina. Birding this morning was limited to a quick drive through and short mosquito-ridden trail walk in the Francis Marion National Forest. We saw very little and only added a couple of State ticks – best birds were Yellow-throated Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher. We then headed for our over-night stay near Wilmington NC, breaking our journey at Huntington State Park. Another small coastal barrier island with a nice mix of habitats. Here we added a couple of ‘trip ticks’, one was a our target species – Brown-headed Nuthatch – the other was a complete surprise! The only duck on Sandpiper Pond turned out to be a female type White-winged Scoter. At the very southern edge of its wintering range and not mentioned in any previous eBird reports – though oddly enough both Ring-necked Duck and Pied-billed Grebe had been reported. Close views of Wood Stork and Yellow-crowned Night Heron added value to our trip.

Brown-headed Nuthatch was todays target bird – although they are getting close to the northern edge of their range
What wasn’t on our radar was White-winged Scoter, which we found on Sandpiper Pond, Huntington State Park. Record shot only
These Black Swallowtail butterflies were a feast for the eyes – relatively abundant but still impressive

We closed our South Carolina State list on 109 – our overall GABRaT ll list is currently at 186, plus a few of the recent naturalised escape species from Florida: Egyptian Goose, Scaly-breasted Munia, Red Jungle Fowl and Grey-headed Swamphen

Day 13 – Santee – two special reserves

Barred Owl – a close encounter

We spent the day at two reserves close to Santee – well worth the 150 mile round trip. Starting at Santee State Park it wasn’t long before we’d added our first trip tick. Feeding quietly on the grass by the side of the approach road was a superb Wood Thrush – a bit like a miniature Brown Thrasher. Unfortunately it quickly melted away, leaving us needing to find another to photograph – which luckily we did. By coffee time we’d moved on to Santee National Wildlife Refuge, which is made up of four separate units with different habitats. During the rest of the day we added more trip ticks including: Worm-eating Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker and Barred Owl. The latter we first saw as a brief fly-through the woodland canopy – the identification being a process of deduction based on brief views, relative abundance and timing. We needn’t have angsted over it as ten minutes later two birds started shouting to each other close to where we’d stopped. They put on quite a show. Other wildlife highlights from a really enjoyable day included being dive-bombed by a nesting Red-shoulder Hawk and finding our second snake species the trip, a Queen Snake, which I very nearly trod on. We ended the day with 101 on our South Carolina bird list.

Our first ‘trip tick’ of the day – Wood Thrush – needed a bit of tracking down after the first road-side bird melted away
Prothonotary Warbler was probably the most common warbler species at Santee
Queen Snake – our second species for the trip – I very nearly trod on it!

Day 12 – South Carolina comes up Trumps

Bird of the day just had to be this Red-cockaded Woodpecker – seen immediately on arrival at the specially marked tree!

Today was our first full day birding in South Carolina and after a steady start it really came up trumps – political pun intended! (FYI SC has voted Republican since 1964, except in 1976 when it supported fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter.) Our first stop was Savannah NWR where we worked three areas of wetland and woodland. The last stop at Kingfisher Pond produced our first trip ticks – a pair of Wood Duck and Red-eyed Vireo. The next scheduled stop was Bear Island WMA – a vast area of swamp, ponds and wet woodland – produced an impressive array of waterbirds and two more trip ticks in the form of Tree Swallow and Mallard! Talking to one of the Rangers she told us about another site Donnellys WMA, just up the road, which had more shorebirds and a small colony of Roseate Spoonbill – a good tick for South Carolina. As we drove in we noticed some mature pine trees which had been conspicuously marked. Ever since our first trip to Florida we’ve known about this ‘secret code’ which is used to identify nest sites of the nationally scarce Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Having filled our boots with the Spoonbills and seen some very impressive (and intimidating) alligators we stopped off at the pine trees, at which point Jane shouted ‘there’s a woodpecker on the tree!’ Turned out to be a Red-cockaded – right on cue. The last impromptu site, which was given to us by a woman birder at Donnellys, was in the town of Jacksonborough – the Edisto Nature Trail. It was quiet on the birding front – best being a nice male Hooded Warbler – but it did give us point blank views of a Racoon, foraging in the undergrowth. A great days birding, taking our State list for South Carolina to 75. We’ll see if we can break the ton tomorrow.

Always nice to see these diminutive bitterns – this is Least. Just 13 inches tall!
Roseate Spoonbill – if we had gone to Donnellys WMA for these birds, we wouldn’t have seen the woodpecker!
Bear Island held a good range of waterbirds – including these American Avocet. First seen on this trip in Florida

Day 11 – more island birding

Caspian Tern – a new GABRaT ll tick – and an interesting id challenge amongst the hundreds of Royal Tern

On our last full day birding in Georgia we headed for Tybee Island, the most northerly in the island chain protecting the Georgia coast. We spent several hours strolling up and down North Beach (twice), checking out the terns, gulls and waders in the high tide roost. We managed to add two scarce terns – Caspian and Gull-billed – to our GABRaT ll trip list and I managed to find no fewer than ten colour ringed birds – Royal Tern, Black Skimmers and Ruddy Turnstone. I’ve already sent off the details and eagerly await their collective histories in due course. After lunch we visited the adjacent Cockspur Island, the site of the imposing and supposedly impregnable Fort Pulaski. The brick-built fort, part of the Third System Forts – a string of Atlantic coastal defences which include Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas – was constructed between 1829 and 1847. Occupied by the Confederates, after the eleven southern States seceded from the Union in 1861, Fort Pulaski was a key defensive position in the Civil War. Under increasing pressure from the advancing Federalist navy, the Confederates abandoned nearby Tybee Island. This was a moved which proved the undoing of their fortress stronghold. Over a two month period Capt. Quincy A Gillmore installed 11 artillery batteries of 36 heavy guns and mortars along the Tybee shore. At over a mile away they were considered by the Confederates to represent a minimal threat. Unfortunately for them Quincy had access to the latest weaponry, including rifled barrels on his heavy guns. Their capacity to penetrate the walls of the fort and threaten an explosion of the fort’s magazine led to the Confederates surrender, in just 30 hours of hostilities. As well as being a historic site of considerable interest the island is also home to some good birds. In just a couple of hours we found three species of sparrow – Swamp, Chipping and Savannah – Eastern Kingbird, Piping Plover and a good supporting cast of other stuff. Tomorrow we push on north into South Carolina – a new State list and some more interesting places to explore.

Ruddy Turnstone – one of ten birds found this morning with coloured rings or flags. Records have already been despatched to the US banding (ringing) authorities
The lighthouse on Cockspur Island
Savannah Sparrow – one of three sparrow species found on Cockspur Island this afternoon

Day 10 – Talking Turkey

We certainly talked this one up – Wild Turkey at Harris Neck NWR (photo courtesy of Jane)

Today we did two reserves – spending the morning at Altamaha Wildfowl Management Area and the afternoon at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The former site is an old rice plantation which has been turned over to a wildfowl reserve – albeit with limited hunting in season. The birding was steady but we did manage to amass a reasonable list by coffee time including: Cedar Waxwing and Bobolink, a few water birds – herons, egrets etc with the highlights being several Least Bittern, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Virginia Rail (a US tick for me) and a reasonable variety of waders. We then drove thirty miles north to Harris Neck which is a vast reserve encompassing several large ponds, woodland and scrub. There is a five mile wildlife drive with various trails leading off it. At one point I was saying there must be a chance of Wild Turkey – twenty minutes later we rounded the bend and there was a fine specimen feeding quietly by the roadside! Other highlights from this site included a very large breeding colony of Wood Stork and a couple of nice warblers – including Pine, which was new for the trip.

Trip tick – Pine Warbler
There was a host of wildfowl and wetland species at Butler’s Plantation (Altamaha WMA) – including this Little Blue Heron
The old plantation house on Butler’s Island – you can’t imagine the horrors which went on to maintain this pre-abolition life-style

Day 9 – Jekyll – no hide

Hundreds of Black Skimmer roosting on South Beach, Jekyll Island

After a slight adjustment to our draft itinerary, based on recent sightings on eBird, we spent the day on the delightful island of Jekyll – located off the coast of Georgia (our new favourite State:)). We started off at the south end, where the high tide had brought in hundreds of waders, terns and gulls to roost on the pristine white sandy beach. Amongst the hundreds of Royal Tern we found a few Sandwich and Forster’s. Most of the gulls were Herring but we did find half a dozen Lesser Black-backed, two Ring-billed and a lone Bonaparte’s. Waders were limited to Semipalmated, Wilson’s and a single Piping Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin and Willet. Probably the highlight though was the hundreds of Black Skimmer. We then spent a few hours birding the ‘interior’ with more warblers, woodpeckers – four sorts: Pileated, Red-bellied, Downy and Hairy, White-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay and Eastern Bluebird. Other attractions included House Finch, Clapper Rail, Carolina Wren, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Painted Bunting, Brown Thrasher and Savannah Sparrow. A few more waders from the observation tower at the Visitors Centre on the way home, including Whimbrel and Black-bellied Plover rounded off a perfect day. Jekyll Island – great for birding though not a hide in sight!

A new tern for the trip – this is Forster’s
‘Bush birds’ included this rather showy Carolina Wren
White-eyed Vireo – very vocal but difficult to actually see
Rails don’t usually give themselves up like this Clapper did this afternoon
But prize for ‘most colourful’ goes to this male Painted Bunting – seen at one of the feeders at the Driftwood Beach camp ground

Day 8 – a travelling day

Grey-headed or Asian Swamphen – a recent coloniser and addition to my US list

Today we’ve driven 350 miles north, from Fort Myers Beach to Kingsland in Georgia, via a couple of birding spots to break up the journey. Our first stop was Harn’s Marsh – a site given to us by a guy (actually the nature journalist son of a well known American ornithologist / author – George C West) who we met yesterday at Six Mile Cypress Slough. It was a four mile circular walk around a mixed wetland, with some excellent birding. First up was Snail Kite which landed on a telegraph pole just as we approached the site. We saw several more during our walk round. This was closely followed by Sandhill Crane – there were several breeding pairs dotted around the reserve. The third new bird (and another addition to my US list) was Grey-headed or Asian Swamphen, which has established a self-sustaining population in this part of Florida. A late afternoon stop in the Ocala National Forest produced the hoped for Florida Scrub-Jay with Carolina Chickadee as a bonus. Just before we crossed the State line we saw two Canada Geese – bringing our overall Florida bird list to 145 – including a number of recent colonisers. The best non-birding highlight of the day were three Otter, playing in the channel at the end of our walk round Harn’s Marsh.

There were several breeding pairs of Sandhill Crane at Harn’s Marsh
Florida Scrub-Jay – seen in the Ocala National Forest
Best of the rest – three Otter playing in the channel at Harn’s Marsh