Not the Center of the Universe

As Saturday, September 13th, dawned, I was already on the move, loading my gear into the Subaru and streaking eastward on I-16. There was time to get a little gas, and to snag a chicken biscuit at Hardee's, but I was under a deadline: by 8:30 I had to reach Meridian, Georgia, and the dock where I would meet the 9:00 ferry to Sapelo Island.

Sapelo is isolated in a variety of ways. One way is physical. There's no bridge, so the ferry is the only way to reach it, and it's not a car ferry; once you get there, you're either taking a tour bus, renting a vehicle, or hoofing it, and I still didn't entirely know which I'd be doing. There's also a certain isolation of access. You can't take the ferry unless you're staying there--either visiting one of the island's residents (whose name you must provide) or using one of its rental properties--or taking an approved tour. There are apparently private tours, but I had signed up for one through the state of Georgia, and the state provided one more form of isolation: information. Plainly put, a lot of it was kept away from those who might want it. I'd been digging around on the internet for weeks just to locate the phone number of the person from whom I could buy a ferry pass, and the web had almost no information about where to search for chachalacas or how to get there. All I could do, I finally reasoned, was show up at the ferry with my glasses and field guide and hope I could get lucky.

The fact that showing up at the ferry was so difficult should have tipped me off about the difficulty of spotting a chachalaca. When I reached the Sapelo Island Visitors Center in Meridian at 8:30 sharp, there was no sign indicating where the ferry was, or where ferry visitors should park; in fact, there was not a space left in the parking lot. I followed the road toward the water and parked along the side when I saw a large white boat at the end. Once I'd stowed binoculars, spotting scope, field guide, camera, and two bottles of water into my backpack (along with the scope's tripod, which poked out the top of the pack by a good four inches even when completely collapsed), I marched down to the ferry only to be told my name wasn't on the list. I explained that I'd made a reservation a week beforehand, and the young man with the clipboard asked which tour I was on. "I made the ferry reservation through the state," I said, unaware that I'd signed up for any tour at all. "Well, you need to check in at the visitor's center," he replied. "Where are you parked?"

Eventually I found that if I parked on the opposite side of the street, I'd be in visitor's territory, as opposed to the side reserved for the cars of island residents. This was in no way shown by any sign. Nonetheless, as I marched back to repark, then strode up the stairs to check in at the visitor's center, I began to feel as though the lack of signage was completely in line with the rest of the experience; clearly, everything was on a need-to-know basis here, and the assumption was that I had no real need.

Fifteen dollars and ten minutes later, I was on the upper deck of the ferry, slathering on sunscreen and waiting for my binocular lenses to clear. The heat and humidity were high enough to send everything I owned into a form of shock, having been contained in an air-conditioned environment for the last four days. (I wasn't feeling that great about the weather myself.) Nonetheless, the lenses on my optics eventually cleared enough to show me that I was in an absolutely stunning place.
DSC02247.JPGThe all but windless conditions left the water unruffled under the brilliant morning sun, and the marsh grass extending to the horizon was filled with the sounds of life. There were porpoises cresting in the channel behind the ferry, and my species list for the day started filling up almost immediately: a Great Egret on the bank, a Laughing Gull on a piling, a Wood Stork soaring overhead, a Tricolored Heron wheeling down into the marsh. And then I looked off to the east and was absolutely stunned.

A great bird, wings and neck extended, was headed south along the water's edge, and even in the glare of the sun I could see that it was rosy pink. I had a moment of uncertainty, as this was not a color I should be seeing on any bird in this region, but recognition quickly snapped into place: at the end of the long neck was a long bill, flattened at the end. I was seeing, for only the second time in my life, a Roseate Spoonbill.

It wasn't supposed to be there. Range maps in my field guides put the Spoonbill along the Gulf Coast and at the southern end of Florida. I'd seen a flock of them nesting in Louisiana back in 2009, but I hadn't even considered the possibility of spotting one here. Still, there was no question of its identity. It was huge and pink, for god's sake; how could it be anything--oh, right. I had a camera.

My temporary paralysis led to a rapid search of my pack and a desperate attempt to get the bird in my viewfinder before it vanished. I succeeded, but as you can see, just barely. It's at the far right-hand edge of the picture:

DSC02250.JPGIt wasn't a good photo. It wasn't a life bird. And it certainly wasn't a chachalaca. But if you can't be happy with a day where a spectacular, unexpected bird flies out of nowhere into your field of view, then dammit, you should quit birding now and find a hobby where surprise is discouraged.

The ferry ride was wonderful, as most ferry rides are, and I enjoyed the full Walt Whitmanesque experience of watching the play of light on water and the play of birds in the air. A variety of terns were in motion around the boat, including Sandwich, Forster's, and Royal Terns (seen here):

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Once I got to the island's ferry station, however, I came back to earth somewhat. For one, I could now gauge the distances better, and I could see that Sapelo's scale was not something I'd appreciated properly. I had to be back at the ferry by 12:30 to get back to the mainland, and I could see now that walking even as far as the lighthouse would eat up most of my morning--and that presumed that a chachalaca, a bird of the forest, would be hanging out near the waterside. Luckily, there was a tour bus, an air-conditioned tour bus at that, and my ferry ticket was good to get me onto it. Unfortunately, even though I asked the driver about birding and was assured that we'd stop at some places where I could look for chachalacas, the tour was not intended to show the natural features of the island so much as the historical and cultural features. We therefore got a look at some intriguing places, including the ruins of the sugar cane mill that drove the original settlement of the island, as well as the only operating store, the post office, the peculiarly-named Behavior Cemetery, and the mansion occupied by Sapelo's former main landowner, R.J. Reynolds:

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Though the stop at the post office did allow me to see the year's first Common Yellowthroat, as well as what must have been several dozen Eastern Kingbirds all hunting insects from the same wire, I had only a brief bit of time to do serious birding, and that was in non-chachalaca habitat: along the sand of Nanny Goat Beach. With my scope on my shoulder, I was able to log a healthy mixed flock of Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns, as well as patiently waiting for several small shorebirds to get close enough to me to reveal themselves as Sanderlings, already out of their breeding plumage for the year. But that was it. I still didn't have a life bird in Georgia.

I got back on the bus, back on the ferry, and back on the mainland. It was 1:00 and time to move north; I'd be spending the night at my parents' house in North Carolina, and I had about probably seven more hours of driving ahead of me. But I also knew that between Sapelo and Savannah lay a terrific birding spot: Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. I couldn't get a chachalaca there, true, but might I come up with some other life bird? A Purple Gallinule or something, maybe? Hell, I'd already logged a Spoonbill for the day. What did I have to lose?

Harris Neck, an abandoned WWII airfield, is a prime breeding ground for the Wood Stork, and they were there in quantity, but I was also treated to a delicious cool breeze and some spectacular blue-green scenery:

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There was more. Common Moorhens in the shallows. A pair of Wood Ducks close to shore. A Pied-billed Grege actually in flight, as I almost never see them. Anhingas fishing in Woods Pond. Cattle Egrets, touched with butterscotch. And stepping delicately on the far shore of one pond, a gawky white bird with a bicolored bill. I nearly jumped. There are only two American wading birds with two-colored bills, and as I looked more closely at this one, I saw that the tip of the bill was dark... and the base was pinkish.

Now I was excited. A pink bill with a dark tip is a field mark of the only American heron I have never seen, the Reddish Egret. It comes in both rusty-red and white plumages, but the bill is always the same. Like the Spoonbill, it's a bird of the Gulf Coast, but I already had proof that such birds could turn up in Georgia. Clearly I had to get a better look. And look I did. Hard. I even attempted a "digiscope" photo, pressing my camera to the lens of my spotting scope, and getting the following crude image:

DSC02280.JPGThe base of the bill was definitely pinkish... but the legs were wrong. They were a definite yellow-green, not the slate grey of the Egret's legs. And the bird wasn't feeding like a Reddish Egret, which charges around the shallows with its wings extended, trying to herd prey into its reach; instead, this bird was carefully picking its way around the rim of the pond, pausing, then stalking further along. In other words, it was feeding like the other American heron with a two-tone bill: the Little Blue Heron. I'd already seen an adult Little Blue at the same pond, so the sight of its offspring, which is pure white, should not have surprised me, but I was once again keenly aware that I remain liferless in Georgia.

I settled back into the car and began the long drive home. Georgia remains a fascinating, if in some ways frustrating, place to bird, but knowing that I can see what I have seen there before, I'm not about to stop looking for what I haven't seen yet.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 24, 2014 10:29 AM.

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