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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia and South Carolina

Birding the American Civil War: Savannah to Charleston

2024 Narrative


Our birding and historical tour from Savannah to Charleston experienced perhaps the best weather I’ve experienced on this tour with no rain, little wind and neither heat nor cold. We tallied some 142 species including Clapper Rail, Swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites, Red-cockaded Woodpecker (endangered species), Bachman’s Sparrow, Painted Buntings, 11 species of Wood Warblers and close views of nesting herons and Wood Storks at a rookery in Port Royal. Rarities included a Common Eider at Fort Sumter and an American Golden-Plover at Bear Island WMA. We took informative walking tours with guides in both Savannah and Charleston admiring the architecture and learning about the history of both cities and what went on during both the American Revolution and the American Civil War for which both cities figured prominently. We also enjoyed a   number of fine dinners in the historical districts of Savannah and Charleston.


Our tour started with a brief meeting in the lobby of our hotel and then dinner at nearby Sam Snead’s Oak Grill & Tavern. The next morning we packed up the van and headed down to the lighthouse beach on Tybee Island. Highlights were the shorebirds (mainly Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones) and the terns, mostly Royals, but some pairs of courting Sandwich Terns too, along with a few Forster’s and a large flock of 150 Black Skimmers. Overhead, flocks of northbound Double-crested Cormorants were passing through. A single Spotted Sandpiper was our only one of the tour. While on the beach a Merlin flew over and headed rapidly north and into South Carolina, and an adult male Painted Bunting was briefly seen. The oddest sight was a land-loving Eastern Box Turtle (nominate subspecies) which was heading across the sand to the ocean and actually went to the water’s edge! We had a delicious lunch at the nearby Deck Beach Bar and then visited Fort Pulaski. This fort was named after Casimir Pulaski, a Polish cavalry officer who came to America and trained the Continental soldiers in riding horses in combat. He’s considered the Father of the American Calvary. He was killed on 11 October 1779 in the battle of Savannah, a disaster for the Continentals. During the Civil War, the fort was easily taken by the Confederates in 1861. It was thought to be impregnable, but a year later and using rifled canon, The Union retook the fort. Rifled canon rendered these types of forts obsolete. They had been constructed at great cost by the United States over the previous several decades. While at the fort we noted Great Crested Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo and Orchard Oriole along with two “Western” Palm, Pine warblers and a single Red-headed Woodpecker. A begging juvenile Bald Eagle was perched in the pines in the picnic area and adults were in the area as were Ospreys, including a nest. We then headed to the Savannah historical district where we had dinner at Churchill’s Pub and checked into our hotel for the next 2 nights.

On day 3, we headed north into South Carolina to James W. Web WMA., which offered perhaps the best birding of the tour. Highlights included good views of both Red-cockaded Woodpecker (an endangered species), including an active nest, and a Bachman’s Sparrow. Other species noted included a single Swallow-tailed Kite, a Yellow-throated Vireo, a half dozen Brown-headed Nuthatches along with “eastern” White-breasted Nuthatches, and a variety of nesting warblers including Prothonotary, Prairie, Pine, and Northern Parula. Chipping Sparrows were numerous and a pair of American Goldfinches were rather late. Red-headed and Red-bellied woodpeckers were numerous. Also notable was a Broadhead Skink. On the way out we admired an adult male Summer Tanager. Nearby we had good views of a singing Brown Thrasher and after grabbing a quick sandwich lunch at Subway, we noted several soaring Mississippi Kites nearby. Later in the afternoon we met Bonnie (of Bonnie Blue Tours) for a walking tour of historic Savannah. We saw many well-known sites and admired the beauty of a number of the wooded town squares. Birds of note included our only House Wren of the tour and several American Robins which nest in this historical district. Our tour ended at the Boar’s Head restaurant where we had dinner.

The next morning after packing up we headed across the Savannah River and into South Carolina to Savanah NWR. We spent a few hours birding this location where perhaps the main highlight were the bitterns, both a male Least and three American bitterns. They were seen very well with prolonged scope views. Other species noted included a late Hermit Thrush, some 50 Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped (“Myrtle”) Warbler, Mottled Duck, Least Tern, Glossy Ibis, Northern Harrier, Solitary Sandpiper and two Wilson’s Snipes. A number of American Alligators were present too, some quite large! From Here we headed north and a little east to the heron rookery at Port Royal to the Cypress Wetlands. A circular boardwalk gave us excellent views of many nesting herons and Wood Storks. Many of the herons were in high alternate plumage with brightly colored soft parts (bill and lores). The nesting herons included Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons along Tricolored, Green, and Little Blue herons, and Snowy and Great Egrets. Anhingas were present as were some 200 immature White Ibis foraging on the ground. We also had a chance to study the nominate subspecies of the Common Grackle, appropriately named the “Purple Grackle.” They were really quite purplish about the head and much of the body. Also well-seen was an adult Red-shouldered Hawk. After lunch nearby at Alvin Ord’s Sandwich Shop, we headed towards Charleston, but detoured south to look at Bear Island WMA. The water was low on the main pond and there were many shorebirds, mostly Dunlin and Least Sandpipers, but also some 20 Lesser Yellowlegs and about half as many Greater Yellowlegs which provided good comparisons. A single Semipalmated Sandpiper was studied with a scope. Several Black-bellied Plover were present along with Semipalmated Plovers. Most notable was a single American Golden-Plover, a rarity, particularly in spring. A single Bonaparte’s Gull was also seen along with a few Gull-billed Terns. Land birds included Eastern Kingbird and an extremely confiding Yellow-throated Warbler. We headed then to Charleston briefly noting a Swallow-tailed Kite along the way. After checking in, we dined at 39 Rue de Jean (French food) very close to our hotel.

On day 5 we visited the famous I’on Swamp to the northeast of Charleston. We noted a number of woodland species including Prothonotary, Black-and-white, Pine, Hooded, Yellow-rumped and Yellow-throated warblers, Great Crested Flycatchers, Pileated Woodpeckers, White-eyed and Red-eyed vireos, and Northern Parulas. Two Barred Owls and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo were heard. Palamades Swallowtails were numerous and were well seen. This location is best known as the last refuge for the Bachman’s Warbler, known here at least into the 1940’s. The last accepted record for the species was in 1962 near Charleston. The reasons for its extinction are not well-established. We head lunch at Subway and then caught the boat at Patriots Point for Fort Sumter. It was here in 1861 that the Civil War started on 12 April when the Confederates fired on the fort. The commander, Robert Anderson, surrendered the fort two days later, and they were allowed to return by boat to New York. The Civil War was on and it continued for the next four years with catastrophic results, although it did result in the end of slavery. The fort today looks little as it did in 1861. It was reduced to rubble by the Union Navy’s ironclads in the summer of 1863 and was later rebuilt in a different style prior to the Spanish American War. While up on the parapets we gazed off to the east to Morris Island where Battery Wagner once was and for which the movie “Glory” depicted the sacrifice of the colored regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, in the battle on the evening of 11 July 1863. The trip to Fort Sumter and on yielded few birds but at the fort a flock of Black Skimmers were present on a mudflat. A Mottled Duck that flew over seemed out of place. Particularly notable at Fort Sumter was an immature male Common Eider under the pier. This is well south of their normal range. That evening we walked to Stella’s, and enjoyed Greek food outside.

The next morning we drove south to the east end of Folly Island and walked to the east end. In the woods the no-see-ums were numerous and annoying but were thankfully absent when we reached the sandflats. Shorebirds were numerous and included many Dunlin and four briefly seen Red Knots. Willets included both “Eastern” (breeders) and “Western” Willets (non-breeders). A single Whimbrel and a full breeding plumaged Western Sandpiper were seen along two American Oystercatchers and 14 Wilson’s Plovers. Two Black Scoters (immature male and a female) also swam by. In the woods we noted several singing adult male Painted Buntings along with Great Crested Flycatcher, Gray Catbird and briefly, an Orange-crowned Warbler. We had leisurely lunch at nearby Chico Feo and then returned to Charleston, eventually parking at the our hotel’s parking garage and taking public transportation south down the island for our walking tour of Charleston with Bill Harris of Oyster Point Tours. Bill showed us much of the historical district there. Bill was from Virginia and freely shared his opinions about what the Civil War was about (slavery) and what he thought of Savannah, a friendly competition I concluded. Near the conclusion of the walk we left to make our dinner reservation at Eli’s Table where we had a very relaxed final dinner before returning to pick up our van and drive to our final nights lodging near the airport in Charleston.

On our final morning, after breakfast, we went to the Pitt Street Pier where we found a few new species, notably Marsh Wren, including a nest located by Adelle. These birds are the very grayish subspecies, griseus, which is in the “eastern” clade of the species, a likely split from the western clade of subspecies with very different songs. Shorebirds were numerous including 10 close Short-billed Dowitchers, five Willets (both “Eastern” and “Western”), 25 Ruddy Turnstones and ten Semipalmated Plovers. Two Western Cattle Egrets (split now from the Asian species, now known as Eastern Cattle Egret) were perched at close range and a half dozen Gull-billed Terns were foraging at close range looking for crabs on the mudflats. This species does not dive into the water as many terns do. Two Red-breasted Mergansers were also present along with a foraging Osprey that provided exceptional overhead views. We were unable to find Seaside Sparrow, but did see a Clapper Rail. In reviewing my photos of the dowitchers, I believe one might have been a Long-billed. Nearby we stopped to see a few Purple Martins which were nesting across the bridge. We returned to the hotel where most of the group was spending an extra night.

Overall it was a wonderful tour filled with history, camaraderie and of course, birds!

-          Jon Dunn, April 2024



Created: 04 June 2024