One of my favorite parts of any road trip is stopping at the national wildlife refuges along the route. In this case, we were heading from Columbia, South Carolina, where we’d visited family, to a vacation with friends on the east coast of Florida. And it just so happens that there is a series of refuges running from Pinckney Island NWR near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to Wolf Island NWR near Darien, Georgia. As we only had time to stop at one of those, we chose Savannah NWR, on the South Carolina – Georgia state line.
Since my impression of this part of the country comes mainly from repeated viewings of Gone with the Wind, I imagined ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss lining an old dirt road. There would be wetlands, too—marshes and swamps willed with herons and alligators. Even though it was early February, the air would be sultry, redolent with the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine. I could just picture Scarlett O’Hara with her parasol and a pair of binoculars!
Reality failed to disappoint. No, Scarlett wasn’t present, and the flowers weren’t quite in bloom yet, but the refuge delivered on everything else. There were oaks and Spanish moss (technically a bromeliad), marshes and herons. We even spotted a baby alligator (I wonder where mama was). The warm, humid air was a balm on my winter-dry skin. Clearly, we’d chosen well.
We stopped at the entry sign so I could photograph the trees that, on closer inspection, turned out to be home to several birds. Cardinals are easy to spot, but it took more effort to notice the Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers and numerous Ruby-crowned Kinglets. An Eastern Phoebe posed for a photo. Turkey Vultures soared overhead. Common Grackles scolded from the bushes, and a Northern Mockingbird tried to confuse me with an assortment of imitations.
Back in the car, we headed for the 4 mile wildlife drive. A car makes an excellent photo blind.
The drive wound through grasslands on one side and diked wetlands on the other. Sure enough, we encountered the expected assortment of herons and egrets, Common Gallinules (below) and American Coots, and plenty of ducks (primarily Ring-necked and Bufflehead). White and Glossy Ibis waded the shallow water as they probed the mud for lunch.
I would have liked to linger, but we had to be considerably further south by dinnertime. As we left the refuge, I noticed one more bird perched on an exposed branch. Of course, it was a Savannah Sparrow!
If you plan to visit, please note:
All refuge lands, including the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive are open from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week. Visitor Center hours are Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (excluding all federal holidays). ONSLOW ISLAND: Public access to Onslow Island is permitted only on Wednesdays from sunrise to sunset (entry by foot or bicycle only.)
Visit the refuge website for more information and a list of recent sightings, courtesy of eBird.