Little St. Simons Island Oct 03—07, 2013
Posted by Barry Lyon
The concept of a “birding workshop” is a simple one: employing careful observation techniques and in-the-field education to build better birding skills. In contrast with most traditional land-based birding tours, designed with a faster pace to produce larger species totals, birding workshops take a slower approach, emphasizing quality over quantity and looking at birds with an eye for detail.
As the newest trip in our repertoire of birding workshops, Little St. Simons Island provided the stage for this long-weekend retreat. There are many sides to Little St. Simons that make it the attraction it is. It’s entirely private, for starters, and, consequently, it is one of the only undeveloped barrier islands along Georgia’s hundred-mile-long coastline. Its position on the Atlantic Coast makes it a prime attractant to migrating birds at a time of year when millions of birds are moving south across the continent.
Our experiences in this unique environment were marked by daily field trips to beaches, marshes, and woodlands, while the workshop theme was underscored by multiple trips to study shorebirds at Sancho Panza Beach. The birding was both educational and rewarding as we alternately practiced sorting through confusing look-alike shorebirds with relaxing to more easily identified herons, egrets, ibis, and storks.
Our success with the birding was undeniable, but this trip will also be remembered for the unexpected mosquito boom that coincided with our arrival. The Southeast has seen more precipitation this year than in any of the past three. Heavy rains at Little St. Simons Island in the previous week triggered an exceptional bloom of mosquitoes which proved a nuisance and a challenge.
With the help of mosquito netting and plenty of repellent, our days were spent visiting the island’s key habitats, each of which provided memorable sightings and experiences. Our explorations centered on four main areas: Sancho Panza Beach and the Altamaha River Mouth, Myrtle Pond, the pine-oak forest north of the lodge, and Main Beach to the southeast.
Sancho Panza is the island’s single most productive birding site, and our multiple trips there fairly confirmed that to be the case. Shorebirds of all stripes were always present, even on our low-tide visit on the last afternoon, and provided many wonderful occasions for detailed study and comparison—opportunities only a workshop situation affords. Highlight experiences included side by side studies of Piping, Semipalmated, and Wilson’s plovers; Black-bellied Plovers in various stages of molt; a Long-billed Curlew probing for food on the mudflats; and tiny Sanderlings and Western Sandpipers foraging only yards away at the water’s edge. Lest we forget, other lasting impressions included dazzling looks at American Oystercatchers and scope studies of five species of terns.
Myrtle Pond, situated between the lodge and Sancho Panza Beach, featured a scenic wetland ecosystem with brackish impoundments ringed by extensive marshes. Whether serving as a destination unto itself or merely as a pass-through stop en route to the beach, Myrtle Pond served up some of our trip’s finest sightings: prehistoric-looking Wood Storks working the shallow water at close range; flocks of White Ibis winging their way across the open marsh; and curious Clapper Rails approaching to within feet of us, with Belted Kingfishers chattering from atop roadside trees.
North of the lodge, a dirt track wound through a woodland of oaks and Slash Pine draped in curtains of Spanish Moss. Stops along the way brought closer intimacy to this decidedly “southern” ecosystem, where Pine and Yellow-throated warblers shared space with Pileated Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and armadillos.
Outings to Main Beach yielded lengthy studies of endangered Piping Plovers while Lesser Black-backed Gulls loafed on the beach. Equally enjoyable here was the opportunity to walk on a white sand beach, gently washed by the foam and surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
While our days were occupied with field trips, the nights belonged to Kenn Kaufman, whose after-dinner presentations on the various facets of bird identification were instructional and entertaining. For decades, Kenn has been recognized as one of the premier field people in North America, and his knowledge and wit were on full display as he communicated the joys of birds and birding.