The Savannah Wildlife Refuge

Until the late 18th century a vast cypress swamp covered the area just north of Savannah, Georgia, a city founded in 1704 by General Oglethorpe. Plantation owners had cultivated rice in the South Carolina low country for a century before they cleared the cypress swamp north of the then young metropolis of Savannah.  In the process they completely converted the landscape from deeply wooded swamp to a virtually treeless marsh.  The end of the Civil War also brought an end to rice cultivation in this region because the freed slaves left, and the white plantation owners didn’t know how to farm rice.   The rice fields gave way to freshwater marshes that became a haven for wintering waterfowl.  In 1927 the federal government bought the land and declared it a National Wildlife Refuge.  Federal maintenance workers still operate the rice field trunks that control the flow and level of water for the benefit of wild plants.  The aquatic vegetation provides a bounty of food for wintering ducks.

Recess Plantation Trail.  It’s over 3 miles long and is simply an old rice dike.  Birdlife abounds.

Vegetation is lush and includes giant cutgrass, giant plume grass, wild rice, cattails, bamboo cane, lilly pads, and arrowleaf, among many other species of plants.

A thick stand of arrowleaf (Sagitteria).  Also known as duck potato, in the fall and winter it produces an underground tuber that allegedly tastes similar to new potatoes.  It was an important food of Native Americans.

The SWR also protects a still extant cypress swamp on the Georgia side of the Savannah River, but this part is accessible only via boat.  Last Monday, I visited the readily accessible South Carolina side.  The 4 mile long Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive is a road that crosses the top of an old rice dike.  Lush, year round vegetation grows in the wet fields.  The flora is dominated by giant cutgrass, giant plume grass, cattails, wild rice (yes, the edible gourmet grain), and arrowleaf.  I was going to harvest some wild rice, but it grows in deep water surrounded by alligators.  (It wasn’t until after I read the visitor center’s brochure that I realized harvesting plants was against refuge rules.)  Many of the aquatic plants are edible for humans as well as birds. 

Even though I visited the refuge at a bad time of day and year, I saw lots of birdlife.  The first bird I saw was an especially exciting find–an immature roseate spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja).  The bill on this species is unmistakable, but according to bird guides it lives no farther north than south Florida.  I couldn’t get close enough for a photo, but other birders have seen and photographed this species in South Carolina and Georgia, so it must be expanding its range.  Below is a photo of a roseate spoonbill taken in South Carolina by another birder.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate spoonbills develop pink feathers from eating shrimp.  The immature ones are pure white. It feeds on small animals by using its spoonbill to sift through shallow water.

Swallows (I think tree swallows, but they never stay still enough for positive ID), red-winged blackbirds, and cattle egrets were the most common birds.  I saw several purple gallinules–along with the roseate spoonbill another species I’d never seen before.  Though this chicken-sized rail can fly, they more frequently escape danger by running across lilly pads, diving into water, or climbing into ditch-side bushes.

A purple gallinule (Ionornis martinica).  Click to enlarge and examine the bottom center of the photo.  I saw or heard about 16 species of birds in little over an hour about noon on a hot August day.  The best time for bird-watching in the SWR is during the winter when over 20 species of ducks migrate here.  The flocks attract hunting bald eagles.

Other birds on my checklist for the 90 minutes I was inside the refuge include eastern kingbirds, mourning doves, great egrets, little blue herons, a small unidentified heron or bittern, double crested cormorants, a clapper rail (I think), an unidentified duck, and turkey vultures.

Spanish moss clinging from a live oak.  An island in the middle of the marsh supports a maritime forest of live oaks, palms, and loblolly pines.  This is the only place in the refuge where mosquitoes bothered us.

A live oak  growing on the island.  Grass is growing out of the ancient cistern that rests in front of this tree.  The cistern is the sole surviving relic from the days of rice cultivation.  Archaeologists think gutters from the roofs of 4 slave houses led to the cistern.  The slaves who cultivated the rice lived on the island which is the only dry land in the marsh.  After the Civil War and the collapse of slavery, rice farming in South Carolina died.  No white southerners knew how to cultivate rice.

The only reptiles I saw were 2 alligators, and I could hear bullfrogs.  Reportedly, cottonmouth water moccasins and banded water snakes are common here.

Click to enlarge the photo and look for the 5-8 foot gator swimming in the canal.

Lilly pad covered expanse of water.

I didn’t arrive early enough in the day to see mammals which are more likely to emerge at night, but the refuge is reported to be home for bobcats, mink, otter, raccoons, rice rats, and marsh rabbits.  Habitat such as this artificially maintained marsh would be ideal for some now extinct aquatic species of Pleistocene mammals–giant beavers (Casteroides ohioensis), 2 different species of capybaras (Neochoreus and Hydrochoreus), and mastodons (Mammut americanum).  Fossil specimens from these species have been recovered locally, suggesting that open marsh environments did exist in the region long before men could have felled the cypress swamps.  Dramatic climate fluctuations must have been the primary force creating marshy habitat where cypress swamps later dominated.  I propose that alternating wet and dry climate cycles caused a varying combination of drought, fire, windstorms, and flood, resulting in these pre-historic marshes.  These are not unlike the factors influencing the make-up of the current day Okefenokee Swamp where marshland is interspersed with cypress swamps.

The Laurel Hill Drive Exit.  A park maintenance worker had just mowed here, stirring up insects, and attacting cattle egrets which were one of the most visibly common birds in the refuge.  An extinct species of stork was likely the Pleistocene ecological counterpart to the cattle egret.

Map of the South Carolina part of the Savannah Wildlife Refuge.  Laurel Hill Drive is off 170, not 17 as erroneously reported on other online sites.  Make sure you approach the refuge from Savannah to see the view from on top of the Herman Talmadge memorial bridge.  The refuge from this vantage point looks like an African savannah.

Tybee Island Avifauna

We stayed at the Howard Johnson Hotel on Tybee Island the night before out trip through the SWR.  It gave me a little time to survey the avifauna on this narrow barrier island east of Savannah, Georgia.   Along the beach laughing gulls, herring gulls, and boat-tailed grackles abound.  Mourning doves and dusky seaside sparrows forage in the dunes immediately behind the beach.  This was the first time I’d ever seen the latter species.  The literature states that dusky seaside sparrows (Ammospiza maritima) occupy a narrow niche, living  in salt marshes and beach dunes.  Unlike most species of sparrows which feed mainly on grass seeds, dusky seaside sparrows eat snails, fiddler crabs, and other animal matter.  However, I saw them feeding on sea oat grains.  I surveyed 2 other sea birds–brown pelicans and a least tern (I think).  On the inland part of the island I saw city pigeons, starlings, and a cardinal.

AJ’s Dockside Restaurant 

We ate supper at AJ’s Dockside Restaurant.  It offers a great view of a small dock and a large salt marsh.  Dolphins and schools of mullet are probably often seen in the inlet behind the back patio where we ate, but I didn’t see any.  My fried flounder po’ boy was delicious.  My daughter ordered grilled pork chops.  The chops were good, but I must say they were served with the worst hushpuppies I ever ate in my life.  They were dense and doughy.  Hushpuppies should be light and airy.  AJ’s needs to change the recipe they use for hushpuppies.  Stick to the po’boys.  They’re good and won’t bankrupt you.

View from AJ’s Dockside Restaurant.

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2 Responses to “The Savannah Wildlife Refuge”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    What were the bugs like? I assume they weren’t bad because you didn’t mention them. One reason I tend to steer clear of the low county in summer is that the biting insects are so bad.

    From what I’ve read it wasn’t that the owners of the rice plantations couldn’t figure out how to grow and harvest the rice, but that they couldn’t pay anyone enough to engage in the difficult work. Only with slaves–who were forced to do it for free–could it be done profitably. But paying someone? No takers for the kind of pay that would have left a profit.

    I wonder if the marsh would trend back toward cypress again? Or if the series of dikes and such would make that difficult?

    That’s a place that I need to visit. Missed it when I actually lived in that area.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    We went about noon and the hot sun must’ve driven the mosquitoes away from the open area. The only place where the mosquitoes bothered us was on the island that hosted a maritime forest. This is location of the Cistern Trail which is very short.

    I did get bitten by a fire ant while standing on one of the dikes.

    The best time to go is winter. That’s when ducks migrate there. There are supposed to be bald eagles here too.

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