Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Search for an elusive bird

Last summer my sister and her family moved to northeast Georgia and, for a break, this past weekend I accompanied my mother for our first visit to their new home.  My second goal was to search for Swainson's Warbler.  Prior to our departure, I did some research on the best locations to find Swainson's.  I identified three locations where I hoped to have luck.  Two of the locations were in Athens, Georgia and the other was nearly a four hour drive to just outside Columbia, South Carolina - Congaree National Park.  

I was inspired by an incredible 2007 You Tube video of a singing Swainson's Warbler found at Congaree National Park.  A park bird list described Swainson's Warbler as being a common bird here.  Hmmm? For these reasons the national park was a late add-on that would require significant driving time.  But, I thought it would be worth it.

After my unsuccessful Friday afternoon visit to Congaree National Park to see Swainson's Warbler - although I did hear two birds, one distant and one close - I returned early Saturday morning to hike the Kingsnake Trail for a second try.  I had spoken with a park ranger who commented that this was the location for Swainson's Warbler.  Last summer the park hosted a researcher who had selected some more remote areas of the park to conduct Swainson's Warbler research.  The ranger did not know the researcher's data, but he pointed out on the map the area of the park where he had spent most of his time.  

I arrived around 6:40 am and was the first car in the Cedar Creek canoe access parking lot.  No other birders, or anyone else, on the trail.  The Kingsnake trailhead is quite remote and, being on my own, I was unprepared for this.  I didn't necessarily feel unsafe, but it was spooky and I allowed my imagination to run a little wild.  I imagined wild boar that the south is so famous for inhabiting the swamp and coming upon me alone on the trail.  I think the photo below offers a good idea of the beautiful, but forbidding, habitat.

Barred Owls, Pileated Woodpeckers, Acadian Flycatchers and Northern Parula abound in the swamp forest.  Our backyard birds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals and Tufted Titmice are also very common in the depths of the forest.  Both cuckoos called. Summer Tanagers pikki, tikki, tukked.  I walked from the "L" bridge to the "K" bridge before deciding to call it quits.  Overall, I saw many birds on Saturday morning and heard one Swainson's Warbler briefly.  My calculation to visit Congaree caused me to do a lot of driving to not see my target bird. Nevertheless, I'm glad I visited Congaree National Park to see the cyprus swamp habitat.  It's easy to see how one would have insurmountable difficulty finding Ivory-billed Woodpecker in this kind of habitat - apparently, they once inhabited this area.

By the time I arrived back to the parking lot it was filled with the cars of canoers who were portaging their canoes and kayaks down to the slow moving water.  Time for me to drive back to Georgia - Athens this time - for the other two locations I selected for my search.

I arrived in Athens early Saturday afternoon and birded The State Botanial Garden of Georgia.  Very nice place of both planned gardens and natural gardens with woods on the Oconee River.  This location is listed as an IBA for breeding Swainson's Warblers.  There were birds here, but I didn't see or hear one Swainson's Warbler.

The map above is a photograph of a trail sign at my final search location, Sandy Creek Nature Center where Swainson's Warblers had been reported on eBird the previous April and May.  This was ten minutes drive from my hotel and it was easy to get an early morning start.  Except for a dog walker, I was the only one in the park. Construction work was being done on the visitor center and main parking lot.  The habitat didn't look right and this dampened my hopes. But I stumbled on to the Cook's Trail that was accessed by walking under Highway 441.  This trail was along a slow moving boggy river so at least the habitat improved.

I'm not good at estimating distance when walking, but the trail seemed to go on and on and while there were birds around; a few Ovenbirds, plenty of Hooded Warblers, Carolina Wrens, Brown Thrashers, cardinals,  and titmice, I did not hear Swainson's Warbler.  I was discouraged and several times considered calling it quits.  I came to the end of a very long boardwalk and the trail continued along a dirt path.

I walked along the dirt trail.  A small bridge crossed the river and the trail resumed on the other side of the river.  More walking. Suddenly, up ahead, a singing Swainson's Warbler.  I woke up.

It seemed close.  Recalling my experience at Congaree where I heard the bird, but could not see it, I prepared to record the song.  I moved toward the singing - the bird seemed so close.  I angled for a better position and began recording.  Don't look for the bird in the above video link.  You'll only hear its loud song.  With the song recorded, I concentrated on trying to see the bird.  I maneuvered through thick brambles and vines. Not exactly a quiet effort.  The bird moved.  I repositioned myself back on the trail for a second try.  I repeated this same strategy over and over as the bird flew and sang around a fairly large territory on both sides of the river.  This went on for about an hour.  Finally, I saw the bird fly over the trail - a blur.  But it began its singing again in a near and relatively open area - just a few brambles to plow through - and I could stand upright.  It was so close.  I began to play its own song back from my camera.  Silence.  The bird had moved to its most distant spot yet to resume singing.

I gave up, satisfied finally that I had recorded the singing and had seen its blur fly over the trail.  I haven't decided yet whether I'll include the singing Swainson's on my life list.  Typically, I only count well seen birds - but I have included a couple of heard birds, Black Rail and Chuck-will's Widow.  I do feel like I worked for it.  My legs have the insect bites, bramble scratches and one small patch of poison ivy to prove it.

Remarkably, on the walk back, I heard three more Swainson's Warblers.  None were closer than the one I tried so hard to see.  I continued walking.  If my sister continues to live in Georgia, the Sandy Creek Nature Center is closeby for another visit.  I ended my search for the elusive Swainson's Warbler - partially successful.      


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