Sometimes I think that I was born in the wrong geographic region, and that I might have been better suited to life in the south, in the lowcountry, between the rivers and the coast, or in the heart of swampland. I say this not because I dislike living in Pennsylvania, but because wherever I go, on any trip I take, I always seem to end up standing in a swamp at sunrise.
When I return to Vermont, it’s the West Rutland Marsh. In Binghamton, it was the University’s Nature Preserve Boardwalk. In Chincoteague, it’s the barrier islands salt marsh. And in Savannah, on our second day in town, while my wife was spending the morning at a spa I drove across the Savannah River into South Carolina and toured the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.
Savannah NWR is large, covering over 29k acres that was historically home to at least 13 rice plantations. It’s now a managed wildlife area, employing some of the original plantation technology to manage the flow of water through wooden gates and dikes. And for me, the highlight was the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive, a 4-mile dirt road that winds through the southern section of the NWR and provides access to a wide range of habitats and critters.
This is the sort of photography setup that I love. The light is good, varied habitats are right at hand, and you know there is going to be wildlife there, since the landscape is actively managed to attract and support it. Creeping along in the car and using it as a mobile blind, the wildlife is less likely to be spooked, and it isn’t uncommon to round a bend and find birds right along the roadside.
I made my trip later in the day than I would have liked, closer to 10am, which is a little past prime, with the light becoming a bit harsher than is idea. Still, I was able to spend over an hour traveling along the Drive and capturing a range of photos, including images of several new species for my life list. Moorhens, Egrets, Ibis, American Bittern, Tricolor Herons, and a few others. It was a good haul, and even with the Stylus 1 I was able to zoom in far enough to capture acceptable-quality photos.
I even got out and wandered a few times, including following the brick-paved trail down past an old plantation cistern to the wildlife blind. Like every other wildlife blind I’ve ever visited, this one was infested with either wasps or mud-daubers and offered a view of the marsh with no wildlife in sight. I only stayed for a moment, but managed to find and photograph a lizard on my walk back to the Jeep, which made the whole thing worthwhile.
On my previous visit to Savannah, ten years ago, I recall seeing egrets all over the place and was surprised to have seen none thus far on my trip. Even as I made my way into the NWR, I only came across two or three of them at a distance. Turns out that’s because every egret within 500 miles was concentrated in the same shallow pool, about midway through the refuge. I emerged from a hardwood hammock and there they were – so many egrets in the same spot that it was impossible to isolate individuals and all of my photos ended up with a dozen or more at once.
It was a remarkable find, and I sat there for some time working on angles through the reeds. Interestingly, when I returned several days later the egrets were still concentrated in the same spot, however their pristine white ranks had been invaded by short, glossy-dark ibises, who moved around them in an almost frantic motion and with similar numbers.
Whatever the conditions of that pool, they were clearly ideal for feeding, and I can only assume that there was a great deal of food concentrated there that drew these birds to congregate.
Or course, there were gators too!
I stopped at the Visitor Center after I finished my driving circuit. The information displays were small but very well done and spoke to the battle between fresh and saltwater, the tidal forces at work, and the NWR’s role in managing them. There was a short but well-done informational video as well.
These were tax dollars put to good use, and I was very happy that I’d found the refuge so close to Savannah and was able to visit. Both my drives through were fruitful, and rank among my favorite parts of by trip.
Shooting Info: Olympus Stylus 1, Av mode. f/2.8 – f/4, ISO 100 or 200.