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  • Writer's pictureKaren Hogan

Georgia NWR Trip December 2018

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

We visited 3 National Wildlife Refuges during our December 2018 Trip including Okefenokee and Banks Lake in Georgia and Savannah National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.

Karen and Teresa at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, December 29, 2018

Friday December 28, 2018 drive from Chapel Hill, NC to Folkston, GA

Karen asked if we could delay our National Wildlife Refuge Trip during the December holidays until after Christmas, she planned to spend Christmas with her Son’s family in Richmond Hill, GA. My goal for 2018, observe and report the most species of birds in the state of Kentucky. I had been birding with the some of the top eBirders in Kentucky the past 6 months traveling to counties all over the state of Kentucky to get rare and infrequent birds. A couple of local birders had 300 species, I was at 256 species and hoped to get a few more species before the end of the year, so the delay for the start of our trip worked for me. Karen and I decided we could visit a couple National Wildlife Refuges in Georgia between December 26, 2018 and January 1, 2019. Unable to drop off Abner, my dog at the kennel on Wednesday December 26, I decided to head to Chapel Hill on Thursday December 27th. I dropped off Abner at the kennel early Thursday morning then headed to Chapel Hill. I arrived in Chapel Hill, NC Thursday night. We began our drive to southern Georgia on Friday December 28th. Karen reserved a cabin at Pastime Cabins, RV and campground across the road from the east entrance to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Headed down highway 95 on Friday morning we were ready for the 7 hour drive on a major highway for most of the trip, only requiring us to drive on 2 lane country roads the last hour. The Pastime Campground asked folks to arrive by 8 pm or arrangements would need to be made for a late arrival. There were so many folks on the road, the section of 95 through South Carolina has only 2 south bound lanes and heavy rain storms slowed traffic to a crawl going only 20-40 miles per hour. Notifying the campground of our possible late arrival, we checked our GPS for detours and took one that shaved off an hour of our drive. The heavy rain the last 4 hours was exhausting and I finally took over driving from Karen. We had left Karen’s house at 9:30 am and arrived at the Campground at 7:40 pm, an unnerving 10 hour drive we hope to never repeat. Already dark the manager at the campground escorted us to our cabin that was actually a tiny house that would be our home for the next 3 nights. The ground around the cabin was covered with large puddles of water from the heavy rain and the sound of spring peepers filled the air. It was very dark at the camp ground making it difficult to see while we moved our gear from our car to the cabin but we were pleased the campground was very conscious of light pollution, requiring us to turn off all outside lights if not being used.

Glad to be indoors on this extremely wet night and especially happy that our tiny house had indoor pumping including a shower, toilet and a shared kitchen/bathroom sink. Checking Yelp for fast food or restaurants we headed to Folkston, only 8 miles away but a 20 minute drive on the wet country roads. In Folkston we filled the car with gasoline and got groceries at Harvey’s Grocery Store. We purchased can soups and microwave meals, enough for the next 3 days, just as the Grocery store was closing at 9 pm.

Saturday December 29, 2018 Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Tired from our exhausting drive we did not set our smart phones for an early wake up time. We were both up early anyway but took our time enjoying a leisurely breakfast on the tiny screened porch of our tiny house. Arriving at the first hike at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge by 9 am, our cabin was right across the road to the entrance of the refuge and a 3 minute drive to this Phernetton Trailhead. This first hike was through the wet Longleaf Pine Savannah and we observed many Eastern Bluebirds and heard many Brown-headed Nuthatches along the trail. Missing the first left turn on the trail we waded through some water covering the path. Unexpectedly, the path ended at a freshly prepared trail. The new path went both left and right but it looked suspicious and Karen hesitated. Not sure which way to go I headed left but as I took my first steps I went knee deep in thick sticky mud. As I tried to pull my feet out, I realized I was stuck and I could feel myself moving deeper into the mud with each tug. Suddenly, I remembered some “quick sand” survival instructions, I began shaking one leg and foot, the first boot was released from the suction of the sticky mud and I was able to pull it out. Karen positioned herself so I could hold onto her for balance as I shook the other leg and foot, releasing the second boot from the thick mud trap. Headed back to the car we saw the turn we originally missed and were excited to continue on the actual trail that crossed the Suwannee Canal Road and eventually looped back to our car at the Kiosk for the Phernetton Trailhead. We spent about an hour on the Phernetton Trail. Another trail that originated from the kiosk was the 4 mile trail along the Suwannee Canal Road but decided we would hike this trail only if we had time.

Birding along lakes in Kentucky the past month I had been freezing even with three to four layers. Hard to believe I could ever be warm again I packed winter clothes for this trip even though Karen told me the forecast was for the daytime temperatures to be around 70 degrees. This morning I put on my double layers that I would later regret when I began to sweat and finally had to remove several layers.

To access the rest of the National Wildlife Refuge from this east entrance there was a booth for purchasing an entrance pass but our duck stamp displayed in the front window allowed us to enter without purchasing a pass. From our cabin to the Visitor Center was 4.2 miles, about an 8 minute drive. Glad the grounds to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge were open during the federal government shutdown but disheartened when we thought about the employees that were furloughed or working without a pay check. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center was closed because of the shutdown with a sign posted on the door. The Okefenokee Adventure Center next to the National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center was open and offered boat rides down the Suwannee Canal and through the Chesser Prairie. Before our boat ride at 11:30 am we had time to grab some delicious lunch at the Adventure Center Café. Our boat had 16 occupants mainly families with children all under 10 years old. We were the only birders on the boat but several folks were interested in the Bald Eagles we spotted in the distance trees. We were glad to be able to share our binoculars so everyone could get a better look of the Eagles. It was great to watch these families sharing the excitement of being outdoors, experiencing nature and seeing Barred Owls, Red-shouldered Hawks, Bald Eagles and alligators. Our boat trip was 1.5 hrs with a great driver and guide we learned a lot about the canal, the watery prairies and the wildlife that lives in the habitat provided by Okefenokee Swamp.

Established in 1937 Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the Eastern United States with over 403,000 acres. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge protects and conserves the unique qualities of the approximately 7000 year old Okefenokee Swamp. The 438,00 acre Okefenokee Swamp is a vast peat-filled bog inside a huge saucer-shaped depression. The entire swamp is covered with an average of 5-10 feet of peat beds that overlay the sand floor. Peat forms when organic plant material decomposes in the water. It takes approximately 50 years to form 1 inch of peat at the base of the swamp. The dark tea color of the swamp water is due to tannic acid, derived from dissolved vegetative material and peat. The name of the Okefenokee Swamp is derived from Choctaw Indian words meaning "quivering earth" or "Land of the Trembling Earth" as the unstable peat masses of the swamp sometimes move or tremble.

The 280 mile long Suwannee River is the main outlet of the swamp that flows from the west side of the swamp and empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Cedar Key, Florida. Habitats at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge include shrub swamp, mixed cypress forest, prairies, pure cypress forest, swamp islands, blackgum forest and bay forest that provide homes for threatened and endangered species, such as red-cockaded woodpecker, wood storks and indigo snakes.  The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is known for its amphibian populations, bio-indicators of global health. During the late 1800s the Suwannee Canal was dug to drain the Okefenokee Swamp to allow logging and crop cultivation. The canal project from 1891-1893 was abandoned after 112 miles of canal were completed into the swamp. Over 400 million feet of timber, mostly cypress, were removed from the swamp from 1909-1927.

During our boat trip we saw many folks kayaking and canoeing along the canal. The Adventures Center rents John boats for folks with their own motors. There were John boats docked with motors but those were reserved and used for groups doing bird counts. The Center also rents kayaks and canoes.

Along the auto drive we heard Carolina Wrens and Yellow-rumped Warblers. There were many Longleaf Pine Trees marked with the familiar white paint bands to identify those trees as Red-cockaded Woodpecker nesting trees.

Many tourist were visiting the refuge today and we skipped the homestead visitor area and headed straight to the boardwalk. Many families were checking out the sights along the boardwalk including Alligators, frogs and hawks. We could hear several Sedge Wrens along the path and hoped to see more when we returned first thing in the morning. Karen was able to get a Song Sparrow in her scope just as one of the families from the boat past by our position on the boardwalk, once again it was great to share a birding experience with these families enjoying nature and the outdoors. Several people stopped to ask us what we were seeing and we told them about the Palm Warblers and Sedge Wrens moving in the low bushes, the Red shouldered Hawks sitting in the trees and the Sandhill Cranes flying overhead and trumpeting in the distance. Pleased to see so many folks enjoying this amazing boardwalk through the Okefenokee Swamp. Taking our time observing and listening to birds along the boardwalk we were the last viewers to reach the 4 story platform. Alone on the platform, I had mixed feelings as we observed an American Bittern standing in the tall marsh grasses. Disappointed we couldn’t share this great vantage point for observing the Great Egrets and Sandhill Cranes with Karen’s scope. There was a scope mounted on the top level of the platform but it was likely folks did not know to look for the distant feeding Sandhill Cranes. The trees on the back side of the tower were covered in Spanish moss, giving the feel of the Swiss family Robinson tree house. Leaving the boardwalk by 4 pm we remembered the sign at the entrance of the auto-drive that posted the auto-drive closed at 5 pm. Moving quickly we planned to be out by 5 pm and were surprised to see the gate already closed at 4:50 pm, Karen tensed until she saw the gate automatically open to let us exit. Not ready to leave this beautiful National Wildlife Refuge we headed back to the large main parking lot for the Refuge Visitor Center and the Adventure Center. There was a trail head just behind the boat dock area and we hiked the 0.3 mile Cane Pole Trail as the sun was setting and bathing the Suwannee Canal and the Messer Prairie in beautiful light for some great photos. After posing for our first selfies of the day we finally headed back to our car. A group was packing up their kayaks on a trailer, not the last to leave the area we headed to our cabin, passing through the second automatic gate, this one at the Refuge entrance. It was dusk when we returned to our cabin, we heated up our microwave meals and enjoyed eating dinner on the tiny screened porch of our tiny house surrounded by the sounds of the night including the chorus of peepers.

During the night I couldn’t sleep. I ate the desserts we had bought at Whole Foods in Chapel Hill and wrote this first part of our story for this trip. Karen barely awake at one point asked me why I was making so much noise. It wasn’t me but I understood her concern as the roof of the cabin was making popping and cracking sounds. It wasn’t raining, we considered an animal but the cabin did not have an attic for a critter to roam. Later we decided it must have been the tin roof contracting as it cooled in the night air.

Sunday December 30, 2018 Okefenokee and Banks lake National Wildlife Refuge

Up early we had breakfast on the tiny front porch and then headed to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Drive and Boardwalk. The Wildlife Drive was beautiful early in the morning as the fog filled in the space between each Longleaf Pine Tree and then reflected an identical imagine in the ponds for some great photo opportunities. We spent about 2 hours on the Boardwalk and checked out the 4 story platform before heading out. We drove back to the the Adventure Center to purchase some food for our lunch and then headed to Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge that was on the west side of Okefenokee NWR about 90 miles away a 1 hr and 45 minute drive.

We visited Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge dock area and spent time birding along the 1/3 mile hiking trail. Many folks were fishing on the dock and launching boats into the lake.

Established in 1985 Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge lies in the Grand Bay–Banks Lake ecosystem, an area that comprises the second-largest freshwater wetland system in Georgia. Banks Lake, a shallow blackwater lake was formed when the Carolina Bay was damned over 150 years ago. Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge has 3,559 acres with a variety of habitats including cypress swamp, freshwater marsh, uplands and open water.

There are five entrances to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge including the Main Entrance - Suwannee Canal Recreation Area (Folkston), Secondary East Entrance - Kingfisher Landing (Between Folkston and Waycross). West Entrance - Stephen C. Foster State Park (Fargo). Secondary West Entrance - Suwannee River Sill (Fargo). North Entrance - Okefenokee Swamp Park (Waycross).

After visiting Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge we had enough daylight hours to make a quick visit to the west entrance of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Stephen Foster State Park. This west entrance is managed cooperatively between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and provides many opportunities for visitors including: boat trails, fishing, motorboat and canoe rentals, guided boat tours, camp store, cabins, tent campsites, and RV campsites(reservations required).

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has been designated as a Wetland of International Importance because it is one of the most intact freshwater ecosystems in the world. The refuge uses prescribed burns to reduce hazardous fuels and maintain the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. The Longleaf Pine ecosystem once covered more than 90 million acres in the southeastern United States but today only 3% of these pine forest remain.

We headed back for our last night at our tiny house at Pastime Campground.

Monday December 31, 2018 Savannah National Wildlife Refuge

As we headed back to Chapel Hill we checked eBird for good hotspots along the way home. We stopped at Jekyll Island in Georgia and Savannah National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. We drove the 5 mile Laurel Hill Wildlife Dr. at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and reported 44 species of birds including 8 species of duck. Most of the ducks that were visible along the Wildlife Drive during our late afternoon visit were Ring-necked Ducks and Ruddy Ducks. We were excited to observed 10 Wood Storks and 6 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

Refuges Visited during this trip

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, GA December 29, 2018, December 30, 2018

Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge, GA December 30, 2018

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, SC December 31, 2018

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