By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Georgia birders can choose from spectacular destinations, including the vast swamp of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in the south and the high-elevation peaks of the southern Appalachian Mountains in the north.
The coast may be the highlight of the state’s natural history, though. A high percentage of Georgia’s coastline remains undeveloped, free of beach houses and hotels, still home to shorebirds and songbirds. Many of the state’s top birding sites are found on or near the Atlantic shore.
Georgia is lucky to have several national wildlife refuges protecting a variety of habitats, ranging from wetlands to woodlands. Wildlife drives and hiking trails make it easy to explore these areas.
From the urban environs of Atlanta to the lonely beaches of a barrier island, the Peach State offers boundless opportunities to encounter all sorts of birdlife, from Anhingas and Purple Gallinules to Common Ravens and Canada Warblers.
Georgia Birding Hotspots
Only ten minutes east of Interstate 95, this 2,800-acre coastal refuge offers excellent birding year-round. With a mix of saltwater marsh, managed freshwater ponds, fields, and maritime forests, Harris Neck has a bird species list of more than 260, putting it among the top sites in Georgia.
The refuge is best known for nesting wading birds of more than a dozen species, but especially for its colony of Wood Storks, a bird that has declined over much of its North American range. The main breeding area at Woody Pond and other refuge wetlands also host Anhinga, Least Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black-Crowned Night-Heron, White Ibis, and Glossy Ibis.
The refuge is on the site of a former military airfield, and the four-mile auto tour loop in part utilizes an old runway. Driving the loop and hiking some of the 15 miles of trails could yield sightings of other nesting species such as Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Osprey, Clapper Rail, Purple Gallinule, Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Orchard Oriole. The refuge’s most famous breeding songbird is the Painted Bunting, a bird whose gaudy colors make it a favorite even among non-birders.
Harris Neck doesn’t lose its appeal in winter. All those wetlands host a wide variety of waterfowl and the brushy fields are home to wrens and sparrows.
This seven-mile-long barrier island has the highest species total of any Georgia birding site, topping 300. It also has a fascinating history, having once been the Jekyll Island Club, where wealthy families, including the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, had vacation houses. Today it’s managed by the state of Georgia and offers various vacation facilities including a campground and hotels.
Jekyll Island’s bird richness comes from marshes where waterfowl and wading birds gather, beaches and mudflats for shorebirds, Atlantic Ocean seabirds, gulls, and terns, and its coastal location in the path of all sorts of migrant species.
The six-mile-long causeway to the island passes through extensive salt marsh where the number of wading birds and shorebirds varies with the tide. Wood Stork and Osprey may be seen here any time of year, along with Roseate Spoonbill in summer. In winter, Marsh Wren, Nelson’s Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Seaside Sparrow may be present. Look for signs designating birding observation areas.
The southern tip of Jekyll Island is one of most famous birding sites in Georgia, with possibilities such as sea ducks (winter), Northern Gannet (winter), shorebirds including American Avocet and American Oystercatcher, jaegers (winter), gulls, and terns. Many rarities have appeared here over the years, including Common Eider and Great Shearwater. One point of access is the boardwalk at the soccer fields leading to the beach and areas to the south.
In migration any patch of woods may hold interesting songbirds. Merlin and Peregrine Falcon are regular migrants. Gray Kingbird is resident from April through September.
This 35,000-acre refuge about 25 miles north of Macon is one of the best all-around birding sites in inland Georgia. It encompasses pine and hardwood forest, with some ponds and wetland areas to add to the diversity.
The refuge has about 50 miles of gravel roads for visitors, including a six-mile route designated as the Little Rock Wildlife Drive. Some roads and refuge tracts may be closed at times or access restricted during hunting seasons.
One notable refuge resident is Red-cockaded Woodpecker, an endangered species that nests in mature pine forest with open understory. The refuge manages pine woods for the benefit of this woodpecker. Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow can also be found in this habitat.
Nesting birds here include Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Orchard Oriole. Piedmont is a good spot for migrant songbirds, and has a total bird list of roughly 180 species.
Atlanta-area birders revere this park as one of the most productive sites in the region for migrant birds in spring and fall. It was the first spot in Georgia to be designated an Audubon Important Bird Area.
Although 18 miles of trails wind through the 2,965-acre park, the usual birding strategy is very simple: walk up the 1.2-mile paved road and back down again, watching the trees for vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and other songbirds. Though seeing, for instance, a Blackburnian Warbler usually involves a neck-straining look up into treetop, the terrain here means that treetops beside the road are often at eye level, offering a unique vantage that makes it easier to locate the birds.
It is not unusual to find more than 20 species of warblers on a good morning here from mid-April to early May. The day after a storm front moves through is often the ideal time. Fall migration isn’t as spectacular as the spring movement, but it’s still good.
Kennesaw Mountain is known as a very reliable spot to see migrant Cerulean Warbler, a species that has been in decline all across its range in recent decades. Late April is best for this bird. The park visitor center can provide a local bird checklist.
These two sites are located south of downtown Atlanta, about 12 miles from the airport. The Huie facility comprises large water-treatment ponds ringed by roads where birders can drive. (Take care not to interfere with work trucks.) More than 210 species have been seen here; migrant shorebirds and wintering waterfowl are on the most-wanted list of many visiting birders.
Most of the ducks are dabblers such as Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, and Green-winged Teal, but, over the years, unusual species such as Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and White-winged Scoter have shown up. Shorebird numbers peak in late April and July-August, with 29 species having been recorded overall.
Two miles east, the Newman Wetlands Center has walking trails that pass through wetlands and wooded areas on a 32-acre tract that includes a learning center. The varied habitats have led to more than 200 species of birds recorded here.
This site can be excellent in migration, and hosts various waterbirds such as ducks, waders, and shorebirds. Summer breeders and residents include Wood Duck, Green Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-headed Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Summer Tanager.
This enormous refuge (more than 620 square miles) is one of the continent’s most magnificent natural areas, a place of bald-cypress swamp, wet prairie, and pine forest. It’s inhabited by alligators, black bears, bobcats, and more than 230 kinds of birds, including some rare and beautiful species.
Okefenokee doesn’t get lot of attention from birders in part because road and hiking access is very limited—only a few relatively small areas around the edges of the swamp can be accessed on land. Yet it’s well worth a birding visit to experience even a bit of this wondrous wilderness. Of course, those willing to venture into the Okefenokee in a canoe, for a day trip or a multiday camping trip, will have a more intimate look.
Visit the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area southwest of Folkston, and be sure to enjoy the excellent exhibits in the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center. The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests in this area in mature longleaf pines. Keep a close look out for it on the Swamp Island Drive here; nest trees are often marked with white rings. In the pines you might also find Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pine Warbler, and Bachman’s Sparrow.
The nearby Chesser Island boardwalk leads 4,000 feet into the swamp to an observation tower. Open views of the forest are the result of a massive wildfire here in 2011. Birds to look for include Wood Duck, Anhinga, wading birds like White Ibis, Swallow-tailed Kite (rare but possible in spring), Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, Sandhill Crane, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, and Prothonotary Warbler.
On the western side of the refuge, a new access point has been opened at a site called the Suwanee River Sill. The entrance road is located on Highway 177 on the route to Stephen C. Foster State Park. The road runs for about 1.5 miles alongside wetlands, and hiking trails continue at the end.
The Altamaha River reaches the Atlantic Ocean in a maze of channels and islands, a vast wetland area important to migratory waterfowl and other birds. The Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, on Highway 17 just south of Darien, and ranks among the most productive birding areas in Georgia for waterfowl, wading birds, rails, shorebirds, and a wide variety of other species.
The area is located on what was an antebellum rice plantation. The former rice fields are now managed to attract and feed waterfowl and shorebirds.
Side roads off Highway 17 reach several different units of the area. To access most of them requires a Georgia Outdoor Recreational Pass. For newcomers, it’s best to call the office in advance to ask about the pass and determine if a visit will fall during hunting season. One popular site is an observation tower at the Ansley Hodges M.A.R.S.H. Project; another is a nearby hiking trail that encircles wetlands.
A few of the birds that might be found here are Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Wood Stork, Anhinga, American Bittern (winter), Least Bittern (summer), Roseate Spoonbill (summer), Osprey, Bald Eagle, four species of rails, Purple Gallinule (summer), Black-necked Stilt (summer), Gull-billed Tern (summer), Marsh Wren, and Painted Bunting.
The Appalachian Mountains stretch into northern Georgia, creating habitats very different from the state’s bald-cypress swamps and coastal marshes. Among their summits is 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak, within the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Birders visit Brasstown Bald (less than eight miles from the North Carolina state line) in late spring and summer to find “northern” species with very limited breeding ranges in Georgia. Around the parking area, trails, and visitor center at the top are Ruffed Grouse, Blue-headed Vireo, Common Raven, Winter Wren, Veery, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Dark-eyed Junco.
The three-mile road up to the summit from Highway 180 has several roadside pullouts where birders can stop. Along the way as well as at the top might be found Broad-winged Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
For those who want to avoid the crowds at Brasstown Bald, Rabun Bald, 30 miles east, hosts many of the same birds. The summit is reached by a strenuous 2.3-mile hike, and actually has a better panoramic view than does the higher peak.
Most of the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge is located west of the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, but the 1,000-acre Bradley Unit is on the Georgia side. It can be accessed by a side road off Highway 39, about nine miles north of Georgetown.
No vehicles are allowed; visitors must park at a gate at the end of the half-mile entrance road and then walk levees around wetland impoundments. Various loops are possible of up to five or six miles, though you can also walk out and back without going that far. A spotting scope is handy for best viewing, especially in winter.
Winter is probably the most popular birding time at the refuge. Twenty-two species of waterfowl are on the Bradley Unit bird list, including Greater White-fronted Goose (occasional) and Canvasback. Other winter possibilities include American Bittern, Bald Eagle, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Sandhill Crane, Barn Owl, and many sparrows including Le Conte’s.
Species seen in breeding season or throughout the year include Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Wood Stork (late summer and fall), Anhinga, Least Bittern, many wading birds including Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and White Ibis, Osprey, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Common Ground-Dove, Prothonotary Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Blue Grosbeak. The total bird list for the Bradley Unit is about 215 species.
The barrier island and beach town of Tybee Island is a popular birding destination from fall through spring. Located just east of Savannah at the mouth of the river of the same name, it’s known for sea ducks, shorebirds, gulls, and terns.
The North Beach area is the most popular birding spot, with a list of more than 210 species. Park near the iconic black-and-white Tybee Island lighthouse.
Some noteworthy possible birds: all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Northern Gannet, Osprey, Bald Eagle, American Oystercatcher, Piping Plover, Red Knot, Great Black-backed Gull, and Black Skimmer. Tybee is the best place in Georgia to find wintering Purple Sandpiper, on rock jetties at North Beach. Tybee is also known as a place to find Painted Bunting in spring and summer.
The marshes west of Tybee Island and on Cockspur Island, where Fort Pulaski National Monument is located, can host many wading birds, Clapper Rail, shorebirds, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Nelson’s Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Seaside Sparrow. The McQueen’s Island Trail paralleling Highway 80 is another access point to marshes.
Some of the most splendid salt marshes left in the United States are on the Georgia coast, where they provide a year-round home for clapper rails, marsh wrens, and many other birds. Seasonal movements bring northern harriers, flocks of white ibises, and florid pink roseate spoonbills. Several of the barrier islands are easily reached by bridges and causeways. On the islands’ protected beaches and tidal mudflats you’ll come across impressive concentrations of birds year-round. American oystercatchers, black and white with long red bills, stalk across the flats, while black skimmers glide low over the shallows. Gulls and terns rest on the beaches at high tide, and piping plovers, red knots, and numerous other shorebirds gather in winter or during migration. Away from the water’s edge, the woods of the islands and coast are alive with songbirds. In summertime spectacular painted buntings pop up in the thickets, especially in Cumberland Island’s semi-wilderness, reached from the mainland only by ferry. At the trail’s southwest end lies Okefenokee Swamp. This immense wetland is most easily traversed by canoe or kayak, and more than 100 miles of boat trails invite you to seek out the swamp’s birds. —Kenn Kaufman