Beaufort Today -

Birder’s Eye View: Signature birds of summer are consistent

  • Diana Churchill
  • Common gallinule, left, and purple gallinule, right, spend time clambering about on the water lilies looking for food. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Beaufort Today)
  • Least bittern clings to the reeds. In flight, note patterned back and dangling feet. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Beaufort Today)
  • Mississippi kites are also great at soaring and catching flying insects. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Beaufort Today)
  • Swallow-tailed kite in flight is an awesome sight. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Beaufort Today)

We all know about signature foods. If I say Maine, you say “lobster.” If I mention the Lowcountry, you might come up with “Lowcountry boil” or “shrimp and grits.”

So what about signature birds? Signature birds are birds one expects to find in a particular habitat at a certain time of year.

On a hot morning at the end of July, 20 people assembled for an Ogeechee Audubon field trip to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Before we condensed into as few cars as possible for the four-mile drive through the refuge, I gave the group an introduction to what I consider to be the signature summer species in the refuge’s fresh-water wetland habitat — marsh, old rice plantation impoundments and lots of water lilies.

For starters, there is the tiny and rather reclusive least bittern. A mere 13 inches tall with a 17-inch wingspan, this diminutive heron is adapted for life in dense marshes. Rather than wading, it climbs about in cattails and reeds, clinging to the stalks and stretching its neck out to pluck tasty treats from the water and mud below.

When it flies, its leg dangle and you can see the rich brown and tan pattern on its back. Least bitterns are sometimes easier to hear than to see. They give a soft “coo, coo, coo” call, often from tantalizingly deep within the marsh grass.

On this particular morning, we were lucky. I saw a least bittern emerge, fly a short distance and drop into a clump of reeds. I walked around the Wildlife Drive to get a better view and spotted the least bittern perched in the open on a horizontal reed.

All 21 of us were able to get excellent views of the bird as it pursued its morning feeding rituals, climbing about, flying short distances, clinging to the reeds and plucking treats from the water. Wow! It was a great start to our morning.

Least bitterns are a tropical species. They come north for breeding and return to Central America and the islands in the winter, to be replaced in the marsh by their larger cousins, the American bitterns, that return to our area from breeding territories farther north.

Another year-round resident much in evidence at the refuge during the summer is the common gallinule, formerly dubbed the common moorhen. This black and brown duck-like bird with an orange and yellow “candy-corn” beak has extremely large feet with long toes.

It swims with a bobbing chicken-like motion and has a whiny, descending call that always makes me think of a teenager complaining about having to clean her room. Seeing the gallinule parents swimming about with several tiny fluff-ball babies in tow is always a treat.

However, there is another fancy species of gallinule — the purple gallinule — that migrates into the area just for the summer. “Look carefully,” I admonish the group. “Look for the fluffy white patch of feathers under the tail.” Back in the day when this species could be hunted, my grandfather used to refer to it as “old target-arse.”

During the first part of the drive, the purple gallinules we saw were in bad light so it was hard to appreciate their color. Later, on the last part of the drive, we saw at least six more birds in beautiful light, walking about on the water lilies.

Unlike the common gallinules, purple gallinules prefer walking or flying to swimming. They would rather clamber about on the lilies, turning over the leaves to search for snails and insects that might be hiding underneath.

All of this fresh water is great habitat for invertebrates, so insects are plentiful, including lots of beetles and dragonflies. These attract another pair of signature summer bird residents: Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites.

As the air heats up, the kites take advantage of the thermal currents to soar around for some fine insect dining. These spectacular mid-summer kite shows are a regular attraction at the refuge, or at a freshly mown pasture or hayfield near you.

The Mississippi kites are smaller, with squared-off tails. They nest throughout the area, generally preferring tall pine trees in suburban neighborhoods. Swallow-tailed kites have dramatic split tails that they use to great effect when swooping and diving in pursuit of insects. Their nests are usually at the tops of tall trees near rivers.

On our morning trip through the refuge, we were lucky to see a trio of feeding swallow-tailed kites. On an afternoon trip the following week, I saw more than 20 Mississippi and at least six swallow-tailed kites.

When we added indigo and painted buntings, anhingas, cattle egrets and the ever-present red-winged blackbirds to the list, it made for a lively and signature bird-filled morning. Good birding!

Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached via email at dichurchbirds@gmail.com.

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