Saturday, June 15, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Savannah's Forsyth Park, Colonial Cemetery, and Another Visit to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge

I got up early yesterday morning to go birding at Savannah's largest park, Forsyth Park. It was somewhat disappointing, but not entirely unfruitful. Most of the birds were House Sparrows, Robins, and Starlings (not to mention the ubiquitous Mockingbirds), but there was also a contingent of Brown Thrashers--one of those birds I may have seen as a child but certainly haven't seen since I was very young. It was fun to watch them hopping around the lawns tossing aside magnolia leaves looking for food. A very pretty, rufous bird. They seem to be common here.

Afterward, I decided to make one last visit to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, this time driving the "Wildlife Tour." Most of the people on the route seemed to be looking for alligators, but there were birds around. Although I saw nothing new, I got to see more Anhingas, Moorhens, Purple Gallinules, Cardinals, Blue Jays, a lustily singing Indigo Bunting, a pair of Cattle Egrets, and, overhead, Great Egrets, Mississippi Kites, and even a couple of Glossy Ibises.

Later in the day, I went to see the Colonial Cemetery again, as it was considerably cooler today than it has been in the last few days. Clouds threatening rain that never developed were welcome. The cemetery was the second built in Savannah. It appears to have been used actively between around 1750 and 1850. Many of the graves are from 1820, a year marked by an epidemic of yellow fewer that killed more than 700 citizens of Savannah. The cemetery is now a city park. This was the original resting place of Major General Nanthanial Greene, one of Washington's most important generals (later moved to Johnson Square). Other notables of the Revolutionary War period and others include Joseph, James, and John Habersham; Joseph Clay; Samuel Elbert, Colonel John S. Macintosh, General Lachlan Macintosh, Edward Greene Malbone, a miniaturist; and Captain Denis L. Cottineau de Kerloguen.

The highlight of lunch was a fat crab cake on a layer of grits with a tomato bisque sauce at a place called Soho South Café. The service left a little to be desired, but the food was good. I had an Ace pear cider with my lunch. I finished off the meal with a slice of Georgia pecan pie. I've always loved pecan pie. I assumed it would be good here in Georgia, and it was--note that the filling is mostly pecans, not gelatinous goo. A great way to wrap things up.

Friday, June 14, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Savannah Spire (June 13, 2013)

Yesterday evening, while walking around Savannah--a very walkable town--looking for a good place to have dinner, I was impressed by the white spire of a church with a gilded weather vane on top. I happened to walk along an ally as I was trying to find a good vantage point and saw the building through a pane of broken windows and thought it a better view than any unobstructed view I was likely to find.

On the Road--Down South: Air-conditioned Savannah (June 13, 2013)

Temperatures yesterday were over 100 degrees F again in Savannah. I slept late to refresh myself, had a good breakfast and then went out to visit one of Savannah's cemeteries, the Colonial Cemetery, but again found the heat and humidity so oppressive I changed course and headed in the direction of some indoor, air-conditioned entertainment. I went to the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. I was a bit skeptical at first about the $8.50 admission charge, but, having now seen the museum, I can say it was well worth it.

The museum houses a truly impressive collection of ship models illustrating the maritime history of Savannah. They are meticulously detailed and many have cutaway sections that allow you to see inside the vessels. Besides the ship models, the collection includes shipbuilding and sailmaking tools, navigation tools, art depicting maritime vessels, scrimshaw, objects illustrating the lives of sailors, and even a few actual figureheads.

A small figurehead in the shape of a horse's head was striking, I thought (left). I also liked a French Porcelain  "brothel cat." According to the museum notes, these were placed in the windows of brothels that catered to ship's crews. The eyes were removable. Green eyes were inserted to indicate the establishment was open for business. Red eyes meant the place was full or that the police were in the area. A cat with its back turned indicated a brothel was closed. Is this the origin of the expression "cathouse"?* Well worth the time to visit--the museum, that is. Highly recommended.

As it was still hot when I left the Maritime Museum, I next headed for the Jepson Center for the Arts, one of a group of three museums in the city collectively known as the Telfair Museums. The Jepson Center houses contemporary art. The building is interesting, especially the spacious entry area lit with natural light. The highlight of the visit was a show of paper works from the museum's collections called "Innovative Work from the Telfair Galleries." Unfortunately, this is one of those places that allows no photography, so I can't illustrate what I saw, but I particularly liked a piece called "Studio" by Conrad Marca-Relli, one called "The River Boat Guide" by Jerome Meadows, "Strata #389" by Susan Schwalb, and "Flock" by Kiki Smith. Elsewhere in the galleries, "Low Country Construct No. 1" by Elizabeth Cain was of interest as well.

[*A subsequent search suggests that the use of the cats was perhaps peculiar to Savannah. According to the OED, "cat" was a common term for a prostitute possibly as early as 1401 but certainly so by the 17th century. Therefore "cathouse" would have sounded the way "whorehouse" does to us today.]

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (continued) and Charleston

I went back to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge yesterday, over the Talmage Memorial Bridge again, this time hoping to see new birds while walking one of the forested trails. The day before, I had walked out in the sun--not a tree in sight--and felt unwell afterward. Yesterday's forested trail was shady and somewhat cooler--not to mention shorter. There was a fair amount of bird song, but, frustratingly, I saw almost nothing. Not knowing the songs here that well, I didn't always know what I was hearing, either. I did recognize Cardinals and Towhees in the distance, but there wasn't a lot going on.

Later in the day, I decided to drive up to Charleston. I mainly wanted to see Fort Sumter, but I arrived about ten minutes too late to take the last ferry over for the day. I was annoyed. I can't imagine why the ferries stop running at 4:00PM in the middle of June, and you'd think there would be private boats willing to take tourists the short distance to the island, which looks about two miles out in the bay, but I could find no way to get there. From what I read at the ferry pier, however, the fort looks nothing like it did during the Civil War. First, it was reduced to rubble during the long siege that it suffered, and at some time well after the Civil War a large, modern artillery battery was built in the middle of what was once the parade ground. It was enough just to see the position of the fort and to see the place the first shots of the Civil War were fired from, a place called Point Johnson on the shore. I watched the water for a while. Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls were fishing or stealing bait (the gulls) from fisherman on the piers. I looked at Waterfront Park and later Battery Park, which has a nice pineapple-shaped fountain in it. Lunch on the way into Charleston was a truly delicious pair of grilled shrimp flour-tortilla tacos at Yo Bo Cantina Fresca.

I spent the rest of the day just walking around Charleston, which has a lot of interesting architecture. The oldest houses seem to be mostly brick and from around the Revolutionary War period. You could spend days looking up at the cornices of the bigger buildings or peering into courtyards lush with ferns, or looking into shop windows. Much of the old downtown in Charleston (and Savannah as well) still has gas lamps burning. I had a quick dinner and then made the drive back to Savannah, about two hours. This morning I feel tired and somehow don't want to go out into the heat at all, but I'll think of something interesting to do.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (June 11, 2013)

On June 11, I got up fairly early and headed to the Savannah National Wildlife Reserve, a short drive North from Savannah, just across the South Carolina border. The road takes you across the Savannah River on the Talmage Memorial Bridge, an attractive cable-stayed bridge completed in 1990 that has become a symbol of the city, although it's a bit removed from the center of things. I walked a weedy, trail along an embankment for a couple miles, but turned back early because of the oppressive heat and humidity. I later learned that it had been over 105 degrees. The trail is completely exposed--not a single tree to shelter under. The embankments are the remnants of an old rice plantation that operated here. Despite the heat and the aborted walk, I had the pleasure of seeing a Red-bellied Woodpecker shortly after I started walking (life bird No. 12 for the trip). A little further along I saw female Orchard Oriole, and a pair of Indigo Buntings. Yellowthroats were singing in the small trees in the swampy areas below the embankment. Anhingas (life bird No. 13 for the trip), Great Egrets, and Little Blue herons flying overhead kept me looking up and, before long, a couple of Wood Storks flew by (life bird No. 14 for the trip)--very large birds with broad white wings and black primaries, much like a White Pelican in coloration.

Before long I started seeing unfamiliar raptor-like birds that turned out to be Mississippi Kites (life bird No. 15). Other birds included Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Eastern Kingbirds. On the way back, walking slowly to keep from getting overheated, I noticed a group of about 30 birds circling in the distance. When I looked at them with binoculars I was surprised to find that they were mostly kites, with Swallow-tail Kites among them (life bird No. 16). The Swallow-tail Kites have a strange combination of fierceness of aspect and elegance that makes them fascinating to watch. In California, our kites, White-tailed Kites, are occasionally seen in small family groups during breeding season, but they are otherwise mostly solitary. I wonder if these Southern kites normally fly in groups like this? In the end, the walk turned out to be quite productive, if uncomfortable.

After recuperating with a cold beer and a lunch of wild Georgia shrimp and avocado quesadillas at the Kayak Kafé back in Savannah, I decided to drive out to Tybee Island, another spot supposed to be good for birds. Along the way, I stopped at Fort Pulaski, a low, brick Civil War fort that was worth a quick wander through. The island has powdery sand beaches and a lot of restaurants with a look that suggests their focus is scooping up tourist dollars rather than serving good food. I was going to stay and have dinner on the island, but couldn't find a respectable-looking restaurant or even an inviting outdoor table. Before leaving I walked down to the beach and watched a group of people playing bocce ball and kept an eye out for birds. It was mostly Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans, but there were also terns flying further out, occasionally hovering and then diving headfirst into the water for fish. They turned out to be Royal Terns (life bird No. 17 for the trip). I ended up going back to Garibaldi's again for a late dinner and a glass of wine after a much-needed nap.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Albany, Georgia to Savannah, Georgia

I woke up early yesterday (June 10) to put Albany, Georgia behind me, heading for the East Coast. Not far out of town, I noticed widely spaced rows of tall trees, the sort of trees for which the word "stately" might have been coined--tall, elegant trees. I guessed they might be pecan trees, and so they were, my conjecture confirmed by the many roadside signs for pecans and the logos of pecan growers on a number of buildings. I took the back roads, mostly Georgia 300, through Cordele, then 280 through Abbeville, McRae, and Alamo, before heading north on 221 as far as Soperton to join I-16 to Savannah. Saw Black Vultures, Mockingbirds and Cardinals along the road and a few stranger sights, including a rather buxom replica of the Statue of Liberty in one town and giant cement roosters and pigs in front of an IGA market in a place I can't name. "Piglet" is the name of a chain of convenience stores here.

Savannah is a rather pretty town. It has many small squares. These all have tall trees, benches, and, inevitably, a monument of some sort in the middle. A statue of Georgia founder Oglethorpe stands in Oglethorpe Square. There are many old houses and buildings of brick or masonry with character that give the place a great deal of visual interest. I spent most of the day wandering the streets. Down by the river are some interesting remnants of cobblestone paving and canal work. The old red stone Cotton Exchange is impressive. There's a winged lion in front made of the same stone. Is there some connection with Venice? According to the plaque out front, Savannah in its heyday was the largest cotton shipping port on the US East Coast and the second-largest in the world (the plaque neglects to say second to what other city, but it was probably New Orleans), handling two million bales of cotton a year. Dinner at a place called Garibaldi's, which was not bad at all--caprese salad and duck with a nice glass of Vermentino. Today off to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge to look for birds. The weather appears to have cleared.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Rained Out (June 9, 2013)

I left Gulfport, Mississippi this morning (June 9), heading south and east, aiming to visit the bird sanctuaries at and near Dauphin Island on the Gulf Coast, but it soon began to rain as I started out and it was coming down in sheets by the time I got to the coast. I sat in the car a while and watched Laughing Gulls (life bird No. 10 for the trip) and Brown Pelicans flying along the shore. I had seen Laughing Gulls earlier, in a Gulfport Walmart parking lot (where I stopped to buy sunscreen), but got a much better look at the birds by the sea. When the car radio suddenly stopped and the emergency broadcast system croaked on to warn of severe thunderstorms and gale force winds on the way, I retraced my route then headed east and north in the hope of finding clear skies and something of interest to do. I ended up driving most of the day in the pouring rain on I-10, heading toward Pensacola, Florida. A large billboard said "Pray." Another admonished "Know Jesus." Most of the way I was able to find an NPR station on the radio. I listened to the same episode of "The Prairie Home Companion" that I'd heard the day before. Along one stretch of highway, the NPR station and a religious broadcast began to come in virtually simultaneously. Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" was interviewing a TV writer talking about writing gay characters. The religious voice was talking about the inspiration of god's love. Sometimes a sentence begun by one was finished by the other. Eventually, god won out and I pushed the scan button to find solace in the voice of NPR again. The sunscreen could have waited.

I ended up in Albany, Georgia, the only town that seemed likely to have hotel rooms between where I found myself with sunset coming on and the coast (this time, the East Coast). I passed through Dothan and Blakely. In Blakely the road signs, if followed strictly, will put you in perpetual orbit around the town square. I had to flag down a car to ask which road to take to get to Albany. Along the way, near Arlington, I spotted a group of vultures in the pines along the road. I had seen a Turkey Vulture not long before, but these birds lacked the familiar red head of the Turkey Vulture. I turned back for a better look and confirmed that they were Black Vultures (life bird No. 11 for the trip). My lens, cool from the air conditioning in the car, fogged over as soon as I stepped out into the hot, sodden air, but I got a few shots, before heading back quickly to the car to avoid mosquitoes. So far the bugs haven't been as bad as I feared they might be, but the trip has just begun. The people have been friendly. Tomorrow (June 10) I head for Savannah.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On the Road--Down South: New Birds (June 8-9, 2013)

On my first day of real birding in the South, June 8, I headed south and east from Lake Charles by the back roads--Highways 90, 101, and 14--to Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, which turned out to be very poorly marked. Eventually I found it by turning down an unlikely looking road marked for "Lacassine Pool." Although the scant signage said I was in the refuge area, I never found the Refuge proper, but it didn't matter. The pool (an open expanse of water covered in yellow lotusus) was more than sufficiently interesting. I walked along the roads some and took the self-guided "wildlife tour" by car that was offered. On the drive down from Lake Charles, I spotted a scissor-tailed bird on a power line. I stopped, and drove back only to see it fly away into a field. Luckily it landed not far off, allowing me a good look. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher: Life bird No. 2 on this trip. In Lake Charles, while waiting for a book store to open so I could buy a field guide (I stupidly forgot to pack one) I saw a pair of White-winged Doves, also a new bird for me. Mockingbirds everywhere. At first they confused me. They are much browner than the Mockingbirds I'm used to in California. Also saw a Blue Jay and a Cardinal, both for the first time in a long time. Heard a Killdeer in the distance. Cattle Egrets here and there.

At Lacassine Pool I saw many Grackles. I believe both Great-tailed Grackles and Boat-tailed Grackles, but I'm a little confused about the grackles. Purple Gallinules and Common Gallinules were all over the watered areas, many with chicks, walking on the big lotus leaves. Barn Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds (with the yellow bar that our California birds lack), Mourning Doves (a darker, richer brown than ours), Great Egrets, a few Coots, and many Eastern Kingbirds. Along the road I found a pair of Kingbirds with three newly fledged young. Later I got to hear a very vocal Common Yellowthroat singing out in the open. Saw a Brown-headed Cowbird and a Great Blue Heron. With the exception of the Eastern Kingbird, these are all birds I've seen before. If I've seen an Eastern Kingbird, it was long ago. Likewise the Glossy Ibises flying over, so I'm not sure whether to count these as new life birds until I can check my records at home. I therefore count White Ibis as life bird No. 3 on the trip. Pretty birds with pinkish heads and bills. The very tips of the primaries are black.

Heading further east, I had planned to visit Avery Island, the home of Tabasco Sauce, but arrived in Lafayette too late to make the detour and then make any headway toward the coast. I had wanted to see the salt dome there and to do some birding as well. I stopped in at the Lafayette Tourist Information Center, where the very helpful people suggested I visit Lake Martin instead, which turned out to be a wonderful idea. The main bird walk was closed for alligator nesting season, but I walked the boardwalks that were open. Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, and Prothonotary Warbler in the cypresses gave me life birds No. 4, 5, and 6 for the trip. A female cardinal was a bonus. Watched Tufted Titmice tussling in the trees. I was about to leave when I talked briefly to a docent who told me there was a rookery further up the road with Little Blue Herons nesting (checking the map later, this appears to be called Rookery Rd.).

As I pulled up to the rookery a few minutes later--a stand of low trees studded with white and blue-black birds--I came upon a rather docile pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (life bird No. 7 for the trip; pictured below). The Little Blue Herons made it eight life birds for the day. Among the herons were Great Egrets and a few Roseate Spoonbills. I've seen spoonbills in Europe, but, these are a different species--pink, as the name suggests. Roseate Spoonbill for life bird No. 9. A very satisfying day, although the many white herons at the rookery remain a puzzle to me, with their pale bluish legs, they are not any of the herons or egrets I recognize. Could they all have been juvenile Little Blues (which are white, according to the field guide)? Drove east then as far as Gulfport, Mississippi, where I spent the night. Saw some fairly immense thunderstorms along the way, one with lightning flashes and a persistent quarter rainbow looking like a handle lodged in the side of a black thunderhead. After a shower, I had a mediocre meal at Half-shell Oyster House. Today, June 9, planning to head to coastal birding areas nearby, if weather permits.

On the Road--Down South: Authentically in the South (June 8, 2013)

I feel authentically in the South now: I've seen alligators and bayous. I got to thinking about the word "bayou" and realized that, although I had a clear mental picture of a bayou, I couldn't actually say what a bayou is. So, I asked someone. Apparently, a bayou is a very, very slow river--not a stagnant body of water--although apparently at times they stop flowing and they even flow backwards depending on tidal influences.

It turns out that alligators are rather shy beasts. Still, I don't plan to swim in the bayous or to stand too close to water's edge. The alligators are quite hard to see. They slip away underwater at the approach of a person and they seem to see us before we see them. Most of the alligator activity I've witnessed has been nothing more than a slight motion followed by a circle of ripples in muddy, still water and then by a few small bubbles in the center of the disturbance. It took me a while to understand what I was seeing. The landscape along the major highways is fairly dull, but on the back roads where I've been birding, the bald cypress-pierced bayous and vast expanses of water lilies and yellow lotuses in more open country are quite pretty.

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