Wherever one goes, the presence of a
variety of birds is inescapable. Each habitat whether it is
beach, creek bank, forest, saltmarsh, freshwater pond or open grassland
has its characteristic avian population. A good bird guide and
binoculars will introduce the visitor or resident to many examples
beyond those mentioned below. Seasonal changes in these populations
provide onlookers with an insight into the massive migrations which
take place annually. Sapelo is situated on the Atlantic Flyway,
the flight path for birds traveling from the eastern seaboard of the United
States and Canada to South America and the Caribbean in the fall and the
reverse flow in the spring. As winter approaches, characteristic
‘V’s of ducks and ibis are to be seen overhead while flocks of swallows
and warblers form less tidy assemblages in their passage south.
Not all the birds are transient: turkeys, gallinules, Pileated
Woodpeckers, cardinals and a variety of herons are just a small sample
of those which reside here throughout the year and breed.
The creek banks at low tide are the homes of waders such
as the Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret and Common Egret, which stand
motionless on the mudbanks or in the shallows and impale small fish
with a swift thrust of their pointed beaks. In winter, bitterns
in their speckled plumage, when approached, turn their beaks skyward
and stand immobile, blending almost invisibly into the Spartina background
while Marsh hens (clapper rails) and ducks scurry into the cord grass to
hide from intruders. In summer Red-Winged Blackbirds glean insects
from the stems of the Spartina.
The beaches provide forage of a different
kind. Along the wave swash run sanderlings and sandpipers searching
for worms and beachhoppers exposed by the retreating waves.
Skimmers actively fish the shallows, submerging their lower beak in
the water as they fly within inches of the surface. Gulls, terns
and pelicans fly further offshore for their requirements, though frequently
resting on the beach, while at the upper levels of the beach, Turkey
Vultures can often be found scavenging, picking clean the carcass of
a turtle or a horseshoe crab. This may not be an attractive role,
but it does have decidedly practical advantages.
Turkey Vultures, together with hawks,
are also to be seen patrolling the grassland areas. These raptores
are beautifully suited to this habitat---their eyes are adapted specifically
to detect motion, and their wings are adapted for soaring flight so
that they may search open areas comparatively effortlessly.
With the approach of winter, the undergrowth
thins out, the deciduous trees lose their leaves, and the forest
takes on an open appearance. At this time the waxwings, cardinals
and bluebirds become obvious. In summer the dense cover provides
protection for the tiny Painted Buntings, and rare glimpses of Indigo
Buntings or Ruby Throated Hummingbirds. Throughout the year Pileated
Woodpeckers can be glimpsed in their odd swooping flight through the
trees and their characteristic sound can be heard throughout the forest.
Herons are seen all year round, but there
is no more fascinating sight than the thousands which breed in late
spring in the trees and shrubs of the duckpond area on the north end
of the island. The ubiquitous Common Egret, Snowy Egrets in breeding
plumes, Louisiana Herons, Black and Yellow Crowned Night Herons all vie
for nesting space in the rookeries. The more solitary nests of the
Green Herons are common in the low bushes near the pond. In May and
June, before the cattails have grown so tall as to obscure the view across
the ponds, it is possible to see these spectacular rookeries from the
main road, with the aid of binoculars. White Ibis and anhingas start
at the approach of an intruder and the Common Gallinule swims about, ever
wary of the plentiful (and large) alligators that reconnoiter the surface
of the pond.
The water garden near the Marine Institute
provides a mini-panorama of the seasonal variations---gallinules
are present all year round but in winter they are augmented by Wood
Ducks, Black Crowned Night Herons and Snowy Egrets, and in summer
by Cattle Egrets and frequently by a single Great Blue Heron.