Island Wildlife

seabirds in flight

Note: Adapted from “A Sapelo Island Handbook,” published in 1990 and now out of print. If you are interested in a PDF of the original document, please contact Io Hennessy.


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 beaks 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 raptors 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.