I know it’s been a hot minute since I last wrote a blog post. 2023 was a year that had me firing on all cylinders with little time for rest and handful of things fell through the cracks; including this blog. My goal for 2024 is to slow things down & enjoy being in the moment rather than constantly planning ahead; a task that’s very hard for an emerging business owner.
With the New Year comes new safaris and we spent this past weekend at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park located just outside of Augusta, GA. This man-made wetland was created as a means of treating wastewater discharged from the city. As the city pumps wastewater to the nearby water treatment plant, it undergoes intensive treatment, and then is released into the series of cells that make up the wetland which act as the final step before working its way back into the Savannah River. Within the wetland cells, plant life flourishes as the water is rich in Nitrogen & Phosphorus. Abundant plant life creates habitat for aquatic invertebrates who form the foundation of the food web for this ecosystem. In places like Phinizy, the wildlife abound.
Wetlands are some of the most important ecosystems on our planet. The primary reason that’s the case is because all life depends on water in some way, shape, or form. While you can birdwatch and find all kinds of unique species at wetlands throughout the year, the winters in the South are perfect for migrating birds like Ducks! In the state of Georgia, there have been 40 species of ducks & geese observed by birdwatchers. I bet you didn’t realize there were that many species of duck in our area. If you find yourself saying no to this fact, that is exactly why I run this safari! Thankfully Phinizy Swamp isn’t too far away from home and is a prime hotspot for winter waterfowl.
I’ve been to a handful of parks like Phinizy in the past and I wish the midlands of South Carolina had a place like this. With all the development coming to Columbia, that may be in the cards soon enough. These types of parks are some of my favorite to visit as they’re so full of wildlife that photographers like me don’t face much of a challenge looking for subjects.
I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to run this safari this year, but thanks to some loyal clients who signed up at the last minute we managed to have ourselves a day at the swamp. As we walked out into the wetland cells you look out over a huge expanse and can see birds flying all over the place. We were greeted by a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding on Sweetgum seeds, but as we began to walk around the ponds the Double-crested Cormorants scattered. Walking along the trails as we began looking around and listening, there was a Gray Catbird meowing at us letting us know we scared off its breakfast. As we rounded a corner, I could see there was a huge number of Great Egrets hunkered down after the frigid evening they just slept through. I had everyone stop and prepped them to slowly approach so as not to spook them. I had counted over 70 individuals in this flock and we ended up with over 100 for the day. The fact that we were seeing so many birds so quickly was like taking a weight off my chest.
We eventually made our way to the Equalization Pond where the majority of the ducks like to hang out. We were greeted by flocks of Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Ducks. For me it was fun for my clients to see species like this for the first time. They had no idea that birds like these existed. As the birds were foraging, we got to see the difference between dabbling & diving ducks as the Scaups & Ringnecks would dive down to the bottom of the pond and look for crustaceans as the Shovelers & Teal would dabble at the surface for plant life. We even got to see a Bald Eagle fly over the pond which gave all the ducks a fright as that’s their primary predator.
There’s a spot within the park where a pair of Bald Eagles like to hang out, so after we got our fill of ducks I began to lead us towards where I thought the eagles would be. As we were walking along the distribution canal, we got to see a handful of American Coots, Common Gallinules, and Pied-billed Grebes. We even were graced with a large basking gator on the inside of the fence of the canal. The winds picked up as we were walking & it was brutal; the other hard part was that the trek to the eagles from the duck pond was about a mile. I felt bad as a guide, but I wanted to get my clients an up close look at Bald Eagles should nature allow us. As we were walking, I looked up & saw an adult & juvenile eagles soaring on a thermal. It’s easy to identify an adult Bald Eagle when you see a big black bird in the sky with a white head & tail. The juvenile required a closer look through the binos. We eventually made it to the eagle spot and thankfully there was a shelter that had benches where we could all take a break after that brutal walk. As I walked over to the cypress snag that the eagles like to hang out in, they were nowhere to be found. I was a little disappointed but that’s nature; nothing’s ever guaranteed.
Appreciative of everyone’s tough spirits, we decided to call it a day as the heavy winds had all the birds hunkered down for the day. All in all we walked away with 41 species observed for the day & my clients got to walk away with some new lifers to add to their lists. If you feel the urge to get outside & go birdwatching this winter, Phinizy Swamp is this perfect place to visit whether you’re an expert or a beginner. Until next time, I’ll see y’all out there.