Su = summer
F = fall
W = winter
Sp = spring
YR = year-round
= Location is within +/- 10 miles of the indicated interstate highway. This is especially helpful for out-of-town birders who may be passing through Georgia while travelling and would like to get a quick birding fix. This is also helpful for birders planning a "Big Day," where staying close to a major interstate corridor is essential for covering the greatest diversity of habitats in 24 hours.
= Location is a "Georgia Birding Hotspot." Though this designation is subjective, it generally means that the area should be given high priority when planning a birding trip to a region. Some Hotspots offer incredible, productive birding virtually year-round (Jekyll Island), while the best birding of the year may be more seasonal at others (Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park).
SBM = Shorebird Migration; this very generally refers to mid-March thru May in spring and mid-July thru mid-October in fall. Fall is the prime shorebird season. Baird's and Buff-breasted Sandpipers likely only in fall. Peak passage of specific species is quite variable.
PM = Passerine Migration; this very generally refers to April and May in spring and August thru mid-October in fall. This includes all songbirds - wood warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes, flycatchers, etc. Peak passage of specific species is quite variable. Spring migration is much more concentrated and birds are often in colorful breeding plumage. Fall migration is more spread out; fall wood warblers can be notoriously difficult to identify (or even impossible to determine sex), with numerous juveniles which do not exhibit the same obvious field marks as adults.
IBA = Important Bird Area; the aim of the IBA Program is to identify and conserve key breeding and feeding sites for birds. An Important Bird Area is a place that provides essential habitat for one or more species of bird, whether in breeding season, winter, or during migration. These sites are considered to be exceptionally important for bird conservation; see Georgia's IBA Webpage.
1) Phinizy Swamp Nature Park
IBA, PM, W for waterfowl
GPS via Google Maps
[DeLorme: pg. 31, G-7]
Photos by Lois Stacey, map courtesy of the park
This wonderful area is great in all seasons, perhaps best known in winter for waterfowl, rails, and sparrows and in migration for many species of neotropical migrants; there is also a sparrow field for many species, including rarities like LeConte's Sparrow. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks have been documented nesting here since 2010. It makes a great compliment to other areas detailed in Beaton's Birding Georgia if you plan to bird the Augusta area - such as Merry Brothers Brickyard Ponds and Augusta Levee/Lover's Lane.
From I-20, get off at Exit 196-A and to head east on I-520 for 9.8 miles. Get off at Doug Barnard Pkwy (Exit 10), and turn right to head south for 1.0 mile total and turn left onto Lock and Dam Rd (you will pass a water treatment facility on the left just before the turn; also look for a small airport on the left, the turn left is the last street before you are alongside the fence for the runway). After 0.6 miles, turn left into the park - you will pass the "Mayor's Fishing Pond" on the left just before the turn, and then the entrance will be on your left (DeLorme pg. 31, G7 - but it's NOT the area marked as Phinizy Swamp WMA, even though this is adjacent).
Park in the lot on the left where you see silos. These silos, or their side shafts, sometimes host Barn Owls but you must NOT approach them in daylight; instead, try arriving just before dawn or checking at dusk to see the birds coming to or going from their roost - do not disturb their daytime rest (plus, there are cameras so don't trespass). Near the car entrance to this lot is the trailhead of a boardwalk through a cypress swamp (PHOTO 2 below). This area is reliable for Rusty Blackbirds in winter and has hosted literally hundreds of this species! Look for their noisy flock foraging on the floating mats of vegetation. Carefully scan the back creek of this swamp (looking north) for wintering waterfowl like Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, American Black Duck, etc. Also here you may see Swamp Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and various waders. Continue on and when the boardwalk ends you will come to the Nature Center buildings, with restrooms and exhibits when open. Even if not open, get a map and bird checklist for the area at the IBA information sign.
Almost directly across the road from these buildings, another dirt road descends into a large area of open fields, called the "sparrow fields" (PHOTO 3 below). Make sure you are wearing briar-proof clothing if you plan to tromp around flushing sparrows in the winter - Swamp, Song, and Savannah are common but you never know what may turn up (LeConte's has been found) and Sedge Wrens are also here in cold weather. A rare Short-eared Owl was flushed here during the 2005 CBC. A path is sometimes mowed around the field allowing for much easier access, but you may also want to make your way zig-zag through the area (shown in red on map below); be aware that if no mowing has been done this field is likely impassable. If you choose to make your way through the field, notice the swampy marsh to your left and the dike (road) also on your left. The woods at the back of the field are also productive for woodland migrants. You can access the woods at any point but at the far end of the field (behind a small pond that is surrounded by alders and other bushes) it is more interesting, with several sloughs in the woods that may hold Wood Ducks or other waterfowl. Be aware that closer to the dike (and along the edge of the woods at the far end of the field where the sloughs are), it can be very wet - from muddy to nearly a foot of water. If you plan to follow the route I drew in red on the map below you should have knee-high waterproof boots.
If you keep walking along the main road from the buildings instead of going into the sparrow fields, you will come into a series of wetland projects (numbered "cells") with dikes running between them for good walking and viewing opportunities. The prime targets here are wintering waterfowl and rails (PHOTOS 5 &6 below). Both King and Virginia rails will be here in winter, along with lots of Sora. Numbers are down in recent years, however, since they began knocking down all the cattails in fall to prevent massive roosts of blackbirds that threatened the nearby airport. If you're very lucky you may see an American Bittern flush as you walk along the dikes.
Most waterfowl will be Ringed-neck Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Common Gallinule, and American Coots - but scan carefully because anything can show up (Common Goldeneye has wintered on the Equalization Pond, for example). The entire time you are out exploring the dikes in colder months, you will encounter Savannah and Song Sparrows and Palm Warblers; Marsh Wrens sometimes call from within the cattails. Keep an eye on the sky as well, as many raptors are often observed - Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Northern Harriers patrol the cells just above the cattails.
As you come around the south side of the Equalization Pond, you will see a wooden stairway. Take this trail to descend into a nice bottomland forest with mixed pines and deciduous trees. This is a good area for neotropical migrants in migration, and you may have Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, or a less common Brown Creeper here in winter. When you reach Butler Creek, turn left to reach a bridge over the creek (PHOTO 4 below); this is the same creek that forms the wetlands at the beginning of your walk. You should definitely check out the many trails throughout the entire area once you get a map. I have included an edited version of the official map below, including a route I have used to bird the area. Visit the nature park website.
MAP PHOTO 2 PHOTO 3 PHOTO 4 PHOTO 5 PHOTO 6
2) Merry Brothers Brickyard Ponds
PM, W for waterfowl
GPS via Google Maps
[DeLorme pg. 31, F-7]
Perhaps best as the weather gets colder, this is a wonderful area to visit at any time of year, with great waterfowl and gull possibilities in winter, interesting breeding species, and plenty of migrants in spring and fall. If you have not been to the area in a while, it is good to note that the property has been under new management since 2011. They have effectively limited access to only one entrance to control poaching (for fish), which is actually great because there are less folks out there who snuck in without paying and they still do not charge birders to enter. Another benefit is that they have made many improvements to attract more fishermen, including boat ramps, new roads, and areas where brush was cleared on the shore... all of which makes observation and good coverage much easier.
Turn into the property on the east side of Doug Barnard Pkwy, just south of its intersection with Gordon Hwy (US Hwy 25/78). Immediately on your left, turn into the bait shop. You will simply be asked to sign in, write your vehicle information down, and that you are birding (not fishing). Head into the property on the paved main road, and on your right you will very soon see a large pond. Park off to the side and explore various view points (including a small peninsula) to scan for waterfowl; scrubby edges and the adjacent woods may hold migrants. As you continue down the road, you will cross a small bridge over a ditch; some very strange smells often permeate the area, but nonetheless it is usually worth a stop to check for a migrant flock. Soon you will break out into an open area, with a major gravel road on your right that is almost always gated - park on the shoulder just past this road. The habitat around you (and all the nice hedgerows on the property) may host wooded edge habitat and scrub-loving species such as Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted Bunting, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Mockingbird, Gray Catbird, Eastern Phoebe, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Orange-crowned Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and various sparrows in cold weather. Approach the medium-sized pond on your right slowly with your scope, as skittish shorebirds may line the muddy edges; waterfowl may be out on the pond as well, with an assortment of waders rounding out the regular fare. As you continue along, you may encounter migrant flocks in the successional woods on either side of the road, and get views of more mud flats and small ponds on your right.
When you see the Boral Brick Company coming up in front of you, do not continue straight - instead, turn right and you will now be on a gravel/dirt road heading towards a trailer home on the right. Just past this structure, you will pass the remains of the old bait shack at a small pond on your right; at the first available dike on your right, turn to bisect a large pond on your left and a smaller, shallower one on your right. Locals often stop to fish here, so be respectful. Continue looking for waterfowl; you will always have many Double-crested Cormorant and Pied-billed Grebes; waders abound, as well as American Coot and Common Gallinule. When this road dead-ends, turn left and park at a large opening on your right. On your left, you have no doubt noticed a massive pond, the largest on the property. In fall and winter it can be simply covered up with geese, ducks, and gulls. Most will be Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck, American Wigeon, or Bufflehead. Uncommon ducks may be present as well: Canvasback, Redhead, and Northern Pintail are annual. The scads of Canada Geese may be joined by a Snow Goose, White-fronted Goose, or rare Ross's Goose; and non-Ring-billed Gulls may include Bonaparte's Gull, Herring Gull, and a rare Glaucous Gull was seen in 2005; Tundra Swan has been seen on several occasions. In October and November check all swalllows carefully, as rare Cave Swallows have been found here on more than one occasion. The weedy, lily-pad-choked pond where you parked may also hold waterfowl, particularly secretive species like Wood Duck or American Black Duck.
A major improvement since 2011 is a perimeter road that encircles the entire main pond. Previously, it was very difficult to get views of all the birds, because many islands dot the interior of the pond. However, if there is a known rarity you are chasing or if you would like to be more thorough, you can turn left to loop around the whole pond and end where you started. Continuing farther into the property - you'll have the chance to scan several more medium ponds on your left and right - until finally reaching the overpass with I-520. Park and scan another large pond on the right thoroughly (known as the "interstate pond"); sometimes mud flats form that attract shorebirds in migration. Once you pass underneath the overpass, the other half of this pond is visible on your right. You can end your tour by exploring a few more dirt roads snaking their way among small ponds before leaving the same way you came into the property.
IMPORTANT: This property is a working clay mine for making bricks! If you are there when the big clay trucks are rolling, you must stay well off the road - they have the right of way! After wet weather, some of the roads on this property can be extremely muddy and treacherous. If it is particularly bad, no vehicle should try to drive around out there - but a 4-wheel drive will usually do the trick. Use good judgement, because I'm sure a local towing company would be happy to charge you a pretty penny to get you out!
3) Augusta Levee and Lover's Lane
[DeLorme pg. 31, G-7]
Copyright 2013 Ken Blankenship. All rights reserved.