Day One – Flight over
I am nervous to embark on this as one should always finish what one starts and I am not sure if I will go the full distance. Anyway, here goes.
I departed Cape Town yesterday afternoon for Charleston, South Carolina, for a leadership seminar and decided I would write a blog documenting my journey. It will read more like a diary with daily updates but I fear I may run out of energy describing the inside of a conference venue towards the back end. My first few days will be spent seeing some of the countryside as I try and tick as many birds as I can in the midst of one of the coldest winters North America has had in years. That may be worth telling.
I am not a prolific traveller. I may have travelled the length and breadth of my home country but I have barely had my passport stamped in the last 15 years, other than for Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
There was that work trip to Dublin about 3 years ago but 5 days in a city, with most of my time spent in a pretty dull office, doesn’t really count (although a Guinness or two in an Irish pub could be described as a life experience).
Speaking about Ireland, it is well worth a quick aside before going any further.
We dined with our good friends Bruce and Cath at Carne Restaurant in Plumstead on Monday night to celebrate Bruce’s advancing years. It was a fun evening spent with good friends but, despite the riveting repartee at the table, Jeanie always has roving eyes to see what else is going on. She had noticed a guy two tables away that she recognised. He spoke in a pronounced Irish accent and she just couldn’t place it. To be honest, he looked pretty familiar to me as well but I wasn’t going to die not knowing who he was.
Jeanie noticed him getting up from the table to have a smoke outside so she did what we always expect her to do and she intercepted him as he was going out the door.
“I am sure I know you from somewhere. You’re an actor, aren’t you? Did I see you perform at the Grahamstown Festival?” (Jeanie’s default for any arty experience in her life).
He replied (please import your own Irish accent):
“No, definitely not. Never heard of Grahamstown. You may know me because I’m a famous actor. You may have seen me on the fokken big telly”.
And with that he walked outside leaving Jeanie hanging.
Our waiter came past our table and we called on him for some help to enlighten us. We were clearly missing something. We were told he was James Nesbitt and, although not quite as famous as other Irishmen, such as Liam Neeson, he certainly ranks pretty high up. He is probably most recently well known for his role as one of the dwarfs in The Hobbit (which he later would tell us was a “fokken terrible job”) but he has also been in a number of TV series that are quite recognizable, such as Life, Love and Everything Else which is where I knew him from (Google him – you’ll see what else he has done).
The internet is pretty useful as we were able to generate all this useless information about him including the fact that he had just celebrated his 50th birthday on the 15th of January.
Given the fact that he had probably consumed about 3 bottles of wine and perhaps he quite liked the attention from Jeanie, he joined us at our table for a chat forsaking his dinner companions for a short while.
It turned out he was in SA to play golf with three of his mates at Fancourt for 9 days. I wished him happy birthday for his 50th, which impressed him that I knew (I conceded our reliance on Google for that). Bruce chose to abuse his choice of footwear (he was wearing sandals with jeans) but his retort was far sharper, wondering why Bruce was wearing a shirt from the 1970s.
I suppose we are all starstruck to a certain extent when faced with a celebrity but it was a fun experience to sit and chat to him like a normal person and hear about his kids and his recent divorce (Jeanie was the interviewer in that line of questioning). He kindly agreed to the obligatory photo which didn’t actually turn out that well, but at least you can see that I didn’t make this all up.
Anyway, that is an odd way to start off a blog of my trip to Charleston but there is little to tell on Day One.
I arrived after 26 hours of travel at Dulles Airport in Washington with a 6 hour layover before my flight to Charleston. I sit here in the United Lounge (thanks to Standard Bank Private Clients) typing away with free WiFi which I hope will be something I come across regularly in the land of the super-connected.
I found it quite amusing that the immigration officer that growled his questions at me as I went through passport control did so in an Eastern European accent and was named Ivanov. I was sorely tempted to take a photo of him but I think they drill a sense of humour out of you when you have National Security foremost in your mind in your day-to-day job.
So, I promise my updates from hereon out will be a little more interesting. I pick up a rental car at Charleston airport and head immediately north-west to a place called Congaree. The Congaree National Park is, apparently, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest, which means absolutely nothing to me, but I do know that there are some birds there. My focus will be on the 7 species of woodpecker that occur there and, incidentally, it is also one of the reserves that used to support a population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. My birding mates will know the significance of that, but I will save the history for another day.
My only concern about Congaree at this point, aside from brain-numbing exhaustion, is that it will snow overnight in Congaree so I am not sure how many birds I will be seeing.
Until next time…
Day 2 – Tightening that Bible Belt
I have just woken up from a pretty acceptable 9 hours of sleep. It is now 5:30am and I write to you from my hotel room in a city called Columbia.
I arrived in Charleston at 2pm and after a mild panic that my suitcase was left somewhere in Washington, I jumped into my rental car and hit the road west. I actually had to jump into my rental car twice, as the first time I got into the passenger seat and wondered where the steering wheel was. I have now done that about 8 times but I am sure I will get the hang of it before the trip is out.
Driving a left hand drive on the right side of the road takes immense concentration. I repeated to myself at regular intervals “pass the cars coming towards you on the right, not left”. It seemed to work as I have not driven into anyone yet.
Columbia was my final destination for the day, after 34 hours of non-stop travel (if you can call lengthy layovers part of non-stop travel). I had decided to get to Columbia as it is 17 miles away from Congaree and I wanted to be there first thing in the morning. I think it was a good decision as the drive was actually a pleasant way to open the senses after staring at the back of a seat for so long.
I will not describe the drive as being particularly attractive. Most of the journey was along side roads (I opted off the Interstate) and they meander through a lot of farmland. It looked mostly like cotton but I may be wrong. Everything at this time of the year is lying fallow and most of the trees are still bare. There are plenty of pine trees, which have their needles, but it is hard to like a pine tree even in a country where they are indigenous. The sky was a leaden grey with the impending big storm (which, as I look out my window into the darkness of the parking lot seems to be over) and towards the end of my drive, visibility was poor as the rain started coming down.
I realized that nothing embraces the feel of the culture of the Bible Belt more than taking a drive through the country with the radio tuned into the Country channel. I use the singular but I found it hard to get anything other than country, but I didn’t mind – it seemed right. Perhaps the one more authentic bit of evidence of being in the Bible Belt was the sight of more churches than I have ever seen before. I just don’t understand how these places survive. There was a huge church building every 3 miles with massive parking lots surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. Who fills these things up? I would have been interested driving through on a Sunday to see if they still survive. You won’t be surprised to hear that I wasn’t tempted to stop and tour any of them.
There is some degree of juxtaposition between country music and all these churches. The one song I heard was called “Don’t ride a horse…ride a cowboy…”
Anyway, I arrived in Columbia in the gloom. At first glance it looked a terrible place. Truck stops, fast food joints, car yards and lots of ramshackle industry, but my GPS took me to the centre of town, which is dominated by the very appealing University of South Carolina. The first noticeable building was the stadium that hosts the University football team. They are called the “Gamecocks”.
The stadium easily matched Newlands rugby ground in size and my suspicion is that they have a full house every Sunday just as soon as church is out.
The centre of town is well laid out with well-manicured lawns surrounding historic Georgian buildings and I picked one of those as my hotel for the night. I had intended a real budget style affair but the motels along the industrial strip did not look so good, so I settled on the “Inn at USC” which was way more expensive than I had intended (don’t ask). In fact, when I asked the rates the sweet little southern gal behind the counter gave me the price, with which I followed with “could you recommend something a little less fancy?” That brought the manageress out, who tapped away at her computer before offering me a deeply discounted rate that still blew my budget by more than 100%.
Anyway, the comfort was welcome and it paid for itself after having those 9 delicious hours of sleep.
I had two remaining items on the agenda before climbing into bed. I visited the “Discount Beer and Wine” shop next door to the Gamecock stadium. Yes, very strange, but wholly necessary to make sure I got some beers for the journey to add to my 2015 Beer Challenge. For those that don’t know, there are about 14 of us doing a Big Beer Year which simply is a competition to see who can drink the largest variety of beers in a calendar year. Despite the churches in this area, beer is also quite a thing, and I had to make sure I added a few to my list which no one back home would ever get.
I walked into the liquor store and was faced with what I reckon were more than 1000 different types of beers. Craft beers, foreign beers, mass manufactured beers, the whole lot. I stayed away from the Buds and Coors and picked a nice selection of strange ones. Most of the craft beers were priced at $10 per single 500ml beer so I shied away from those and selected ones closer to the $2 mark. I am not 100% sure when I am going to drink them but I will do my best.
My last stop for the night was at the Hunter Gatherer brewery for dinner. I had been pointed this way by the southern gal I mentioned earlier and she suggested they had an affordable meal with good beer (she had cottoned onto the fact that my budget was constrained).
It was a great recommendation as I ticked two locally brewed beers (an xx stout which was extremely bitter, and not so creamy, and a local wheat beer that really hit the spot) and I also had a perfectly sized grain fed beef burger.
Sleep did not take long to arrive. I was lights out at 8pm.
I know the birders are grumpy for a lack of report but there was not much to see in the gloom on my drive west. I did add some birds which still need a pair of bins pointed at them for confirmation but managed to see Boat-tailed Grackle, Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Mourning Dove and American Crow.
The list will begin in earnest today.
Day 3 – All about those birds
My apologies, up front, to those of you that don’t give two hoots for the birds. This day was dedicated to my feathered friends.
I recorded 44 species today and every single one of them was a lifer. I think that must be some kind of record. Even though 44 species isn’t a particularly impressive number in a day of birding, it was far more than I expected, given the freezing cold conditions and the bleakness of the landscape.
As I have already mentioned, my destination for this morning was the Congaree National Park which was only a 20 minute drive from my luxurious overnight stay.
Now that I have been there I can describe it a little better. The parts that I saw consisted of large hardwood trees set in a swamp. There was one section of the trail that crossed through a pine forest but aside from that there seemed to be water everywhere. Fortunately there was a boardwalk trail otherwise I would have had very wet feet but, due to the heavy rains overnight (there was no snow as it turned out) the swamp had risen even higher than normal and I ended up with partially wet shoes anyway as it had flooded sections of the boardwalk.
The weather was grey and quite bleak with the temperature hovering around zero degrees for most of the time.
Chatting to one of the park rangers (a lovely young lady named Lindsay who bore remarkable similarity to Frances McDormand in Fargo, with her animated glove-covered hands and woolen rangers hat) the conditions for birding were optimal as the rising water had forced the insects out of the ground which brought the birds out in their droves.
I’ll try not exaggerate but, despite a slow start, I had a 30 minutes period where I literally did not know which direction to look as there were birds coming from every direction. I suspect experienced US birders would have scoffed at most of the birds I saw but, given that they were all new for me, it was quite exciting. I hate to think what it’ll be like when I eventually get to the Neo-tropics.
My target for Congaree was to tick as many of their woodpeckers as I could. Owls are generally one of the most popular bird families but woodpeckers are not that far behind. They are mostly colourful and charismatic and they are not always that easy to find. Congaree is particularly well known for its woodpeckers and it did not disappoint. I ticked 5 species in the morning I was there. Red-bellied was the most numerous (and possibly the most attractive), with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker also being quite easy to find. The first bird I saw at Congaree was the Northern Flicker but my views were not good enough for a photo. I also only had one sighting of the Downy Woodpecker but the one I wanted the most was the Pileated.
I mentioned in my previous post that Congaree was an historic site for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The Ivory-billed was, and still is, a mythical bird. It went extinct in the 1950s due to habitat loss, but it was more than just a rare bird. If memory serves me correctly, it was the largest woodpecker on the planet and it wasn’t only huge in size but it’s drumming on tree branches was an impressive sound. Since its extinction there have been many claims of sightings in these hardwood forests but the sightings have always been unsubstantiated. It became the Holy Grail of world birding because it seemed possible but always just out of reach.
About 10 years ago some guy paddling on his boat through a flooded forest (much like the one I was birding in), got video footage of a bird he swore was an Ivory-billed. The footage was absolutely awful but it was seemingly enough for Cornell University (one of the most prolific universities when it comes to ornithological affairs) to send a team into the locality and spend 2 years searching for additional evidence. They believed that this video footage was enough to suggest that there may be a relict population still in existence, giving the birding world hope that it could be returned to the North American bird list. The two years were filled with a lot of false hope. At the end of the research period, all they had was a 25 page report suggesting a whole lot of evidence that supported the probable existence of the bird but there was nothing concrete. Their evidence consisted of sound recordings of the diagnostic territorial double tap but it was so distant it could easily have been something else. There were also telltale signs of the characteristic foraging remains but it was all essentially circumstantial as no one managed to see and photograph the bird in those two years. The video footage was also refuted from many angles and it was suggested that the bird videoed was, in fact, a Pileated Woodpecker.
Now you all see where I was going with this history lesson. Although the Pileated is nowhere near the monster-size of an Ivory-billed it is still a pretty impressive woodpecker. Most of our woodpeckers in Southern African are around 25 to 30 centimetres from tip of bill to tip of tail. The Pileated stretches more than double that size. Almost crow size, in fact. It is similarly plumaged to the Ivory-billed (hence the confusion in the video) and it is a quite ridiculous looking woodpecker with pitch black plumage, a pied face and neck, a fiery red crest and a long thin neck.
This was the bird I hoped to see the most and after hearing it call in the depths of the forest I eventually got my wish. It flapped into view in the highest part of the canopy, perched above me and proceeded to drum territorially on a large bare branch. It was strangely eerie but very special.
As it turned out I got an even better view of another pair of them a little later and managed far better pics. Despite its apparent abundance in this part of the world, it still ranked as one of my favourite birding moments.
The other highlight for the day was seeing an owl. I had not even done any research on the owls of the area as I had no plans to do any night birding, and so when this beautiful owl perched on a tree in front of me I had absolutely no idea what it was. I was fortunate to grab some record shots before it took off and disappeared into the forest, never to be seen again. The yellow bill was a dead giveaway for Barred Owl and it added a very unexpected bird to my list.
The other species, not spoken about above, are best documented by some of the photos I took. There were kinglets, phoebes, titmouses (or is that titmice?), thrushes, warblers, wrens, hawks and creepers.
All in all I spent 5 hours in Congaree before I packed it in and decided to head east for the coast where I would spend the whole of Friday birding at Huntington Beach State Park. It is documented as South Carolina’s best birding spot, so it is definitely something to look forward to.
The drive was longer than expected through a great deal of uninspiring landscape and yet another several dozen churches. I am yet to stop at one for a photograph, let alone a sermon, but I am sure I will get another chance.
I decided to avoid all the expensive hotels on the strip near Myrtle Beach so I opted for the Brookwood Motel about 3 miles north of Huntington. It ticked all the boxes for an authentic American motel and at $55 per night it was pretty much all I needed. The owner at the front desk fit the mould perfectly. Slow, drawn, Southern accent, unshaven, bulgy in the midriff and a few missing teeth. If you want authentic south, then the Brookwood Inn was the place to be. I received my key along with several rules:
- No smoking in the rooms
- No drinking beer out of a bottle but a can is fine
- If you drink beer outside it must be in a koozie. What’s a koozie, you ask? Well it is a rubber cup that snugly fits over the can so that you can’t see that it is beer that you are drinking. We don’t want to offend the kids. I would assume they would know that beer is being drunk if you are holding a koozie.
- No backing into the parking bays. That one confused me but I am told that the exhaust fumes billow into the rooms which is obviously a problem. I think I was fine with my Nissan Leaf.
I committed to adhere to all the rules and checked into my perfectly comfortable, albeit rather tired looking room.
Dinner was rapidly consumed at a really nice restaurant called Graham’s Landing where the prices of the meals tried hard to make up for the dollars I was saving at Brookwood. After a Blue Moon Extra White beer and a delicious rib-eye steak and twice-cooked potato I was ready to crash.
Tomorrow should be a good day with lots of birds to see and the weather seeming to be improving.
Another positive is the fact that I have just checked the cricket score. Seems like the Proteas are back on track.
Day 4 – Absolutely non-stop
I have two good mates who penned the name “Hammy the Squirrel” for me on our last bird trip to Zimbabwe. The name comes from a cartoon character that is constantly on the move at a frantic pace. I suspect the phrase was coined due to my inability to sit still, particularly on birding trips. I suppose I have an overriding philosophy that I don’t get out on these trips that often so I must make every second count.
Well, today I lived up to that name. I was up at 4:17am (jetlag has to hit sometime) and I was on the move, without pause, until the sun set, trying to tick as many bird species as humanly possible. I reckon I walked more miles today than I have ever done before. I was up and down huge expanses of beaches, trails through forests, up and down causeways and I finished off the day with a massive loop around the Santee Delta.
Anyway, back to the beginning. I filled the Nissan Leaf with gas at 6am (with no small amount of difficulty with this “self service” gas station culture in the US), and shortly thereafter I was entering the gates of the Huntington Beach State Park which is reputed to be the best birding spot in South Carolina.
Once again I will try describe it. It bore some resemblance to St Lucia on the KZN north coast. Large gallery forests in the land areas with estuarine mud flats and salt marsh snaking through the forests and then a beautiful sandy beach with a man made breakwater at the north end called “The Jetty”.
The first birding spot I spent some time at was the causeway that separates fresh water lakes to the south from the salt water Murrel Inlet to the north. It is the most bizarre separation of species with freshwater waterfowl to the south and salt water fowl (such as mergansers) and waders to the north. I spent a huge amount of time at the causeway as the photographic opportunities were absolutely amazing. For some reason the birds here are so habituated that it is easy to get within spitting distance of them. In South Africa it is virtually impossible to get close to a wader, however on the causeway I was extremely close to herons, egrets, plovers, yellowlegs, pelicans, dowitchers, sandpipers and gulls.
The morning started off absolutely freezing (probably around zero) and so it was a challenge keeping my fingers warm to press the shutter but the subject matter was so good that I got over myself in the cold. I had a Great Blue Heron stabbing fish, a Brown Pelican attempting to pirate the heron, Snowy Egrets, a Short-billed Dowitcher drilling away at the sand and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs prancing away in the shallows. And that was on the salt water side.
On the fresh water side there were plenty of ducks to see but they were tricky to get close to. The ducks in the US are quite specactular – I saw Scaups, Canvasbacks, Shovellers, Blue-winged Teal, Buffleheads, Ruddy Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks.
My next stop for the morning was the beach walk to “the Jetty”. The northern end of the park runs out of road and one has to walk the beach for over 3kms to get to “the Jetty”, which is simply a man made breakwater at the entrance to the Murrel Inlet. It was well worth the trudge as there is a whole host of species that live in the currents that pass through these inlets. In South Africa we just don’t have species that find their niche there, but here in the US the species count is high. There are Scoters, Loons, Eiders, Grebes, Ducks, Cormorants, Terns and Gulls that make these channels their home and for the most part they are pretty spectacular looking creatures. The Scoters are mostly black but their bills make up for the lack of colour elsewhere.
The Common Eider is a crazy looking thing with its pure white plumage and bold head and bill markings. The loons have fine features, even in non-breeding plumage, but nothing took my breath away quite as much as the Long-tailed Duck. This is a marine species (we have no marine ducks back home) and it just seems too ornate to be real. Unfortunately I was not close enough to get a decent photo but even these dodgy pics show how awesome this bird is.
I had a proud moment whilst on the jetty. I was looking at some White-winged Scoters when an American gentleman came up to me and asked me if the birds I was looking at were Eiders. It was quite cool to be able to correct an American birder with an ID question.
The traipse up and down the beach was not completely devoid of birds. I managed to find the friendliest Ruddy Turnstone which obliged for some point blank photos and then I reckon one of the birds of the day was the endangered Piping Plover. It is not much to look at but for someone that loves their waders it was an important one to see.
I also spent some time on the land birds which were all pretty new to me as well. I found that I started to pick up a few of the calls and managed to start isolating some of the different birds as the common ones repeated themselves over and over again. The most common bird around is a beautiful little warbler called a Yellow-rumped Warbler. They are literally everywhere in huge flocks. No matter how common, it has been nice getting to know them and their calls.
I really battled to pull myself away from Huntington and actually got stuck on the causeway on my way out as the light was just perfect and tough birds just became easy to photograph.
I eventually tore myself away as I wanted to visit the Santee Delta further south. In this part of the US there seems to be water everywhere. The low lying land creates a latticework of rivers and channels and, with a bit of rain that has fallen in the last few days, there is just water everywhere. A sign of the flatness of the land is the fact that there is an entire network of roads from the coast to the higher ground labeled “Evacuation Route”. I kept on seeing these signs and then it eventually fell into place when I looked on the map and it had a legend for Hurricane Evacuation. Obviously there are some roads that handle the heavy rains better than others.
Anyway, the Santee Delta is about 45 miles north of Charleston on the Atlantic coast, set between the north and south Santee rivers. It is now a protected area for wildlife but in the past it was used for rice agriculture. There is a town called Georgetown north of the Santee rivers which seemingly had rice as a major industry back in the day as there are a bunch of museums dedicated to it. It seems now that Georgetown employs more people in the steel industry as there is a massive steel mill on the banks of the river which tends to take away the quaintness of the town.
So, the Santee Delta was where I was headed. It was particularly forlorn when I got there as I was the only car parked in the rather ramshackle parking lot. The network of roads around the delta reminded me a little of the roads that traverse Strandfontein, but these ones cannot be driven so it was back on foot for another long walk. I didn’t have the time to walk the entire area but it is a huge flooded area with formally raised separation walls between large ponds. The waterfowl are the feature but there is also a border of large trees between the ponds and the north Santee river. The undoubted highlight of the walk was managing to photograph an American Bittern. The Eurasian Bittern we get back home is virtually impossible to find but American seems a little more accommodating and I was eventually able to get a decent photo.
It was nice seeing a little other wildlife as well. The first animal I saw was a rather sizeable alligator lurking in the shallows whilst a Raccoon was a far friendlier sight.
Quite disturbingly, the peace and quiet of the place was blown apart by the sound of a single gun shot relatively close by. It was hard to tell where it came from but pretty nerve wracking when walking in a wildlife area like that. Interestingly, I checked afterwards and the area I was in is closed to birders during winter as it is open season for hunters. Strangely enough there was no sign telling me that as I entered the reserve. I guess I will have to avoid Santee Delta from now on.
I wrapped up my birding as the sun started to set and reflected on a day that saw me cover huge ground on foot. We have become so used to birding in a vehicle in the reserves we have back home so it was complete freedom to walk everywhere whilst being here. My species count at the end of the day was somewhere in the 80s with only a few birds not being lifers (Ruddy Turnstone, Great Egret being two examples).
I then set about my accommodation hunt. Once again, all I needed was a bed and my GPS took me to the Rodeway Inn situated in the centre of Georgetown. At first glance it was okay (I was not given a list of rules like I was at Brookwood). Encouragingly, there was a sign on the reception wall saying “no parties”, but that didn’t help slowing down the couple next door. I really thought it was a movie cliché (i.e. the energetic sexual activity heard through the thin motel walls) but I can confirm that it really happens. And, for a long time. 45 minutes to be more or less precise.
More appealing was the wonderful meal I had at the River Room restaurant that overlooks the Georgetown waterfront and the Arcelor Mittal steel mill (it’s hard to hide a steel mill behind a few yachts). I got there just in time for a spectacular sunset that I enjoyed with my Allagash White Beer and Rib-eye steak.
Tomorrow is my last day on the road. I will hit the Santee Coastal Reserve in the morning and then find my way to the Planters Inn in Charleston.
Day 5 – In search of a woodpecker
It was another frightfully early wake up, which worries me, as it seems as if my jetlag is not really a thing of the past. I am managing to get to bed really early (despite loud noises next door) but that is all mitigated by the early start.
I waited till it got light and then hit the road, picking up some supplies at “the Food Lion” which seems to be the discount hypermarket in this part of the world.
My destination for the morning was a place called Santee Coastal Reserve. I keyed it into the GPS and it was a short drive down the H17 before I took a left turn and drove the short distance to the reserve. I smiled wryly to myself as I drove past a sign that read: “No littering. $1000 fine” and scattered around the base of the sign was a huge pile of rubbish. It seems that it is not only in South Africa that signs are there for show.
Just before getting to the entrance of the reserve I came across some road kill that was being attended to by a group of vultures. It is amazing to see so many vultures in this part of the world. You wouldn’t really expect it but it is similar to our national parks where you will also see a White-backed soaring overhead. Here they are mostly Turkey Vultures and then one or two Black Vultures.
I read the information sign at the entrance and made sure I read all the clauses related to hunting. There were specific time slots allocated to the hunting of different types of animals but birders were welcome anytime. It seemed safe enough. Speaking to a few fellow birders later on I was told that they close off the trails in these reserves when the hunters are out. I was also told that it helps to wear bright colours on the head as well. It was reassuring that I had my lime green beanie on.
The entrance road to the reserve was very authentically southern. It was almost as if I may bump into Forrest Gump walking down the road. It was certainly the most attractive part of the state that I had seen. The first section was long leaf pine (more about that in a sec) but the really appealing bit was the section of large oaks draped with Spanish moss (I had to google that). Instead of describing the beauty, have a look at the picture.
I decided to take another long walk. The weather was unfortunately miserable. There was a north wind whistling through the trees but I put on two jackets, gloves and my beanie and, armed with a laminated map of the reserve, I headed into the forest.
The birding in the reserve was really good. The first section of my hike was through a flooded section of swamp cypresses, much the same as what I had seen at Congaree. There were drumming Pileated Woodpeckers all around and the occasional frantic splashes and squeals of the Wood Ducks.
The dry ground was mostly through oaks and pines there was also a section that reminded me a lot of the sand forests in Mkuzi and Bonanamanzi in KZN. There was the full assortment of kinglets, titmice, warblers, nuthatches, bluebirds and wrens.
And, of course there were woodpeckers. In fact, Santee was far better for woodpeckers than was Congaree. Hairy was added as a new one but there were plenty of Red-bellied, Downy and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. There was one woodpecker, however, I had come here especially to see.
I didn’t really come to the States to target certain species. I knew almost everything would be brand new and so really common stuff would be just as appealing to me as the less common ones. When I am an accomplished world birder one day I know that future trips to the US will involve a lot more planning and research, but I certainly wasn’t here to look for anything specific.
I do like to stay flexible, however, and since woodpeckers are one of the best families around, I had done a little research and stumbled on a bird called a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This bird breeds exclusively in what is called “long-leaf pine” and over the centuries these trees have declined due to logging and urbanization. A tree that used to dominate the south-eastern states is now extremely fragmented. Along with the decline of the pines was the decline of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. It turned out, though, that Santee Coastal Reserve was THE place to see it. Incidentally, the name of this bird is a bit of a misnomer. There is virtually no red to be seen on it at all. There is the tiniest speck of it at the back of the head but I certainly never saw it myself.
After quite a long loop around the reserve I ended up in a section that was dominated by the pines and, within a few minutes, I heard something a little different and noticed a few small woodpeckers flying from tree to tree. I got my bins on them quickly and noted the telltale signs of the Red-cockaded – tiny size, streaked breast and pure white cheek separating it from the extremely similar Downy Woodpecker. The problem with the pines though is that it is like trying to look through a maze. There are trees everywhere and just when you spot the bird with your naked eye it disappears behind 20 other trees and you end up searching for another ten minutes. I eventually learnt the trick and would listen for their telltale contact calls (which sounded a little like Spike-heeled Larks) and then to spot the birds I would look for falling tree debris which was caused by the method of foraging. I spent an extremely frustrating 30 minutes trying to get a decent pic but failed miserably. I have included my best of the lot after taking several hundred photos (all of which ended up in the waste bin).
It was extremely rewarding to pick up such a rare species while in the States and even better, I managed to find it myself.
The remaining section of the reserve was a network of old rice fields, which held all the wetland species and I was fortunate to bump into three fellow birders who took me around and showed me a few things.
After 5 hours and 15 kilometres of traipsing through the reserve I decided that it was time to call it a day. If anything, the weather had worsened and I figured it was time for some warmth down at the hotel in Charleston.
My hotel is the Planter’s Inn and is located right in the middle of the touristy downtown section of Charleston. My room looks right onto the Charleston Market which is a tourist trap if ever I saw one but it is actually a really cool city. I haven’t had a chance to do much walking around as the weather is still miserable but will try and update my thoughts at a later stage.
I have one more morning of birding before the rental gets handed back and my conference begins.
Day 6 – A final fling
Today would be my last day of birding. In fact, make that half a day. The rental car was due back at lunch time and then I would be restricted to downtown and I don’t foresee too many species there.
It has been an excellent 5 days of birding and I really have made the most of my time here. I challenge anyone to cram more into the 5 days than I did. The one thing I missed, of course, was having someone to share it with. I find that I am okay being alone while birding as I find it quite absorbing, but it is hard to get excited about something when standing alone in a pine forest. It can border a little on insanity if you run around and give yourself high fives.
So, if I could have changed anything I would have loved to have spent these few days with some of my good birding mates. As much as I love having that Red-cockaded Woodpecker on my list ahead of them, I can confirm that I would rather they ticked it alongside me.
Okay, so enough sentimental stuff.
My last morning was spent at a place called the Pitt Street Causeway which is a pier/causeway that juts into one of the inlets of the enormous system of waterways to the east of Charleston. To get there I drove a short 15 minutes from the hotel, over the Arthur Ravenel jr. Bridge (check it on Google images – it is quite impressive) and then into a suburb called Mount Pleasant, from where the causeway extends.
Unfortunately the weather was bordering on awful, which detracted from what would have made for some fantastic photo opportunities. The waders here in the US seem to be far tamer than they are in SA as, at times, I was less than 6 or 7 metres away from waders which are normally the most skittish of birds.
I added a few to my list and also watched a poor plastic-entwined Dowitcher being harassed by a squadron of gulls (including a few Laughing Gulls which was yet another lifer for me).
All that was left after the wader watching was a shortish drive to drop the car off in the pouring rain, which seemed an appropriate moment to bring my birding to a close.
I finished the trip on a list of approximately 115 species (there are some ID questions outstanding on some of the awfully similar sparrows they have here which may increase my tally) and a bucketload of new photos.
As much as I have loved the birding I am equally as excited about my upcoming 5 days. I am going to be meeting about 25 people from all around the world and we are going to be sharing some amazing discussions with one another. The CVs of all the participants are quite daunting and, in fact, the one person I have already met, Denise Vargas from Tegicigulpa, Honduras, is a 40 something year old Honduran with a husband and two kids and she happens to run the largest motorcycle distribution business in the Honduras. We had dinner together last night and if she is a representative sample of the group, then we are in for an enriching experience. Even better is the fact that she loves our South African accent.
I will certainly not be updating this page daily any longer but I may share some thoughts if I have a moment.
Day 12 – Reflections on Charleston and the Deep South
I have now reached the end of my United States sojourn. Well, I wish I had reached the very end. I am sitting at Charleston airport facing a very unfortunate delay in my flight from here to Washington, from where I connect to Johannesburg, and then Cape Town. The sequence of flights was carefully planned to make sure I got back in time for the Cape Town City Cycle Tour, which I am supposed to be riding with Tommy, but that now looks to be a pipe dream. It looks like my best option is to reroute through London and then down to Cape Town. Only time will tell what the end result turns out to be but I may be facing 43 hours in airplanes and at airports.
Anyway, enough complaining.
The second thing I will say (before getting to Charleston) is that it has been very weird being so far away from home during the week of fires in Cape Town. I watched most of it on whatsapp and the internet and it is a strange feeling being so disconnected from such a significant moment in the history of our city. That may be overplaying it a bit, but I am pretty sure people will be talking about the Cape Town fire of March 2015 many years from now. They’ll also be talking about the shortened route for the cycle tour, so it probably does represent something significant.
The week I have just come through has been a remarkable one. It was a gathering of 23 people from different parts of the world for a “Leading in an Era of Globalisation” seminar. I’m not a touchy-feely type of person, but it was the most remarkable 5 days of interaction that I can recall in my personal and professional development. It was way above and beyond the local seminars I have been to as part of the same program.
We had representation and perspectives from the state of South Carolina, New York, San Francisco, Central America (represented by Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras), East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda), the Middle East (Jordan), South Africa and China (Mainland China and Hong Kong). The participants were a mix of diverse backgrounds and careers: business, government, NGO, medical and art.
I heard stories that will remain with me forever and I honestly believe I have made friendships that will overcome the extreme distances between all of us. I already have promises of accommodation from my newly met Central American friends who I will certainly be visiting to add to my bird list.
However, my intention here is not to speak about the conference. What I really want to do is give a perspective of Charleston and South Carolina.
South Carolina is a smallish state in the southeastern corner of the United States. It has three major cities, being Columbia (which is where the legislature, university and big college football team is), Greenville (which is where the economic hub seems to reside with multinationals such as BMW and Michelin being the most obvious ones) and then Charleston (where there is the most authentic reminder of the history of the state and region).
Charleston is a coastal city on a peninsula that runs from north to south into a large water basin. It is a little more complex than that as there are countless waterways surrounding and separating the various isolated suburbs of the greater Charleston area. There are also populated islands (such as Sullivan Island to the north east of Charleston) that house some of the affluent suburbs from where people commute into the city.
I’ll say at the outset that Charleston exceeded my expectations by an enormous margin. It is an absolutely beautiful city with a rich history and, with that comes, a rich architecture. The history here is steeped in slavery and the rice trade. It is also the site of the first shots fired in the Civil War.
A statistic we were given is that, at one time, at the height of the slave trade, there were 2 slaves for every 1 free person. The slaves were brought in from the West Indies and they were landed at the main waterfront where they were bought and sold. They were mostly then dispersed to the rice and cotton estates to the north of the city. We visited one of these estates, called Middleton Plantation, which really looks like an old English estate with a main homestead and gardens modeled on Versailles, with swamps where the rice was farmed.
The rice plantations disappeared when slavery was abolished as it was such a labour intensive industry and the Americans were certainly not going to do that hard work.
The impact of slavery on the overall region has been enormous. South Carolina is one of the poorest states in the country with one of the highest levels of income discrepancy between the wealthy whites and the poorer African Americans (the politically correct reference). Slavery may have been abolished many years ago, but the African Americans in the US are a true minority and, with South Carolina being a dominantly Republican state, there is a large degree of oppression and difference in the opportunities given to whites compared with African Americans. Does it sound familiar?
I noted a lot of evidence of this on my road trip last week, with poverty in the rural areas, but most of these cracks are plastered over in Charleston. I say this sounding critical but not really meaning to be. Charleston was well positioned to take advantage of the trade that passed through it and it has become a very wealthy city. In fact, the city was established in 1670 by eight English colonists who had profit as their main motive for the establishment of the city.
It has also developed as a tourist destination and a significant effort has been made to retain its historic feel. There is a height restriction on the buildings in the city which seems to be about 4 or 5 stories, so it is a particularly “low” city giving relatively uninterrupted views of the church steeples which number in their 20s or 30s (being a strongly Christian state).
The city itself is affectionately called the Holy City due to the prevalence of these churches and, in fact, one of the best beers I had was brewed at the Holy City Brewery, taking its name from the colloquial name of the city.
I had great views of these steeples on one of my excursions which was a walk over the Arthur Ravenel Bridge which spans the Cooper River just to the north of the city. The bridge was completed in 2005 (so it is relatively brand new) and replaced two rickety bridges, one with incoming lanes and the other with outgoing. It cost $700m to build and one of the people I met at a dinner was instrumental in generating a petition by 4th graders to convince the state to make provision for a walking and cycling lane on the bridge. It was this lane that we walked as our excursion.
I did pause to reflect on why there were so many cyclists on the bridge and why they were repeatedly riding from one side to the other. The bridge is about 4kms across and it just didn’t make sense to me why you would repeat that exercise over and over again instead of riding further afield. But, what I learnt is that it is literally the only way to get some altitude training on a bicycle in this part of the world. The maximum height of the bridge is approximately 50 or 60 metres and is their best opportunity to gain some altitude. That’s like riding from Forries to UCT. The rest of the region is virtually as flat as a pancake.
This was brought home even more, when meeting someone else, who said that his house is officially one of the highest in the entire Charleston area. It peaks out at 22 feet (about 6 metres).
As I mentioned previously, the city is absolutely beautiful. I took a walk one evening from the eastern edge of the city, and south around what is called the Battery, to the western edge. It follows a promenade much like we have in Sea Point with views across to all the surrounding islands. The bay area is full of activity with hundreds of walkers, runners and cyclists criss-crossing on the promenade. The architecture is very Georgian (I am treading on thin ice here and I also didn’t listen to the tour guide when he told us about the buildings) but you can easily see the influence if you look at some google images of the city.
Being an historic and tourist-centric city, it is no surprise that the food here is quite a focus. I suppose one always expects an American city to deliver the usual large portions and bland food, but Charleston could not have been more different. The hotel we stayed in provided most of our food as we were conference-bound during the day, but there was certainly no compromise on the quality. The breakfasts were always served with a healthy dose of grits, which is a porridge-like grain-based savoury gruel, that is usually served with a gravy sauce. I’ll be honest – I tried it and I didn’t like it but it was probably the only thing I didn’t like.
Shrimps and salmon were regular features on our menus and on our last night I had a meal of pulled pork, corn bread, coleslaw, dirty rice and collard greens. It was very traditional and absolutely delicious and when I mopped up the last morsel there was consensus from my classmates that I seem to have enjoyed it.
We also spent an evening at a place called Roper House (you can see the Wikipedia link here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_William_Roper_House). It is one of the well known historic buildings in downtown Charleston and is perfectly positioned on East Bay Road, which is the Long Street equivalent, in that it has all the trendy restaurants and clubs. It used to be even more perfectly positioned as it originally had no houses to the south of it and so it was reported to be the first house to be seen for travellers arriving from the water. It is crammed full of 19th century antiques and paintings and the floor is solid oak with the outside verandah typically black and white chequed tiles.
I was about to say that it does not get more colonial than that, but then I remembered that the “butler” of the house, who acts more as a tour guide, is a South Carolina African American man, by the name of Earl, whose job it is to regale the dining guests with tales of the history of the house. He is probably in his mid 70’s and was decked out in full dress suit, white gloves, shoes polished to a mirror-like shine and his stiff back creating perfect posture and poise. His voice was deep, methodical and meaningful and he seemed to revel in the telling of stories about the house.
It seems he is also personally responsible for the upkeep of the house and he referenced this to the frightening story of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 when he was tasked by his boss (the owner of the house – Richard Jenrette), to hold the fort when just about every other person in the entire city had evacuated.
It seemed as if “Sir Jenrette” (I’m not sure if he has been knighted but that was how Earl referred to him) underestimated the ferocity of the storm. However, the walls of the house withstood the 160 mile per hour winds and the 20 foot wall of water that hit from the east. It obviously required an enormous amount of work to get the house into an acceptable state for visitors and it was Earl’s responsibility to put it back to what it had been before.
It just so happened that the first visitor to the house following the storm was Prince Charles, and that was within a month of the devastation. Earl was quite proud of the fact that there was not a single part of the house out of place for the Royal visit.
Do yourselves a favour and google images of Charleston in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. It is quite remarkable to see pictures of yachts parked in the middle of the streets of the city. I actually chatted to a taxi driver who was also in the city when the hurricane hit and he said that they did not have electricity or drinking water for more than a month. You see, Eskom is just like having a hurricane blast through your city.
The discussion about hurricanes makes me realize that no tale of a trip is quite complete without a dissection of the weather. During my time in the south, I had expected the weather to be mild and comfortable. It certainly wasn’t. For the most part, the weather was absolutely miserable and we actually shuffled things around so we got to do the excursion on a bright, sun-shiny day. My trip was also sandwiched by two late winter storms, the first of which arriving on the night of my arrival, and the second preceding the day of my departure. The second one was a countrywide snow storm (well, just about countrywide), which shut down most of the airports on the east coast creating havoc with all the flights.
I started this blog off while sitting in Charleston airport with a fair degree of uncertainty regarding my routing, but now I sit in Heathrow airport with far more certainty, which is a serious delay in my arrival time. I still have high hopes of arriving in time for the cycle tour but at least the idle time has allowed me to piece together these thoughts which may never have happened if my travel was plain sailing.
So, an amazing opportunity presented itself for me to travel to a part of the world I had never seen before. I stole some recreational time for some birding (which I made the most of) and I absorbed every single last second out of the seminar, whilst also getting a great history lesson through the excursions and dinners hosted by the South Carolina locals.
Life returns to normal on Monday morning but that is only if I manage to wake up after some sleep deprivation and jet lag.
A short post script: although I did a bit of research on the birds of South Carolina before I headed across the ocean I was very fortunate to get in touch with a few locals who very kindly put me in touch with the right people and gave me some excellent advice as to where to concentrate my efforts during the short time that I had. Just a quick thanks to Stace, Dana, Virginia and Elizabeth for their kind assistance.