The Swainson’s Warbler is a little brown bird that can usually only be seen in southern swamps between April and July. I’ve wandered the swamps of Arkansas and never seen a hint of one. They can occasionally be found in thickets in the mountains of North Carolina, but I didn’t find one there either.
They aren’t very common, and even when they’re around, they skulk in the underbrush most of the time. I dug around on the Internet and discovered that they can be found in Bond Swamp, south of Macon. I e-mailed the headquarters of the National Wildlife Refuge and received a very helpful reply. I was told that Bond Swamp “has a very good population of Swainson’s Warblers and at this time of year you have a very good chance of hearing them and possibly seeing them.” I was also told where to look on a trail in the refuge and on dirt roads north and south of the refuge.
As I read up on Bond Swamp I discovered it had more than Swainson’s Warblers. It had Cottonmouths, Copperheads, Timber Rattlesnakes (and 23 species of non-venomous snakes), deer ticks (the ones that transmit Lyme Disease), chiggers, poison ivy, Black Bears, wild hogs and the occasional Alligator.
I arrived a little before 3:00 and began walking the trail to Stone Creek. At first, the trail was a track wide enough to drive on. The woods looked like this.
But once I got to Stone Creek and began walking the “trail” that paralleled it, I was pretty much just walking through the swamp. Every couple hundred yards there was a sign to indicate that another human, at some distant point in the past, had been there before me.
I took my time and looked for snakes before every step while also looking and listening for birds. I thought at one point that I heard a Swainson’s Warbler singing, but it was on the other side of the creek and I had no way to get to it without wading, which I was not about to do. Here’s where I heard it.
I stood and listened for several minutes, but it didn’t sing again. The creek began looking more and more swamp-like.
I finally came to a proper dirt road and, for the first time since I’d gotten there, relaxed. There were birds around, like this male Hooded Warbler.
I was disappointed that I didn’t see a Swainson’s Warbler in the refuge, but according to the e-mail I received, Bondview Road, north of the refuge seemed like my best shot anyway. Here’s what I’d been told: “This is a county road that starts out paved but quickly becomes a dirt road. It floods several times a year and can be a very rough ride — to the point of causing damage to vehicles. If the road is dry, you can usually make it to the first bend, but from this point the average person’s vehicle will have to park and you will have to walk the road. The landowners are very sensitive to anyone trespassing for any reason so make sure you stay on the roadway. The best Swainson’s habitat is closer to the river near the railroad tracks, so you probably have a mile to walk after you park your car.”
I found the road and had no trouble identifying the spot beyond which I shouldn’t attempt to drive my rental compact.
I parked, hung my camera and binoculars around my neck and tucked my i-Pad under my right arm. (I wasn’t terribly comfortable with leaving my car and decided not to leave anything of value inside. Of course this meant that I was carrying a lot of stuff. I got about 50 yards from the car, stepped on a slippery slope along the first puddle and ended up flat on my back and side. My shoes, my right pants leg, my back and my left hand were coated with half an inch of sticky mud. Somehow I managed to keep my camera and binoculars out of the mud and water and hang on to my i-Pad, but at the sacrifice of my right elbow which got banged and scraped up quite a bit. The impact jarred my i-Pad somehow and it began playing, I kid you not, “Swanee River Boogie.”
You can see my impact mark in the mud on the right side of the puddle. That’s the Ocmulgee River just visible through the bushes on the right.
I came very close to quitting at that moment. My elbow hurt and I was filthy. But I figured I’d come this far and, based on what the e-mail said, was almost certain to see my bird. I kept walking. After a while, the mud dried and I was able to scrape most of it off.
The “landowners” consisted of several places along the river that had been decked out with plastic chairs and grills, probably as fishing camps. I can’t imagine anything more enjoyable than camping in humid 90° weather in a snake- and mosquito- and tick-infested swamp.
The road kept getting worse and worse, and in several places there were large rut marks through the woods where trucks had driven around the largest puddles. I had no choice but to go off the road to get around these spots. Apparently I’m still not allergic to poison ivy.
I finally got to the area where I was led to expect Swainson’s Warblers. I wandered back and forth and stood still for several minutes listening, and saw and heard a lot of stuff, but no Swainson’s Warblers. A Summer Tanager showed up and kept me company for a while.
It began to feel very much like I’d struck out again. I hung around for probably 45 minutes, but with little sense of expectation. I walked back to the car, stopping every 100 feet to listen, but heard nothing. I ran into a couple of the locals — complete with pickups, gun racks and camouflage clothing. They looked at me a bit strangely but gave me no problems. (I have several relatives in the south who would fit right in with these guys, so I wasn’t really too worried.) I was happy to find the car where I left it. I’m pretty sure it would have been completely submerged in a few of those puddles if I had tried to drive it down that road.
It was now 6:00 and too late to do much else with the day. Besides, I was sore and sweaty and muddy and very much wanted to quit, but I decided to try once more at the spot where I’d thought I heard the first one. When I got there, I saw several guys fishing along the creek. I got out and looked around for a few minutes, but decided I wasn’t up to that trail again.
That left one more option, Reids Station Road south of the refuge. I received the same warnings about trespassing, but the road itself was supposed to be much better. It was. This was more like it — a well-maintained dirt road through a swamp with nobody else around. I could do my birding from the car and not worry about snakes or getting shot. I did get out a few times in likely-looking spots like this one.
But mostly I drove along slowly with the windows open listening carefully. I drove and drove and drove until I came to the gate for a private hunting club. It was a bit of a trick to get the car turned around, but I managed. The day was fading fast and the mosquitoes were getting lively. I decided I’d missed the bird — again.
Along the way, I did see the following birds.
- Carolina Chickadee
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
- Northern Cardinal
- Northern Mockingbird
- Acadian Flycatcher
- Tufted Titmouse
- Indigo Bunting
- Carolina Wren
- Green Heron
- White-eyed Vireo (it seemed like every time I stopped to listen, I heard a White-eyed Vireo)
- Hooded Warbler
- Great Crested Flycatcher
- Prothonotary Warbler
- American Redstart
- Summer Tanager
- Black Vulture
- Pileated Woodpecker