Summer is prime time for birding

Summer has arrived and with it the sticky, south Georgia humidity threatening to drive even the most enthusiastic outdoorsmen and nature lovers inside. There is one outdoor activity, however, that doesn’t require fans to brave the blazing summer heat  — birdwatching.

Most native species have fully migrated to the area now and are active early in the morning or in the evening time when temperatures are cooler. Many will frequent a feeder near a window so novice birders don’t even have to leave the comfort of an air conditioned home to start identifying and logging birds.

With more than 400 species of birds in Georgia alone, birding could become a lifelong hobby.

“I haven’t come close to seeing all the birds,” says Chip Sasser, a local birder who has been watching for decades.

Birding is easy to do wherever you go. There’s always something to see.

“We just really love it. Everywhere we go we try to take our binoculars and bird book,” says Sasser’s wife, Gina.

The Sassers have been birdwatching together for more than 30 years. It’s how they fell in love.

The couple, who will soon celebrate a 35th anniversary, have definitely marked ‘lovebirds’ off their species to see list.

They met in the early 80’s when Chip was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Most of their dates included a drive around the refuge at sunrise or sunset to watch the birds feeding or flocking.

“We fell in love birding. Our romance was teaching her how to bird and riding around on the wildlife drive on the weekends,” Chip recalls.

But, it’s the thrill of a new species that has kept the Sassers hooked all these years. The chance of spotting a new bird has them outside with binoculars every chance they get.

“I enjoy the challenge of identifying the birds,” Chip says. “It’s a relaxing hobby for me and it’s always something new. There’s no guarantees with wildlife.”

For Gina, the thrill of spotting a new bird is exhilarating.

You don’t have to travel far to see a spectacular bird either.

Swallow-tailed kites, with their bright white head and gleaming black wings, can be seen regularly on Hwy. 40 between the St. Mary’s River and the Satilla, and on the highway near the Okefenokee Swamp Park. The kites soar at treetop level around the entrance road to the park and in the Racepond area.  

A bald eagle has been spotted at Racepond, too, Chip says.

People out fishing or camping along the Satilla are likely to see glossy or white ibis, a long-legged, long-billed wading bird. And, a great blue heron has nested on the Satilla recently.

Wood storks, an endangered species, are also in the Pierce/Ware County area. They aren’t hard to spot – they’re the only stork whose neck AND feet stick out comically when in flight.

A peregrine falcon sighting is rare, but they’re here, too, Chip says. He’s most proud of spotting one of those raptors several years ago.

The boardwalks at Okefenokee Swamp Park are a great place to take up birding, and there are several observation tours along the coast within driving distance.

“The coast is rich with shore birds and wading birds,” Chip says.

For birders who would rather take up the hobby from a perch at the kitchen window, however, bird identification possibilities are nearly limitless right now.

Multiple varieties of finch, Carolina wren, flickers (a woodpecker species), tufted titmouse, cardinals, purple martins and doves are likely to frequent a feeder with a good nut and fruit blend. The occasional blue jay may appear, too.

Hummingbirds are easy to attract this time of year as well with a brightly colored feeder.

Hummingbird food mix can be made at home easily by mixing ¼ cup sugar to a cup of water. But, the most important thing to remember is to keep food fresh for the birds.

“It’s important to keep it clean. You can’t let it sit there and mildew,” Chip says. “That’s the biggest thing … you don’t want to make them sick.”

Birding can be a fun, relaxing and low-cost hobby, but it’s practical, too.

Birders who want to reduce the insect population can put up gourd houses for the purple martins. The martins and tiny chimney swifts are avid insect eaters, and they’ll keep the pesky mosquitoes and gnats at bay.

Tools of the trade for birding are simple. A good pair of binoculars and a bird identification book are all you need to get started, Sasser says.

He recommends Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America, or Sibley’s Guide to Birds.

So many birds look alike, that a guide book helps birders look for tiny, often unnoticed, distinguishing features like an eye stripe, color of legs, length of bill or specific feather patterns.

Even birders who’ve been practicing for decades can’t identify all species with certainty though.

“We’ve marked a lot of them unknown,” Chip says with a laugh.

Other helpful resources for Georgia birders include:

• Department of Natural Resources (DNR) site featuring state birding trail map, species list for Georgia birds and popular birding locations across the state: https://georgiawildlife.com/ColonialCoastBirdingTrail

• Real-time migration map across the U.S. compiled by Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/mesmerizing-migration-watch-118-bird-species-mig