Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge - Georgia
Photography by Joe Kegley | Robert KemmerlinJoe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 07-01-2011
Stormy skies over Harris Neck Creek - Joe Kegley
Until recently, my visits to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge have been pleasant stopovers for a couple of hours on the way to somewhere else, not a destination. That changed when Robert Kemmerlin and I made the refuge our destination for a three day visit this year. The refuge offers a welcome respite from gated communities and coastal development. Refuges like Harris Neck not only play a critical role in maintaining wildlife havens, they provide much needed breathing space and allow us to continue our relationship with nature and enjoy our natural resources. A few of my encounters with wildlife at Harris Neck have been no less than amazing. Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is truly a Georgia gem.
Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge Office - Joe Kegley
Harris Neck NWR is located on an island less than 8 miles from Exit 67 on Interstate 95 in Georgia. The 2.800 acre refuge, approximately 30 miles southwest of Savannah, contains a mixture of salt marsh, fields, oak/pine forests, and six man-made freshwater ponds. Originally developed as a haven for migratory birds (waterfowl), the refuge now boasts a large wading bird rookery during the summer months.
The most utilized areas by the general public include the fishing pier at the entrance to the refuge, Woody Pond dike, Thomas Landing, and the 4.2 mile one-way Wildlife Drive. Automobiles are only allowed on Wildlife Drive and the Thomas Landing Loop, the rest of the trails, roads, and runways are for pedestrian and bicycle use only. Comfort amenities are few. Pit toilets are located near the entrance as is the fishing pier. Bring your own drinking water.
Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is open to the public year-round from dawn to dusk. The entrance gate has always opened on schedule the times I have arrived early at the refuge. The refuge office is open from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, Monday thru Friday.
One distinctive characteristic of the refuge is that it's located on the grounds of a former WWII Army Airfield. The overgrown runways and taxiways are easily recognizable while touring Wildlife Drive, and even more so from a satellite or aerial map. Thomas Landing also has some remnants of the Lorillard-Livingston house. These include a fountain, wading pool, and a swimming pool that has been filled in and overgrown with vegetation.
For images of the remaining structures from the past on the refuge, see Harris Neck Historical Structures.
|Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge map
Note that some trails such as the east side of Woody Pond are closed depending on season, in this case due to wading bird nesting activity during the late spring and summer.
One of the more significant contributions at the refuge is its large Wood Stork rookery during the month of June. Per the refuge website, the Wood Stork rookery is one of the largest in the state of Georgia. Artificial nest sites have been constructed in the northern half of Woody Pond and these structures are used by the storks. The area east of the pond, including the trail, is closed during breeding season. The rookery can be observed at a distance from the Woody Pond dike. In addition to the Wood Storks, other birds that nest in the rookery during this time include Great Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, and Anhingas.
While the main attraction for many is the rookery, my favorite species at the refuge during the spring and summer months is the Painted Bunting. The brightly colored males are quite possibly the most handsome passerine in North America.
Painted Buntings at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge - Joe Kegley
The male Painted Bunting is unmistakable with his brilliant red, blue, and green coloration. The female, while not as showy, is also an attractive bird with her green crown, back, and wings. Look for Painted Buntings in the field and scrub areas of the refuge during the spring and summer months. I seem to have good luck finding them in open areas that have a forested border close by. The runway and taxi area of the refuge is a good place for this species along with Blue Grosbeaks and Eastern Bluebirds. The above images were taken from an automobile parked near a field on the left of Wildlife Drive ... just before entering the old army airfield runway area.
The Painted Buntings at Harris Neck are part of the eastern US population. For the most part, this population is restricted to coastal regions from North Carolina to Florida. Painted Buntings are neotropical and the eastern population migrates south to winter in South Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. Painted Buntings generally arrive at Harris Neck sometime in April and are gone by September/October.
Painted Buntings are considered a "species of concern" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Variables affecting their population include loss of habitat and the caged bird trade. Uncontrolled development along eastern coastal regions contributes to the loss of habitat, not only for Painted Buntings but many other species as well. While it is illegal in the US, the birds can and are captured and traded in Mexico and Cuba.
Late fall and winter are good for migratory waterfowl observations in addition to the resident long-legged waders. Woody Pond is a must see but don't overlook some of the smaller ponds such as Goose, Greenhead, Snipe, and Bluebill. Sometimes (but not always) these ponds can yield surprises. On our most recent winter visit, Blue-winged Teal seemed to dominate Woody Pond, Ruddy Ducks populated the northern portion of Greenhead Pond, and small groups of Hooded Mergansers could be found in any of the six ponds. Wilson's Snipe are frequently flushed near the pond perimeters. As noted earlier, all the ponds are man-made and can be drawn down or filled depending on the season. Expect the ponds to be filled in the winter for migratory waterfowl unless drought conditions exist.
Expect to see an occasional American Kestrel perched in a tree or the low flying Northern Harrier when walking the field and scrub areas during the winter. Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks are year-round residents and common within the boundary. In the evening you might hear the call of a Great Horned Owl. Although the refuge would appear to be good eagle habitat because of the ponds and surrounding rivers, I've only seen a Bald Eagle once at the refuge.
Be on the lookout for river otters in the ponds and mink near the river edges at Thomas Landing during the winter. Armadillos can be found anywhere on the refuge grounds but we regularly saw them at Thomas Landing near the trail to the Lorillard-Livingston home site. Although alligators may be dormant and hidden during colder days, the winters in this area are usually mild and it doesn't take much warm up for activity to start. I frequently saw gators during my winter visits to Harris Neck.
Woody Pond at Harris Neck NWR - Joe Kegley
American Alligator in Woody Pond at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge- Joe Kegley
Killdeer at Harris Neck - Robert Kemmerlin
Ruddy Duck in Greenhead Pond at Harris Neck NWR - Joe Kegley
Wilson's Snipe at Harris Neck - Joe Kegley
Blue-winged Teal at Harris Neck NWR - Robert Kemmerlin
Alligator in Woody Pond at Harris Neck - Joe Kegley
Hooded Merganser hens in Snipe Pond at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge - Robert Kemmerlin
The following is a partial list of some of the bird species we have observed at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. For a complete bird list, visit the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Harris Neck is part of the Savannah Refuge Complex.
Song and Game
Little Blue Heron
Wilderness Experience Perspective
Considering the small size of the refuge, there is ample opportunity to find some solitude. You just won't find it while on Wildlife Drive, at Thomas Landing, or at Woody Pond. You must get out of your vehicle and walk/bike the trails and runways if you're wishing to be alone with the environment.
The refuge can be a bit challenging for bird photography. The Woody Pond rookery is too far away even with a very long lens. In addition, the refuge closes the east perimeter of the pond during breading season so without special permission you will not be able to get close to the nesting Wood Storks. If Wood Stork nesting is what you're after, then I suggest the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in April and May. You'll be able to get very close to nesting waders at this venue.
The banks are fairly high at Woody Pond; you'll be shooting down at your subjects when they are close. This past winter Robert Kemmerlin and I set up lawn chair blinds on the east side of the pond. The blinds worked wonderfully and the waterfowl appeared at ease with our presence, but our photographs had an unappealing angle of view. Getting in the water was not an option considering the alligator population and the steepness of the banks.
Regardless of the challenges, the refuge is one of my favorites for observing wildlife. I strongly suggest a side trip to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge if you are travelling the I-95 corridor through Georgia. The refuge is very convenient to the interstate.
Insect Repellent - I suggest you keep some handy.
Neoprene hunting boots - These are handy for walking in some of the boggy spots.
Location and Points of Interest
Directions: From I-95 in Georgia, take Exit 67 and head south on Hwy 17 for one mile. Take a left onto Harris Neck Rd and drive approximately 6.5 miles. The entrance for Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge will be on your left.
Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Google interactive map)
left double click to zoom in
right double click to zoom out
click and drag to move
hover over markers to see descriptions
- http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=41627 - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web site for the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge ... a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.