We had been kicking the idea around for more than a year—visiting all the Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in Georgia—to hike them, camp them, canoe where we could, fish when possible, and maybe hunt some too. It was a desire that occurred when we first learned of the hundred or so sites strewn throughout the state like free to visit national parks back in mid-January of 2019. That’s when we first camped and hunted Hannahatchee near Lumpkin. Immediately, visiting and camping all the WMA sites in Georgia became a bucket listable goal.
Months went by—we visited Hannahatchee a few more times, went shooting at Chickasawhatchee south of Albany, and made note of Pitcher Plant Bog outside of Doerun. We made plans to visit them and then but life intervened—for over a year. We visited Hannahatchee again to shoot at the range, and we did get down to Silver Lake, Mayhaw, and Elmodel over the winter, but barely had time for more than a cursory survey. In a way it was disappointing—that we let life get in the way of spending time in the woods so we’d get to know the wilds of our home state.
We decided to change that—and today we were running late. It commonly occurs that we are so excited about a new place that we cannot make up our minds about what to bring. Camera, check. Binoculars, check. Field guides, of course. Hammocks, probably. Butterfly net, sure. Fishing poles, maybe. Snacks, please. Am I going to need two pairs of shoes, a tent, and swimwear? Probably not—but what if? This goes on, and an 8:30am departure became 9:00am, 9:00am became 10:00am, 10:00am turns into 10:30am and we are just leaving the house. But, hey, getting ready is part of the fun.
Our target was Lannahassee WMA outside of Plains, GA— Home of our 39th President Jimmy Carter. We were not here to glad hand and fawn over our oldest living President (fun fact: Rebecca and I once had brunch with Pres. Carter in Atlanta) but to explore a spot of wild just west of Plains off the road to Preston, GA. We selected Lannahassee for three reasons: it is close to a familiar WMA (Hannahatchee), it is relatively close to home, and unlike many other WMAs— it is not on a major river. We were hoping to balance “new” and “known.”
Among the few consolations for leaving late is that we would not have to contend with any turkey hunters using the property. On the way we shared information we had gleaned from the internet about the space and the nearby settlement of Plains. A point of particular interest to us was how our former First Lady, Rosalyn Carter’s personal butterfly garden inspired the founding of the Rosalyn Carter Butterfly Trail, an organization that promotes and tracks butterfly gardens throughout the country in an effort to raise awareness and maintain a suitable path of flowers/plants to nourish migrating butterflies.
Lannahassee Creek WMA’s southern border is a section of Highway 280 that stretches from just east of the Hog Branch tributary to the Lannahassee Creek, which forms its westernmost border. From there, the WMA stretches north and east to include 4,364 acres of coastal plains. Lannahassee Creek, the smaller Hog Branch, and the nearby Choctahatchee Creek meet the Kinchafoonee just south of 280 where they contribute to its flow. The northern-most accessible launch site of the Kinchafoonee is less than 5 miles away on Highway 41.
We arrived around noon— and started by riding to the Highway 280 bridge over the Lannahassee. The Creek was small, had the color of rusty mud, and was canopied by low shade trees. We decided we’d get up close to it once we entered the forest. We circled back to the information kiosk, which is a great place to start any WMA trip. The kiosks generally have maps that you can take (or photograph) and other bits of information about the site; if you intend to hunt you are required to check in on the day of your hunt.
As we wheeled off the road and up to the kiosk, I was filled with pangs of anxiety—the road was wet, in fact, very wet. The tires of our small SUV spun and slid as we pulled across a small rivulet of red clay silt onto the shoulder to gather information from the board. My anxieties grew as we turned up the main road leading into the woods. The red clay roads were zig-zagged with small streams of water and mud and I increasingly feared that we would get stuck or worse—that the road would become impassible.
Most of the foot trails in the lower area were marked as closed – we guessed it was due to flooding and hoped it was not because of COVID-19. As we moved north the red clay road climbed to higher ground away from the Kinchafoonee, and curved east, away from the Lannahassee. Before long we found ourselves alongside a pond. The small body of water barely reaches the county-maintained road along its southern bank—which is within one hundred feet of the road for much of its length.
The pond stretched northwest away from the road and was shored on most sides by reed grasses and trees, its calm surface spotted with fallen logs lined with rows of turtles sunning themselves in the afternoon light. It reminded me of the days my brother, Cam and I spent chasing critters around our childhood ponds and forests—the capture of one of these Pond Sliders would have been the envy of the other brother for weeks. As we walked along the sandy clay shore, we spied butterflies, dragonflies, small minnows, various trees and plants, and gawked at the Pond Sliders—who seemed to be having a midday nap. I took photos of it all, Rebecca tried her net at butterflies and minnows in turn, and Jodi started looking into the wildflowers in the area. The reeds and the trees made fishing improbable, so we quickly moved on.
Oscar Williams Road was the name of the small county-maintained road we found ourselves on. It was a strange mix of red clay, gravel, and aspiring tributaries. A little east of the pond we found a switchback road that took us north-west into the higher elevations. Shortly up the road, we couldn’t resist stopping to get up close to a flurry of flitting butterflies. I was eager to test out my camera and Rebecca grabbed her net. For a half hour or more we were totally absorbed when I found myself a fair distance from the car. I had been chasing after what I suspected to be a Mourning Cloak Butterfly—the prospect excited me because we had yet to encounter one and so to us, it has yet to be renamed. Suddenly I heard a bizarre bird call: to memory, it was a series of sharp whistles that got quieter as if falling to the ground, which was followed by a variety of cackles and chatters, and then repeated.
Now, I have been bird watching or in the company of bird watchers most of my life, but this one call caught my ear—the Mourning Cloak would have to wait for another day. It calls out again, farther away so it must have been moving. I take a few cautious steps and scan the treetops. It calls out again, but this time I spot movement A couple more steps and I can make him out a medium sized bird with a bright yellow breast on a low pine limb about four trees out. It sings as I steady the camera. Just as I adjust focus, it flies further out into the wood. I trace the path to its perch with my eyes.
At this point Rebecca is following along the road nearby. I moved toward her and asked if she had seen it– “I only heard the song,” she answers. She moved into the woods to meet me, and I tried to guide her eyes to the bird on its distant perch when it did a funny thing—it moved towards us. It came to perch on a low pine limb just a little way out before crossing over us to a tree near the road. We spent several minutes listening, looking on, and photographing the bright yellow and bespectacled bird we now know to be a Yellow-Breasted Chat. It was a sight to see its head crane back and its throat swell with the mighty breaths it needed to belt out the great variety of songs that had drawn us in. Eventually the performance ended, the Chat flew off into the woods, and we made our way towards the car.
On the way we spied a Wood Peewee doing somersaults through the air between perches to catch bugs for an afternoon snack. I took a few photos—but it remained just out of range for a closer inspection. Back at the car, we checked our field guides and identified the yellow opera singer. We returned to the car and headed north up the road. We crested a hill and came upon a large field of new growth– tree clearing, and brush burns are a regular form of maintenance on these sorts of properties. Great. It provides a wide-open area to spot, watch, and photograph birds, butterflies, and numerous other facets of the natural world.
As we idled along the field, a splash of blue caught my eye. Perched on a twiggy shrub tree one hundred or so feet from the road was a deeply blue bird a bit smaller than a light bulb. Rebecca looked him over with her binoculars while I readied the camera – he let out a quick series of sharp high notes and took flight into the field along the road we had just traveled. I sprung from the SUV and tracked him to his next perch, a similar– if leafier shrub some two hundred feet back. I tried in earnest to get a decent photo, but all the camera recorded was a dark bluish blob on a limb.
When I returned to the car, Rebecca told me she thought it to be a rare Blue Bunting– and based on the plates in our field guide, I agreed. The color of the Indigo Bunting appeared too light to be this bird.
Reinvigorated by my desire to capture an image of a rare Blue Bunting and curious about the continued sharp high notes coming from the field, Rebecca and I set off through the brush line. We were quickly surrounded by the flitting of butterflies. After I recorded them–Rebecca decided to return to the car and get her net. A Mortimer and a Roxanne (a Common Buckeye and a Gulf Fritillary Butterfly, respectively, as they are officially known), took long enough pauses to present some decent shots.
Quick sharp notes returned, drawing my attention back out into the shrub trees. The smallest spot of blue emerges on a branch a few hundred feet out—I look back to where Rebecca and Jodi are at the car. In her quest for the butterfly net Rebecca has become distracted by something on the roadside, presumably a different butterfly. I decide to press on without her and advance towards the blue figure looking over the field from its barren branch.
A few brisk steps through the low brush brings me much closer– unlike the bunting this bird has an orange/red breast and a visible whitish underbelly. I watch as the Eastern Bluebird launches into the air after some passing insect and returns to his perch. He does this several times, sometimes changing perches, often singing while at rest. (Watching any thrush, fly, or gnatcatcher at work is astonishing. They hunt by a method I would call wind-fishing. Where the bird from perch sings a song that, I assume, draws prey in. Then, the wind-fisher strikes—employing all manner of aerial acrobatics and speed to snatch the insect from the sky before returning to perch and call up another meal).
I spent some time looking on from a distance, unwilling to advance into the thickening brush and disappointed that my zoom lens with would not zero in on a detailed shot at that distance. Still, it was a sight to behold—and part of why Eastern Bluebirds are among my favorite bird species. After a time, he moved off to more distant perches and I turned back towards the road. At that point Rebecca was working her way out into the brush, net in hand.
Just as I noticed her—I caught the sane deep blue that prompted me to stop the car in the first place in my peripheral vision. There on a limb, smack dab in between Rebecca and myself, was the Bunting – deep blue and singing. I readied the camera and waved for her to hold still while I took photos and advanced on it in turn. After repeating this a couple of times, the bunting took its leave into the wilds—fishing for another meal and a more secluded perch, I assume. I was thankful it had doubled back to give me another chance at it. I moved to meet Rebecca and we returned to the car gabbing about our recent accomplishments.
A little north we turned back to the west and found a nice stretch of road with naturally rocky shoulders—we collected stones to memorialize our visit. We took these back to the highest point we had noted on the road and on the shoulder balanced three stone cairns, one for each of us. From this hill they can overlook the tributaries of the Kinchafoonee and remind us of the journey we had taken up that day, the goals we were setting, and the adventures that lay ahead. We spent the ride home identifying the birds, flowers, and bugs we had seen, bragging about who saw or identified what, and thought about how we could be better prepared the next time we ventured into the wilds for an adventure. It was a good day.
 If “had brunch with” is expanded to mean “had brunch at the same café at the same time as Mr. Carter and his family.”
 No “distracted driving” took place. “We” includes myself, Rebecca (my SO), and Jodi (our roommate), they may have looked up information, but I was driving.
 The existence of the trail is of note because it calls back to our community on the south side of Albany, GA—Radium Springs, for both their connections to presidential families and their purpose of nurturing butterflies whose natural food sources have been threatened by the modern world
 Enticing, but a long-haul paddle on the swampiest bit of the Kinch is an adventure we will save for another day. Such a journey would take far more preparation and is an aspect of another Bucket Listable goal: to paddle the navigable rivers of Georgia.
 A frequent occurrence when one takes a highway vehicle into off-road terrain.
 In preparation for this journey, our team attempted to ascertain if these spaces had been closed as part of the statewide “shelter in place” order—we found no information on the matter on the internet and there was no mention on the information kiosk.
 We have made a game of renaming butterflies.
 There is a good reason too, the clearing of wild spaces provides lumber for mills, jobs for local economies, and large open spaces for observing and hunting wildlife. It keeps the forest from becoming a tangled mess, and it reduces susceptibility to wildfires.
 It wasn’t until we were discussing the matter with our resident lifelong birder, Buck (my father) that we found out that there’s a tendency of illustrations to lighten the color of both buntings – and that a true Blue Bunting would appear nearly black. To which we conceded it to be the more common Indigo Bunting, which has a similar coloration to the Blue Bunting in our field guide.
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