A Journey to Horse Creek WMA

A Journey to Horse Creek WMA

July had been a month, each week a hectic rush of troublesome events and paradoxically wonderful moments. Some of it left us drained and emotionally tense, while other of it inspired abject joy and a deep sense of gratitude.  As a side effect of June’s pace, we only spent one weekend adventuring—we longed to visit more wild spaces and spend hours touring lush forests and grassy fields in the search of beautiful birds, woodland creatures, and memorable landscapes, but circumstance held fast and we had no choice but to remain at home.

Despite the trials, many good things came of those weeks we were home-bound, among the easiest to note is our upgraded equipment. With a bit of saving and the help of those people who donated to our GoFundMe campaign, we were able to acquire a new lens for our DSLR camera! To those who helped us: we are profoundly grateful.

As July passed, we entered August with excitement! We were eager to get back to fields of wildflowers and tracts dense with trees. Our first target: Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area. We decided, after visiting Pigeon Mountain, that in contrast to the north Georgia mountains—a tour of Georgia’s coastal plain was in order. Horse Creek and its twin, Flat Tub WMA, straddle roughly ten miles of the Ocmulgee River and the two WMA tracts include lands from three Georgia counties.

Horse Creek WMA is roughly 8000 acres of coastal plain along the northern bank of the Ocmulgee River near Jacksonville, GA. It is world renowned as the site of Montgomery Lake where George Perry landed the world record largemouth bass in 1932, a record that still stands over eight decades later. Anglers seeking glory should note that there is a half mile trail out to the lake only accessible by foot. Horse Creek boasts two landings on the Ocmulgee and a nice shady camping area complete with facilities for showers and animal processing.

Most WMAs have at least some roads, though their quality and use differs wildly. Major accesses are almost always some form of dirt and/or gravel with reinforcement where the road is likely to wash out (or has in the past). Such WMA roads are, in our experience, accessible year-round.  Lesser thoroughfares are smaller and tend toward overgrown dirt tracks that can lead through high grasses, along washboard slopes, and through muddy bottoms. Automotive access to these lesser roads varies throughout the year and we often find closed gates blocking roads that we thought would be open (we use a number of online resources to research the places we intend to visit, and they are not always accurate). In addition to roads, there are permanent firebreaks and foot trails that lead deeper into the woodlands. Whatever the road type, they are suitable for hiking and for wildlife observation.  

On that summer day at Horse Creek, we were looking for birds and butterflies to test our new lens on, and so we intended to keep close to the roadways. We followed the main road until it forked at an information kiosk, and to the right we found the game station, bathrooms, and campgrounds. We appreciated that the campgrounds featured trees. Many of the WMA campgrounds we have visited do not, and trees are a big deal to us because our favorite means of camping is in hammocks.

We backtracked and followed the left fork deeper into the forest while looking for good subjects to photograph. We soon spotted a Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly, which we’ve nicknamed Clarence, flitting among the roadside wildflowers. I walked ahead of the car, snapping pictures of the Clarence as she collected nectar and pollen from the yellow flowers. Rebecca trailed us from the driver’s seat, and once the Clarence left the roadside flowers I waved her up and we resumed our exploration of the wilderness.

The Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, or Clarence, feeds on a roadside flower as we watch.

Shortly afterwards, we found Goathouse Road on the right. It features a wide grassy path and crosses several wildlife openings and trailheads as it leads towards an area of wetlands called Coffee Branch. Most wildlife openings are clearings filled with high grasses and wildflowers. These clearings make ideal environments to seek out butterflies, birds, and mammals as many species make use of them for foraging and/or hunting. A note to mammals who plan to hunt these spaces: be mindful that hunting is prohibited within 50 yards of a road open to vehicular access. (Having a loaded firearm within the boundaries of a wildlife management area is considered hunting).

We stopped frequently to photograph birds and butterflies that we spotted along Goathouse Road, but eventually we came to its end at a “T” intersection where we turned south and followed the roadway to the gate at Coffee Branch. Coffee Branch is the site of an “enhanced wetlands” project that was spearheaded by Ducks Unlimited and increased habitats for resident and migratory waterfowl. The project, completed in 2005, created more than 200 acres of wetlands by installing water control structures and levies. While the Ducks Unlimited brief mentions the availability of Waterfowl Hunting Opportunities at Horse Creek WMA, no Waterfowl season was listed for Horse Creek at the time of this writing. Wildlife Management Areas often have hunting seasons that are unique to the space and moderated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. A full list of WMA’s and their hunting seasons can be found here.

The signage that marked the entry to Coffee Branch was accompanied by a gate. Between the long drive and mid-day heat, we decided to leave a pedestrian exploration for another day. This seems like an idyllic place to seek out migratory waterfowl in the winter months—Hopefully, it won’t be too cold!

We resumed our exploration with three final locations in mind: The two boat landings and Montgomery Lake. Many of the roads within Horse Creek WMA were gated forcing us to retrace our steps once more, and as before, we frequently stopped when photo opportunities presented themselves. The casual bird lighting on a limb, the whimsical flit of a butterfly in flight, the occasional insect, reptile, or plant are the bread and butter of our ambitions; we paused frequently to inspect them and/or photograph them along the way.

The Juvenile Yellow-Breasted Chat watches us intently as we turn onto Goathouse Road.

We reached the beginning of Goathouse Road and turned back onto the main road towards the Ocmulgee River. The winding road leads through shady bottom lands, along field edges, and through planted pines until it comes into a parking area at the edge of the river where a concrete ramp leads into the muddy waters of the Ocmulgee below. We observed the curve of the banks for a moment before seeking out the second boat ramp.

Our course took us back along the main road and then across several smaller roadways to Staves Landing Lane, a county-maintained road that borders and passes through part of the northern edge of the WMA before reaching the easternmost landing. The Ocmulgee is a costal plain river with numerous oxbow turns. From time to time rivers adjust course, usually in the wake of heavy rains and/or flooding, and the oxbow turn becomes an oxbow lake. Oxbow lakes are areas of riverbed that collect and hold water that doesn’t flow into the river. Montgomery Lake is one such lake. We followed the fork out to the trailhead, but again decided to save the hike for another day—one where we have our fishing poles!

After a short inspection of Staves Landing, we returned to the highway and began the journey home. We thoroughly enjoyed Horse Creek and we’re looking forward to visiting it again soon!

-JCM


To see more Photos from our visit to Horse Creek WMA click here!

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