Chickasawhatchee – Returning with a Watchful Eye

Chickasawhatchee – Returning with a Watchful Eye

That midweek foray had piqued our interest. We made up our minds—and when Sunday came, we went back to Chickasawhatchee Wildlife Management Area for a closer look. We left before dawn, as we often do, and arrived ahead of the sun. The pre-historic feel of Mud Creek Road, the same road Rebecca and I had made our escape by, was dwindling within the pre-dawn light.

The week’s end had afforded us time to research the space, examine maps, and plan for our adventure. Our first objective would be a main road hike through the areas synonymous with the namesakes of both the road and the WMA—we were going to hike Seven Bridges Road through Chickasawhatchee Swamp.

Chickasawhatchee Swamp occupies roughly 335 square miles of South Georgia’s coastal plain. It is among the largest fresh-water swamps in the Southeastern United States—taking second after the Okefenokee in Southeast Georgia and North Florida. Chickasawhatchee is unique: the collection of spring and surface water tributaries unite in bottomlands where the limestone bedrock is soft and thin, giving the deep-water swamp a relatively direct connection to the local aquifer.

This connection within the swamp complex allows Chickasawhatchee and the Upper Floridian Aquifer to rapidly exchange water, and excess water passes from one to the other easily. This relationship between the aquifer and the swamp has many benefits. Humans benefit with improved water quality through the biofiltration and flood dampening that the swamp provides, and wildlife benefits from a stable wetland— even in extreme drought conditions. For these reasons and many more, the National Audubon Society has designated Chickasawhatchee Swamp as an Important Bird Area under the original Indian name “Swamp of Toa.”

Chickasawhatchee Wildlife Management Area itself does not encompass the whole of Chickasawhatchee Swamp, but the acquisition of the WMA marks one of the most significant efforts to conserve wetlands in Georgia. Within the WMA several smaller creeks join, or re-join, the Chickasawhatchee as it makes its way south towards the Ichawaynochaway.

We pressed on down the graveled road as the sunlight began to stream through the trees, and we caught glimpses of the Indigo Buntings that were breakfasting along the road. The small birds flashed bright blue in the lights of our approach as they flit off into the trees, undoubtably waiting for us to pass so they could safely return.

A dark shape charged from the woods at the edge of daylight, its path cutting across a field towards the road—I sped up to catch a brief glimpse of a Wild Hog as it broke through the hedgerow and barreled across the road and into the woods ahead of us.  The rush of the chase had barely faded when we stopped at the intersection of Mud Creek and Seven Bridges Roads—where we found an Alligator, the first of many we would spot on our visit.

West of the Alligators’ fork we found a dove field. We pulled off the road and parked—careful to put as much space as possible between us and the gator. We were eager to begin our hike into the swamp, but we meant to be careful. For this initial visit, we would keep to Seven Bridges Road, as its raised causeways and bridges would be a buffer for us against dangers that could be waiting in the wild swamp.

We followed the sunlit road as it curved down into the bog. The shoulders of the causeway quickly swept low into the wetland and joined brush and trees to form a shadowy tunnel. Even as the sun rose, and daylight could be seen at both ends—light in the swamp was subdued, filtered by tall trees above and swallowed up by the mud and water below. We reached the first bridge, the span of concrete shone bleach white in contrast to the creek and its muddy shore. Silence overtook us as we surveilled the scenery for life.

The shady forest pool looked nearly placid, with currents that were barely visible in the dry summer. We looked closer, crossing from one side of the bridge to the other, seeking some track or trace of something living among the trees. When the silence broke, I jumped—a splash beneath us, followed quickly by an angry squawk and the mad flapping of wings. A large white bird flew from under the bridge and out into the trees before we could get a clear look at it. We must have interrupted breakfast.

Now, with less tension in the air, we pressed on through the swamp. The leg we had chosen had five of the seven bridges and crossed the Chickasawhatchee Creek near the middle. We frequently paused to enjoy the views that the road afforded us of the darkened swamp. Among our most notable sightings were a pair of Limpkins and a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron.

At the farthest bridge we again startled a large wadding bird, possibly the same one. We pressed on to the daylight before turning to make our way back to the car. The swamp teemed with the sounds of life on all sides—the low groans of large mammals and reptiles in the distance. The trills of birds hiding in the trees – and the irritated squawk of a wading bird again flushed from its fishing hole.

Near the eastern reach of the swamp we paused at the sight of a grazing deer. The backlighting of the sun shown brightly on the uphill road behind the buck as he foraged. After a short period, we moved forward, and the buck fled into the forest along the eastern swamp. We emerged into the light and made our way back to the car.

We spent much of the day following the road as it wound between fields of wildflowers and fluttering butterflies—occasionally stopping to take a short jaunt up a firebreak or along a pond. We found untamed forests and wetlands with life teeming at every edge! We found Limpkins, Night Herons, Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow-Breasted Chats, Mississippi Kites, Barn Swallows, Eastern King Birds, Great Horned Owls, Summer Tanagers, Eastern Towhees, White Ibis, Green Herons, Red-Tailed Hawks, Yellow-Billed Cuckoos, and so many others I can barely recall! We spotted White Tailed Deer, Wild Hogs, Alligators, Yellow Bellied Sliders, and frogs too quick to identify. And enjoyed the whimsical fluttering of countless butterflies! Macklin (Monarch), Ruby (Queen), Hot Thomas (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail), Clarence (Pipevine Swallowtail), Mortimer (Common Buckeye), and Roxanne (Gulf Fritillary) to name a few.

A eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on lavendar

In short—Chickasawhatchee Wildlife Management Area is a beautifully wild place that we’re looking forward to visiting many times in the years ahead and it is tremendously beneficial to both the human life and the wildlife in our region. I would encourage anyone with a wild heart to visit this space with a conservationist’s resolve—the only traces we should leave are footprints.

-JCM


To read about our first trip to Chickasawhatchee WMA CLICK HERE!

To see a full spread of the Photos we took CLICK HERE!

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