The laughing, haunting sound of a loon floating across the water at dusk was a sound I read about but did not think I would ever hear. Then, years ago at Christmas, I heard something I had never heard before while fishing at Clarks Hill and guessed it was a loon.
I tracked the sound down to a gray and black bird swimming low in the water. I watched as it dived, looking for dinner. I could not believe how long it could stay down and how far it would go on one dive.
Loons are common on area lakes in the winter now. As their populations increased, they migrated farther south looking for ice free water where they could feed. I still love hearing them while fishing, and often use them to locate schools of baitfish and bass.
Gulls and terns are also common on our lakes in the winter and can help find schools of fish. I have caught many bass, stripers and hybrids by running to an area where gulls and terns were diving from the air, feeding on injured herring and shad from fish feeding under the water.
Gulls and terns come to our lakes to escape rough weather on the coast. There are many more of them during the winter. Gulls are bigger and watching them is more consistent for finding fish since they usually don’t soar along watching for bait near the surface like terns will do.
I call terns “Judas terns” since following them is often frustrating. Unless they circle and concentrate on one spot, you can follow them a long way without finding any fish. But a circling group of either of the white and gray terns and gulls is a good sign to go fish there.
A few years ago in a January tournament at Oconee I saw a couple of big white birds diving to the water surface. I was surprised and had to get closer to confirm they were pelicans. I had never seen those birds on a lake. I guess they came inland to escape a storm. I have seen many pelicans, from one up close on a dock at Islamorada, Florida to watching them dive on schools of baitfish in the Sea of Cortez.
Travel has exposed me to many birds this country Georgia boy never expected to see. I have pictures of me squatting on the ice in Antarctica with penguins waddling by close enough to touch and have watched wild parrots in trees along the Amazon River in the rain forest. Watching an albatross soar behind a ship without flapping its wings for many minutes is amazing.
But local birds are my favorites. One year while driving home from Jekyll Island I saw a bird soaring over the surrounding pines that made me stop and pull to the side of the road. I watched it for several minutes, trying to figure out what it was.
I got out my bird book and found out it was a scissor tail swallow. Its long, forked tail feathers were very distinctive. They are native to the Southeast but rare. Their contrasting black and white markings on the bird makes them stand out, and they are a little bigger than a crow. They soar low over trees looking for food in the branches.
Canada geese don’t really migrate through Georgia and I had never seen wild ones here until the Georgia DNR started a stocking program. They brought in adult Canadas and clipped their wings so they could not fly.
Some big wire enclosures were built on coves on Clarks Hill and they were kept there.
As they raised young and increased in numbers, they were allowed to leave the pens. Nests were built on stilts to protect eggs from predators and numbers increased a lot. Since the young had not been taught to migrate, they stayed here year-round.
One night sitting on my deck at Clarks Hill on a moonlit night I heard the haunting honking of geese as they flew by. It gave me chill bumps since I associated that sound with northern wilderness areas. I had heard domestic geese honk but this was very different, hearing it out on the lake at night.
Geese have become so common now it is unusual when you don’t hear and see them. I now call them “pigs with wings” since their droppings leave a mess where they feed and I have seen some docks where they roost at night so covered with droppings you could not step on it without stepping in it.
Kildeers fascinated me when I was growing up. They were common in our big field but I could never get close enough to them to get a good look at them. Then one day I was able to sneak up on one and shoot it as it flew off the ground.
It was a beautiful bird with brown and white markings with gold highlights. I satisfied my curiosity and never tried to shoot another one.
Birds are amazing, especially when you learn amore about them. I used to carry several bird identification guides with me everywhere I went, but not all that information is available with a few taps on your phone!