Fauna: Strix varia

Photo by Tom Ingram/Audubon Photography Awards

Strix varia
Barred owl

The barred owl is one of the most prominent bird figures in the Southeastern United States. With a rather sedentary lifestyle, this bird hunts, fishes, and lives year-round in the Ogeechee River Basin. Often, an owl’s dwelling place can be found in a hollow tree trunk or in a previously abandoned nest but spotting the barred owl is a rarity. It boasts a brown and white speckled hide that blends perfectly into any mature forest. A birder is likely to hear its voice long before detecting its camouflage presence. 

Barred owls can weigh anywhere from 1 to 2.5 pounds, carried on a wingspan of up to 4 feet wide. Like many birds of prey, the owl has a muted flight presence that allows it to catch prey off guard. Breeding pairs generally mate for life, or at least for several consecutive years. They may lay 1-5 eggs per year, though 2 or 3 is most common. Juveniles will begin exploring outside of the nest at about 4 weeks old.

Photo by Janet Strozzo Anderson

The barred owl is responsible for finding its own dinner, made feasible by its ingenious features. The owl has extremely large eyes that capture as much light as possible, making dusk and nightfall into primary hunting hours. Its nocturnal nature is combined with keen ears, and prey is often unaware it is being stalked.

Choosing small rodents like mice and rabbits to frogs, snakes, or lizards, the barred owl is an opportunistic predator. Of course, its hunting skills are rivaled closely by fishing interests. As a native of the Ogeechee River Basin, it is known for gliding over the water and hooking fish with coveted grace.

Lauren Porter contributed to this post.

Fauna: Moxostoma robustum

Image by Duane Raver

Moxostoma robustum
Robust redhorse

Once thought to be extinct, the robust redhorse has been rediscovered and stocked in a few waterways, including the Ogeechee River. Missing from the scientific record for 122 years, it was conclusively identified again in 1991. 

A sizable fish, they can be up to 17 pounds and live nearly 30 years. They are in the sucker family and eat bivalves, using strong teeth for crushing and grinding. This is especially helpful to natural populations as they will consume the invasive species of Asiatic clam. However, the fish will also consume aquatic insects.

via GA DNR

With such a gap in the known history of the animal, scientists are still learning about the species. They seem to require still or slow-moving areas with gravel or silty beds for spawning. Once they reach adulthood, they prefer to live in riverbanks with woody treefall or branches. The health of the population is threatened by habitat loss, primarily from sedimentation.

Since its rediscovery, there has been a current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) recognizing the importance of the robust redhorse and its delicate situation. The MOU includes the GA Department of Natural Resources, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, SC Department of Natural Resources, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, US Forest Service, Duke Power Company, Georgia Power Company, Georgia Wildlife Federation, South Carolina Aquarium, and South Carolina Electric and Gas Company. The parties agree to be actively committed to the restoration of the species.

The Ogeechee River was chosen as a site to stock because of a lack of invasive predators, some gravel spawning areas, and a lack of major impoundments. From 1997 to 2004, about 43,000 young robust redhorse, were released into the Ogeechee River at three different locations.

Followup research in 2008 and 2011 found that the stocked fish were growing and reaching maturity, but that spawning has only been successful in one location near Louisville. Work still needs to be done to make sure this rare species can thrive in the Ogeechee River and throughout the southeast.

Fauna: Eudocimus albus

Photo by Samarra Mullis

Eudocimus albus
White ibis

The white ibis is a wading bird that lives in coastal areas, marshes, wetlands, riverbanks, and swamps. With long pink legs, it stands about 2 feet tall. Its plumage is nearly entirely white, with a small bit of black on the tips of its wings. The black wing tips are generally only visible when the ibis is in flight. 

White ibis feed by dragging their long bill in shallow waters and mudflats. Their diet is a variety of small crustaceans, fish, frogs, insects, and other small creatures. In the 1830s, John James Audubon noted some people hunting and eating white ibis. The flavor was reportedly fishy.

White Ibis by John James Audubon

White ibis live in large colonies, usually building their nests in trees. They typically lay 2-4 eggs and the parents take turns staying with their young. As their habitat has changed, particularly in their Floridian breeding locations, white ibis are likely to be seen in neighborhood canals and golf course water features.

Photo by Samarra Mullis

They are also common in the lower part of the Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers. Though they may be seen in coastal areas, they feed and live in freshwater habitats. Native American folklore assigned it to be the symbol of danger and hope, as it is said to be the last animal to take refuge before a hurricane, and the first to emerge after a storm. 

Fauna: Geomys fontanelus 

Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center

Geomys fontanelus
Southeastern pocket gopher

You might never have seen a pocket gopher as they live almost entirely underground. They are fossorial creatures, meaning they are excellent diggers and prefer to burrow. They flourish in the type of soil found under the longleaf pine, which makes them very happy in the Ogeechee River basin. With giant front teeth and long claws, they look threatening, but are mostly harmless rodents.

They can be annoying for farmers as they dig up mounds of dirt in their fields, but they are ecologically significant in the aeration and mixing of the soil. They are particularly helpful in restoring forests after a prescribed burn by eating subterranean roots and preparing the land for a new planting of pine trees.

You are also unlikely to see a pocket gopher due to their threatened status and declining number. They were listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989 and were even thought to be extinct for a number of years. Scientists are now finding small, locally-abundant populations but they are overall quite scarce.

A very annoyed gopher. Photo by Jim Ozier, GA DNR Wildlife Resources

There are a handful of subspecies in the Ogeechee River basin. G. p. cumberlandius is found only on Cumberland Island in Georgia. G. p. fontanelus is an isolated population near Savannah, and G. p. colonus is restricted to coastal plains in Camden Co., Georgia.

Fauna: Dolichovespula maculata

By Beatriz Moisset – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bald-faced hornet
Dolichovespula maculata

The bald-faced hornet, also called the bald hornet or the white-faced hornet, is technically a wasp and only a close cousin to the true hornet. It gets its name for the black and white coloring (rather than the typical black and yellow) of its body.

Still, it behaves much that same, living in colonies of several hundred and building paper nests created from chewed wood pulp mixed with saliva. Nests high in trees or rocky overhangs are common. These beautiful nests can be up to two feet long.

A bald-faced hornet nest in a tree along the Ogeechee River. Photo by Samarra Mullis

The nests include many layers of hexagonal combs inside of an outer layer protective paper. They also create air vents in the upper portion of the nest that heat to escape.

The adult hornets are omnivores, eating other insects as well as fruit, meat, spiders and plant nectar. Perhaps more fierce and frightening than butterflies or bees, they are also important pollinators.

This species lives throughout most of America and Canada but are most commonly found in the American southeast. They are a stinging insects, though rarely do so unless disturbed. When found in urban or suburban areas it is recommended the nests be moved by professionals.