By JAMES MALPHRUS of JCM Adventure Journals
Featured image: gopher tortoise (James Malphrus)

It was another sleepy Sunday when we set out for Alapaha River Wildlife Management Area, and our 6:30 a.m. departure was behind schedule. With a late start, we traveled northeast on U.S. Highway 319 from Tifton to find the Alapaha River and the management area it borders.

Great-crested flycatcher (James Malphrus)

Northern mockingbird (James Malphrus)

Alapaha WMA is 6,870 acres of upland pine forest and bottomland hardwood forest. Among the WMAs we’ve visited, it is on the larger side. Signage near the entrance told us there were two protected species on the property: the gopher tortoise and the eastern indigo snake. The gopher tortoise is of particular interest because not only is it our great state’s official reptile, it is also a keystone species of the longleaf pine ecosystem. The tortoise shelters underground and in the process digs burrows that hundreds of species also use throughout the southeastern U.S.

We had traveled some way when we arrived at a fork and decided to consult our maps. Because of the size of Alapaha, there is a great circuit of roadways within its confines, including short roads and small firebreaks that radiate out toward the WMA’s borders. The central circuit has several crossroads and forks that join into smaller loops that make for nice hikes or rides to spot wildlife.

We parked a little way down a firebreak and hiked out one of the spurs. It was a nice walk. We heard distant calls of summer tanagers and pileated woodpeckers but could not track them between the pines. We traveled a short way and tried a different firebreak, one I thought would be better coordinated with the sunlight. We caught glimpses of great-crested flycatchers, eastern bluebirds and fence lizards, among other beautiful creatures.

We passed the time by whistling. Here, I should confess that I have never been good at whistling and have only recently taken an interest in improving. My fiancé Rebecca is fairly accomplished by comparison. I do, however, think that taking up such a practice later in life yields interesting results. In this case my attempts to discover all the ways in which I can whistle or make whistle like sounds I came upon the thought of whistling while humming. Try it. It produces a strange resonating sound reminiscent of an insect. We spent the walk back practicing it and laughing at each other.

Eastern towhee with insect (James Malphrus)

Eastern towhee with an insect (James Malphrus)

During our walk back, we started to think birds were tracking us high in the trees. Apparently, I was not alone in thinking that we sounded like bugs. We tested our theory by taking pauses to see if they closed on us. They did! When we whistled, several small warblers and a pair of eastern towhees would move to our position and call back to our whistling hums. The warblers proved evasive, but one towhee paused on a nearby branch to study us. We were thrilled to see an insect in its beak, possibly for nearby nestlings.

As we crossed into the bottomland hardwood forest near the banks of the Alapaha River, we were confused to find pink flagging along the road. The markings were at irregular intervals and at varying distances from the road, but we were too hurried to investigate. When we spotted the first gopher tortoise it became clear—someone was marking the tortoise burrows. (This is done to protect them when timber is cut on a tract.) We paused and photographed the more congenial tortoises from the vehicle and were careful to watch for any that may have been crossing the road.

As we hit the highway and sped back toward Albany, I was already looking forward to a return trip. The bankside area of the property had great appeal and I cannot wait to take a closer look. Alapaha River WMA will undoubtedly take many more days to properly explore.

To read more adventures, check out James Malphrus’ blog at JCMA.Today.