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Oaky Woods

Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area, Georgia.

Introduction How to Get There Terrain and Ecosystems Trail Description Plants and Animals Stories In-Page Navigation, Mount Jackson Page
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Oaky Woods

Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area, Georgia.

Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area is a large tract of privately-owned land that the state of Georgia leases to operate as a hunting and wildlife conservation area. That status was in some danger, and the area's fate was placed before the voters of Georgia in 2008, but the proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed Oaky Woods to become a suburban subdivision was voted down.

Conservation efforts continue to work on a consortium of federal, state, county, and private funds to purchase the land from the developers who currently own it and place it into a permanent conservation status, whether as state property or something else. See the Save Oaky Woods Web site for more information on this effort. This site also has a great deal of information about the flora and fauna of Oaky Woods that I was unaware of when I lived in Georgia, and some information about changes that have occurred since I lived there. For instance, the feral hogs I saw there were indeed feral hogs. Since that time, some true wild boars were introduced into the area, which have interbred with the existing feral hogs, creating a hybridized population that exhibits characteristics unlike those of other feral hog populations elsewhere in the southern U.S.

I used to go hunting there for deer, ruffed grouse, and most often, squirrels. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning. To me, having just moved down from Delaware that summer of 1973, I was exploring a new outdoor environment at least as much as hunting.

There were many similarities between my familiar Mid-Atlantic woods and this Southeastern Piedmont environment, but many interesting differences as well.

Preparing to write this description has been a "déjà vu" experience. Just as my old Petersburg State Forest in Delaware was no longer the same place, so the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area has changed dramatically, and it was threatened with even more dramatic changes. So, this description is of a place that has changed from the way I remember it.

Oaky Woods is actually two separate tracts of land managed as a single unit. My experience is mostly in the main tract located between the Ocmulgee River and the towns of Bonaire and Hawkinsville.

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How to Get There

From Warner Robins, I would go south on State Route 247 to Bonaire, then go east on State Route 96. These days, it appears that you have to stop at the check-in station near the town of Kathleen, but back then, I'd just follow a long dirt road just west of the Ocmulgee River until I saw the signs indicating that I was in the Wildlife Management Area.

My favorite place was located about three miles south of the boundary, where a smaller dirt road, nearly overgrown with weeds, turned off to the east. A hundred yards or so east of the main road, this side road passed through a log-littered clearing that was the footprint of a tornado that had passed over the hillside a few years earlier. The side road might be passable in a pinch, but I'd generally park along the main dirt road, then walk along the smaller road to the top of a hill. Depending on the quarry of the day, I'd either stake out on a hillside overlooking the road and the tornado clearing to watch for deer, or I'd follow a deer trail north into the woods to hunt for squirrels. Sometimes, I'd tramp along the woods just outside the clearing to flush up grouse.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

I only lived in Georgia one year, after having lived in Delaware for five years, and even in my thirty-plus-year-old memories, I can hardly think of the ecosystems of Georgia without comparing and contrasting to those of Delaware.

Oaky Woods was a mixture of ecosystems, both natural and artificial. Having long been owned by paper companies, it contained large areas that had been logged recently and were growing back as meadows, rich in bobwhite quail and rabbits. There were similar clear areas where power lines and a railroad passed through, as well as the tornado footprint. There were also sizeable tracts of "tree farm," which the casual observer might mistake for forest but which are in fact nearly as empty of wildlife as a desert. The unspoiled areas, which constituted most of Oaky Woods, were upland forests of mixed pine and oak or seasonally flooded "river bottom" forests of flood-tolerant live oak, hardwood shrubs, and impenetrable curtains of greenbrier.

The soil of middle Georgia is surprisingly poor, consisting of a thin layer of living topsoil on top of the nearly sterile red clay. The scrubby pines and oaks that live there never grow tall, but the forests are still pleasantly rich in wildlife. Along the river bottoms, the soil is thicker and richer, but the seasonal flooding prevents the growth of large or genuinely old trees.

The deer and gray squirrels in the area were both noticeably smaller and darker than their counterparts in Delaware. They lived in both the upland forests and the river bottoms. The deer would browse in the clearings most of the year, but kept to the woods as much as they could. The squirrels were surprisingly fond of pine cones, even in the midst of all those acorns.

Bobwhites were the only game bird as far as most of the local hunters were concerned, but I was pleased to find my familiar ruffed grouse in Oaky Woods, and here there was an open hunting season for grouse. There were also numerous songbirds and raptors.

There was an interesting dynamic between the deer and the feral pigs. Most of the time, they seemed to leave each other alone. But when the oaks were dropping their acorns - whether the upland white oaks or the river bottom live oaks - both the deer and the pigs wanted them. And the pigs would not tolerate the deer sharing their acorns. When it comes to an assertiveness contest between deer and feral pigs, numbers don't count. One pig could drive off three deer (seen it), and a lone deer would not even approach a family of pigs.

In addition to the living ecosystems, Oaky Woods preserves evidence of ancient life. There are scattered boulders and a few ledges of limestone in the upland areas full of fossils of the Ordovician Period. Even a casual observer can find trilobites and brachiopods ("clams"), and a closer look reveals the tracks of ancient worms and many smaller creatures.

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Trail Description

Oaky Woods was not a park, so there were no marked or maintained trails. There was an extensive network of dirt roads. Most of the game trails were easily passable, being used by both the deer and the feral hogs.

Recent maps of the area suggest that there now are designated trails and camping areas, but that was not the case when I lived in Georgia.

There were two roads that I remember best. One was a long, straight, wide road surfaced in red clay that ran south from Route 96 just west of the river. The other was a much smaller plain-old-dirt road that intersected the larger road about three miles into the Wildlife Management Area. This road was better as a trail than a road, covered with thick weeds over three feet tall. I don't know where either road ended, and I don't think the present-day maps necessarily indicate the same roads.

The smaller road crossed the tornado clearing and disappeared into the river bottoms. But I never followed it far enough to know exactly where it went.

From the crest of the hill just before (west of) the tornado clearing, there was a large game trail that went north into the oak and pine woods.

Another way I often went, though there was no actual trail, was to wend my way through the fallen trees of the tornado clearing to the live oak river bottom at the northeast corner of the clearing. When the acorns were falling, that was a good place to look for deer, if the pigs didn't run them off.


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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things I remember seeing there, and some of the more interesting things I saw there. I was mostly focused on hunting when I went to Oaky Woods, so most of the plants and animals I recall are the game animals and the plants that affect the movements and concentration of game animals.

Mammals

  • Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Distinctly smaller, darker, and more reddish than the ones I've seen elsewhere. They are also unusually fond of pine seeds, which is more characteristic of red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). But these are indeed gray squirrels and not red squirrels.
  • Whitetailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Also smaller in Georgia than in most places I've seen them.
  • Opossum (Didelphis virginiana pigna). They were more commonly seen as road-kill than as living animals, but once in a while one would prowl past me as I waited for daylight.
  • Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). Common in the clear-cuts and in the rights-of-way for the power lines and the railroad.
  • Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger niger). These were a different subspecies from the critically endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (S. n. cinereus). They were nearly black, with a stark white underside. I can't say whether they are larger or smaller than the ones in Delaware, because seeing one is such a rare and surprising event that a fox squirrel always looks just plain huge! They seem to prefer the drier forests, as I never saw one in the river bottoms. I have a fact sheet from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources that describes fox squirrels as "slightly larger" than gray squirrels. Hah!
  • Black bears (Ursus americanus). They were uncommon when I lived in Georgia, but I understand they are rather abundant in Oaky Woods now.
  • Feral hogs (Sus scrofa). Very common, preferring the river bottoms most of the year, but they could be found anywhere in Oaky Woods. They were probably not as numerous as deer, but their traces were more common and more visible than those of deer. Their messy feeding and wallowing left large patches of disturbed mud, and their deep tracks were everywhere along the game trails. As often as I saw them, I never learned how to predict their reaction, and so they remain, to my mind, completely unpredictable. Fortunately, they're pretty easy to hear, so you can stay well away from them, or at least make sure there's a good tree to climb into before they approach.

Birds

  • Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus). Common in the open fields and meadows.
  • Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). Quite common in the upland forests. They prefer the forest along the edges of cleared areas.
  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Often seen hunting over the power lines and other clearings.

Other Creatures

  • Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). While I lived in Georgia, it seemed there was a story in the paper every other week about someone killing a rattlesnake in their carport, so I was a little concerned about going out into the woods there. I soon learned that rattlesnakes are no more aggressive than copperheads, and even less secretive. If you have any habit of situational awareness in the woods, you probably won't stumble onto a rattlesnake.
  • Water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti). Common along the river, but I hardly ever went there.
  • Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos). Often seen prowling in the leaf litter of the drier upland forests.

Trees

  • Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana). The dominant tree in the river bottoms.
  • Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor). Common in the river bottoms.
  • White oak (Quercus alba). Dominant in the upland forests, sharing the land with the pines in a kind of patchwork pattern. Imagine a background of oak with large irregular patches of pine, so that the forest is roughly equally oak and pine, and that's pretty much the way the drier forests of Oaky Woods were.
  • Pine (Pinus sp.). Dominant in its patches in the upland forests. I'm not sure what species of pine these were, but as I remember them, they seem to fit the description of the long-leaf pine (P. palustris), but I'm not certain.

Other Plants

  • Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Hardly a tree in Georgia is not festooned with this epiphyte. It seems to be marginally thicker in the river bottoms, but it's everywhere.
  • Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia). Common along the roadsides. A favorite food of ruffed grouse when available.
  • Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia). I had seen this living barbed wire in Delaware, but not like this! In the warmer climate of Georgia, this wicked vine grows to be an inch thick, and impenetrable curtains of it envelop the live oaks in the river bottoms. I don't know how the wild pigs get through it, but they do.
  • Foxfire (Armillaria mellea). Fascinating glowing fungus. Sometimes appears as glowing mushrooms on rotten wood, but more often you have to turn over rotten logs in the twilight to find it. Don't imagine holding up a rotten log to light your way home on a moonless night. It's not that bright.
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