by Dottie Head, Director of Membership and Communications
On Thursday, April 11, the Atlanta Audubon Society officially recognized the Jean and Elwood Wright Environmental Education Center in Cobb County as an Atlanta Audubon Certified Wildlife Sanctuary. A collaborative effort between Atlanta Audubon and the Cobb County Master Gardeners, the Wright Center is the first Cobb County Park to be added to the network of more than 500 Atlanta Audubon-certified Wildlife Sanctuaries across the metro area and north Georgia.
The Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary Program encourages both private and public properties to enhance their land for birds and other wildlife by installing native plants and providing food, water, and shelter for birds and other wildlife.
“Atlanta Audubon is thrilled to partner with the Cobb County Master Gardeners to add the Wright Environmental Education Center to our network or certified sanctuaries, and we’re particularly thrilled to add our first public park in Cobb County,” says Melinda Langston, Atlanta Audubon board member and Wildlife Sanctuary Program Coordinator. “The welfare of birds and other wildlife is directly linked to the quality of food and shelter available to them, and the Cobb County Master Gardeners have done a wonderful job of adding and highlighting a variety of plant species native to Georgia’s Piedmont region to this acreage. With the onsite education center and a nice trail system, the Wright Center is a wonderful resource for the community.”
Located at 2661 Johnson Ferry Road, in Marietta, the Jean and Elwood Wright Environmental Education Center belonged to the Wright family from the mid-1940s until 2003 when it became a Cobb County Park. The Wright’s were committed to adding native trees and plants to what was then a nearly barren landscape, and the property is now boasts a wealth of large trees and native, understory plants. The Cobb County Master Gardeners have spent countless hours clearing invasive plant species and adding additional native plants to the landscape. In addition, Cobb County has renovated the house on the property with classrooms, restrooms, and a small kitchen for use by school, scout, and other groups. The trail system meanders through the entire property passing through towering oaks, tulip poplars, and other mature trees. Many plants native to Georgia thrive in the park, some listed as unusual by the state. A unique feature of the center is a “plant jail” created by the Master Gardeners. The plant jail is a selection of non-native, invasive plants that have been removed from the property and replaced with native Georgia species.
“The Master Gardeners believe that Jean Wright, the original owner of this property, would be delighted with the Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary designation,” says Judy Beard, one of the Cobb County Master Gardeners who spearheaded the effort to certify this property. “This certification represents her deep love for birds and wildlife of all types and her lifelong desire to make her home into a natural habitat for wildlife.”
For more information on certifying a property as an Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary, visit https://www.atlantaaudubon.org/wildlife-sanctuary-certification.html.
Atlanta Audubon is building places where birds and people thrive. We create bird-friendly communities through conservation, education, and advocacy.
Atlanta ranks high in the threats to birds from window collision related deaths, according to a recently released study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. During fall migration, Atlanta ranks number four. In the spring, Atlanta ranks number nine for collision-related deaths. Atlanta Audubon is studying bird-building collisions and taking steps to reduce bird fatalities through its Project Safe Flight Atlanta and Lights Out Atlanta programs.
The Cornell study ranked metropolitan areas where, due to a combination of light pollution and geography, birds are at the greatest risk of becoming attracted to and disoriented by lights and crashing into buildings. The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. It combines satellite data showing light pollution levels with weather radar measuring bird migration density.
Chicago, Houston, and Dallas ranked one through three during both fall and spring migration. Because many birds alter their migration routes between spring and fall, rankings of the most-dangerous cities change slightly with the season, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. During spring migration billions of birds pass through the central U.S, therefore cities in the middle of the country comprise the most-dangerous list for that season. Fall bird migration tends to be more intense along the heavily light-polluted Atlantic seaboard, which is why four eastern cities make the list in autumn.
Each year, an estimated 365 million to 1 billion birds die in the U.S. after colliding with buildings. In Atlanta, Project Safe Flight Atlanta volunteers patrol selected routes during peak bird migration periods collecting birds that have died or been injured after colliding with buildings. Since the program began in 2015, volunteers have collected more than 1,200 birds of 100 different species.
In an effort to reduce the number of bird-building collisions, Atlanta Audubon launched the Lights Out Atlanta Program in spring 2017. A voluntary program, Lights Out Atlanta encourages building owners and residential homeowners to turn off or reduce lighting from midnight to dawn during peak bird migration periods. Participants pledge to reduce non-essential lighting during peak migration periods of March 15 to May 31 (spring) and August 15 to November 15 (fall). The pledge is available on the Atlanta Audubon website at www.atlantaaudubon.org/loa. Since Lights Out Atlanta launched in spring 2017, nearly 300 homeowners and 16 commercial properties have pledged to turn the lights out to help birds.
“We were saddened, but not terribly surprised when we received a call from Cornell letting us know about this study and sharing that Atlanta ranks high in the number of bird-building collisions,” says Adam Betuel, Director of Conservation for Atlanta Audubon. “The Atlantic flyway is a major migration path for many birds, and millions of birds pass through Atlanta each spring and fall on their way to and from wintering grounds in South and Central America. We hope to use this data to help us enact meaningful programs, like our Lights Out Atlanta Program, to reduce the number of collisions and educate the public about ways they can help. Cornell estimates that a quarter-million birds die from collisions with houses and residences each year, so homeowners in the metro area can play and important role through simple steps, like turning out the nighttime lights during spring and fall migration.”
For more information on Project Safe Flight Atlanta and Lights Out Atlanta, please visit www.atlantaaudubon.org/project-safe-flight-atlanta or www.atlantaaudubon.org/loa.
Atlanta Audubon Society is building places where birds and people thrive. We create birds -friendly communities through conservation, education, and advocacy.
by Kiana Leveritte, WIldlife Sanctuary Program Intern
Margaret Stephen, affectionately known as Maggie by those close to her, has been a wonderful helping hand with the sanctuary program as a certifier for the past four years. She was drawn to the idea of property owners finding new and inventive ways to change their gardens and landscapes to fit their personal style while keeping the environment in mind. Since being a certifier, Margaret has completed more than 16 visits, four of which resulted in sanctuary certifications. Giving homeowners their official Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary signs is the part of the job she enjoys the most. This also inspires her to further encourage those who are still on their way to being certified. Maggie has been there to lend a helping hand in more ways than one when it comes to promoting the program to prospective sanctuary owners, including volunteering at a number of tabled events to provide information. Her help is always appreciated.
In addition to being a certifier, Maggie has also been a member of the Georgia Native Plant Society (GNPS) for more than 10 years. She loves plants. The lady’s slipper is her favorite because of its rarity and ephemeral beauty. She is also a master birder. Like most bird lovers, Maggie does not have a particular favorite, but instead takes the time to appreciate all the species around her and their existence. Always enjoying challenging herself since retiring from four careers, Margaret Stephen finds the time to volunteer in her community on a regular basis as a way to give back. A great example is her work with the Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC). She lends a hand in their Unity Garden (and has since its inception), where they propagate both rare and commercial plants. Maggie can also be found assisting with plant rescues and plant sales.
Maggie offers this tidbit of advice to certifiers: “ The most important thing is to enjoy it and like interacting with people. Don't be intimidated by the criteria—that will come. Education is an important part of saying ’no’. There is often a gap between a pristine lot with birds, feeders, nursery plants, and a beautiful lawn and the need for native plants—plus the elimination of invasives. The key is to help them understand why it is important to provide a true sanctuary and outline the steps they can take to make it happen.” The Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary Program is grateful to Margaret Stephen for all that she does for the program not only as a certifier, but also as an inspiration to future certifiers.
by Ellen Honeycutt, Georgia Native Plant Society
The Eastern Bluebird is a native, year-round bird in Georgia, and I know it’s one that encourages a lot of us to learn more about the birds in our landscape. I am thrilled each spring to see a pair build a nest in one of my boxes. During the winter, I put out suet for them and a few mealworms, especially on very cold days, but during the spring and summer I let my plants provide for them.
Insectivores like the Eastern Bluebird eat insects primarily as adults and exclusively when still in the nest. A diet of insects includes flies, spiders, bees, beetles, wasps, and caterpillars. A recent study of breeding Carolina Chickadees found that the adults provided as many as 9,500 insects to a nest of four chicks over a two-week period. I certainly never realized that I had 9,500 insects in my garden, but the birds manage to find that many for their babies as well as more for themselves.
Growing insects for your resident (and visiting) insectivores is not hard to do when you use native plants as the backbone of your garden. Native insects evolved with native plants, and they flourish when those are available, creating lots of offspring for the birds to eat. Entomologist Doug Tallamy helped us to appreciate the closeness of this relationship with his book Bringing Nature Home. The book included a list of the native plant groups that support the largest number of insect herbivores (those that eat plants as part of their life cycle), such as butterflies and moths.
Fortunately, the number one plant group is the mighty oak (the scientific genus Quercus). It supports more than 550 different species of insects. Most of us have oaks in our landscapes already, and these native giants are in parks and along roadsides, attracting female insects to lay eggs and feeding insectivorous birds in the process. We didn’t even know, did we? The trees aren’t defoliated by these insects because the birds keep the insect populations in check.
Oaks can’t do it alone because many insects use something else, so let’s see what else is on Dr. Tallamy’s list. Number two is the family that includes native cherries and plums (the scientific genus Prunus). The black cherry that dropped tiny fruits on the driveway supports more than 450 insects, so it’s worth keeping. Additional trees and shrubs that support high numbers of insects are willow (Salix), birch (Betula), crabapple (Malus), blueberry (Vaccinium), maple (Acer), elm (Ulmus), pine (Pinus), hickory (Carya), and hawthorn (Crataegus).
Perennial plants are hosts for insect herbivores too. We all remember the relationship that monarch butterflies have with milkweed, right? At the top of the list for perennials is goldenrod (Solidago), a group of plants that has many well-behaved members that bring beauty to our fall gardens; it supports more than 115 types of insect herbivores. Other plants in the list include aster (Symphyotrichum), sunflower (Helianthus), Joe Pye weed and boneset (Eupatorium), violet (Viola), geranium (Geranium), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), and iris (Iris).
Most of these plants also have beautiful flowers that bring in the other insects that birds eat, such as bees, beetles, and butterflies as well as the predatory (and just as tasty to birds) arthropods like spiders. Using native plants in your garden brings a veritable smorgasbord of insect meals for your bluebirds, warblers, and many others. Spring is a great time to add native plants to your garden. Some of the best native plant sales happen in late March through April. Make your list of insect-growing plants now and rest easy all summer long while your garden feeds the birds for you.
By Melanie Furr, Director of Education
I first met Kimberly Johnson four years ago, when she invited me to present a program about the common birds of Atlanta to her gifted students at Hightower Elementary, a Title I school in DeKalb County. Like most students I interact with, her students were enthusiastic to learn about birds, but I remember thinking her class was exceptionally attentive and knowledgeable. After the program, she showed me a beautiful display of bird-themed books she had created in the school library. Little did I know that afternoon that Kimberly and I would have several opportunities to work together to connect students with birds and the natural world around them.
The following spring, when Kimberly applied for a spot in Atlanta Audubon’s summer professional development workshop for teachers, Taking Wing, from a new teaching position at Hutchinson Elementary (in the Atlanta Public Schools district), I didn’t immediately recognize her name, so I was thrilled when she reminded me we’d met previously at Hightower. An eager and enthusiastic workshop participant, Kim incorporated new teaching ideas from the training when the school year resumed, getting her students even more involved in bird study, writing a grant and receiving binoculars for her class, and putting up feeders and nest boxes. When Atlanta Audubon received funding to support our Connecting Students to STEM through Birds program, which provides bird-friendly native plant gardens, classroom resources, and binoculars to Title I schools in metropolitan Atlanta, in addition to training for teachers and programming for students, collaborating with Kimberly and Hutchinson Elementary was an obvious choice.
In the spring of 2017, about 30 teachers, students, and parents from Hutchinson showed up after school to help with the installation of Hutchinson’s native plant garden, led by our partner, Daniel Ballard, of Convivial Gardens, LLC. Before the planting started, Daniel and I talked to the students about the connection between birds and plants and explained that we were about to create a buffet for wildlife. Daniel pretended to eat a caterpillar, which made all of the children laugh. We planted about 90 plants, including trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, all selected to provide food and cover for birds and requiring minimal care. In spite of a hot afternoon and tough digging conditions, everyone couldn’t have been more enthusiastic or helpful. Several older boys eagerly volunteered to dig the big holes for a beautiful river birch and a pair of wax myrtles, while younger children worked in pairs to plant smaller perennials like purple coneflower, beautyberry, goldenrod, and little bluestem. At the end of the afternoon, when Kimberly hung a nectar feeder on a newly installed post, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird showed up within minutes—a perfect ending to our efforts.
Recently, Conservation Program Coordinator Lillie Kline, Conservation Program Intern Kiana Leveritte, and I had the opportunity to return to Hutchinson Elementary and certify it as an official Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. Although the native plants in the school garden require minimal maintenance, students and teachers have done an excellent job tending the garden and keeping it free of invasive plants, and I was amazed to see how much everything had grown and filled in. The goldenrod, barely knee-high when planted, is now taller than most of the students, who, in spite of a bitter cold wind on the day of our visit, were excited to show us around. They were especially proud of the kiosk with informational flyers they had made, highlighting birds and plants found in the garden. Kimberly reports that they have recorded 31 species of birds on their campus, which sits just a stone’s throw from I-75 in the southwest corner of Atlanta, noting that students have been particularly amazed by flocks of Cedar Waxwings that have visited the past couple of winters. Her students are currently studying migration patterns of birds that pass through Georgia, using eBird to create maps of their routes.
Visiting Hutchinson is a great reminder that beautiful birds can turn up anywhere. Providing quality habitat, even on a small scale, can make an important difference for birds. Where birds are thriving, people also flourish—just like the smiling students showing off their garden at Hutchinson Elementary. We are grateful for Kimberly’s partnership and her dedication to sharing the joy of birding and nature with her students, and we look forward to our next opportunity to visit Hutchinson. We can’t wait to create more certified bird-friendly gardens in Atlanta-area schools.
by Melinda Langston, Wildlife Sanctuary Program Coordinator
A place of beauty and refuge, the home and garden of Jennie and Wayne Richardson stand out as an urban oasis on Atlanta’s eastern edge, where thousands of commuters are ushered in and out of the city on Ponce de Leon Avenue along the undulating lines of the Olmstead Parks. In the truest sense of the word “sanctuary” and in keeping with the mission of Atlanta Audubon, the Richardsons have built a place where people and birds thrive.
Much of the Richardson’s sanctuary is devoted to growing daylilies and other plants sold at plant sales benefitting the various conservation organizations with which Jennie is involved, including Lullwater Conservation Garden and the Olmsted Linear Parks Alliance (OLPA). With OLPA, Jennie leads walks describing the trees, identifying plants (native as well as invasive species), and retelling the rich history of the Druid Hills community. She is well-versed in the design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who planned the string of linear parks along Ponce de Leon Ave on Atlanta’s east side (Springdale, Virgilee, Oak Grove, Shadyside, Dellwood and Deepdene). With her knowledge and insight, Jennie has helped ensure the original designs of Olmsted are adhered to in both selection and placement of native plants as these parks are restored.
When asked what motivated her to learn so much about native plants, Jennie’s response was quick and easy: “My grandmother, Melba Edwards Mitcham,” she said. As her story goes, when Jennie was three years old, her grandmother bought a cabin in Dahlonega, near Camp Glisson. Visits to her grandmother’s house were all about the great outdoors—no cozying up under feather comforters. “We were outside, built campfires, and slept under the stars.” Grandmother Mitcham, a master judge in the Garden Club of Georgia, had a great influence over Jennie’s desire to know everything there is to know about native plants and their many uses, including as food (for people and wildlife), medicines, dyes for fibers, face paint, and more. The giant, soft absorbent leaves of the mullein plant were once used to diaper babies.
Some of the more exciting happenings in the Richardsons’ sanctuary included watching a Barred Owl swoop into a large azalea bush where Jennie knew Blue Jays were nesting. “It was like an earthquake in there,” she said. “A whole lot of shaking was going on before the Blue Jays chased the owl away and their babies were safe.”
Another time, a Great Blue Heron was fishing their pond from its perch high on the neighbor’s roof. “Let’s just say the heron won that round,” Jennie said, and is now the subject of a painting overlooking the fishless pond. Another notable and harmless guest to their garden pond was the turtle, a yellow-bellied slider with its rough overlapping plates, perhaps visiting from nearby Lullwater Creek.
Musicians both, Wayne and Jennie add their classical tunes to the ever-present musical sounds of the garden—murmuring water, songbirds, wind chimes. Wayne plays classical guitar, and Jennie plays flute, harp, and keyboard. Art is created there as well. Jennie is a prolific artist, finding her inspiration from nature within her garden and beyond. She has painted a series of images depicting the famous Druid tree in Shadyside Park in different seasons and varying conditions.
This sanctuary boasts a large and mature tree canopy of oaks (Darlington, water, and white), maples, and an understory of yellow wood, dogwood, redbud, oak-leaf hydrangeas, and scores of azaleas.
The Richardsons sanctuary is graced by a large and varied collection of 35 or more colorful, fragrant native American or hybridized azaleas, including Rhododendron alabamense, arborescens, austrinum (Florida), calendulaceum, canescens, flammeum (Oconee), prunifolium, periclymenoides, and vaseyi (Pinkshell), with the yellow “Choptank” being Jennie’s favorite.
The Richardsons are very generous with their sanctuary. Early each spring Jennie places a sign in the driveway welcoming friends, neighbors, and passersby to wander their garden, take photos, and enjoy the fabulous displays of blooming plants, primarily daylilies and native azaleas.
Jennie has spent 25 years growing, propagating, and displaying a great variety of daylilies: Dominic, Mountain Violet, Becky Sharpe, Fountain Tune, Little Business, Peach Magnolias, Spider Daylily, Mighty Saga, and Pink Sleigh. All are descendants of the “orange ditch lily.” Jennie describes her current favorite name-variety as hemerocallis “Nancy Bray.” “She is several shades of mauve with a yellow throat. She is not a new day lily, nor a particularly expensive one. I like the subtle colors and the lack of over-the-top frills. She is just simply beautiful. Some years back, and quite by accident, I got to meet a relative of the woman, Nancy Bray, for whom this daylily is named. Nancy Bray is no longer alive, but her gorgeous namesake lives on.”
Although much time and garden space are devoted to azaleas and daylilies, Jennie’s all-time favorite flowers are these wildflowers of North Georgia: pink lady’s slippers, trillium erectus, Catesby’s trillium, and bloodroot. Many are found in her yard or in nearby Deepdene Park.
Jennie and Wayne Richardson’s garden, now a certified Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary, joins a growing network of wildlife sanctuaries in Atlanta. Along with close-by applicants for certification, this section of Georgia’s capital is well on its way to become a leader in bird and wildlife-friendly places in metro Atlanta.
by Dottie Head, Director of Membership & Communications
Atlanta Audubon has awarded Habitat Restoration Grant to implement bird-friendly habitat improvements to the Native Plant and Wildlife Walk at Henderson Park, located at 2723 Henderson Road, in Tucker. The DeKalb County Master Gardeners, a volunteer group that manages trail maintenance in the park, submitted the grant application. The Habitat Restoration Grant is being funded through the generosity of a private donor.
As part of the grant, Atlanta Audubon is working with Henderson Park and DeKalb County Master Gardeners to provide the following services that will benefit both park users and the birds and other wildlife that rely on this park for habitat:
“I have been a DeKalb Master Gardener for more than 15 years and recently retired from Fernbank Science Center,” says Trecia Neal, a DeKalb County Master who submitted the grant application and is collaborating with Atlanta Audubon staff on the work in Henderson Park. “I was thrilled to come to Henderson Park and find such a high quality forest right here in my own back yard. The forest is handicap accessible with paved trails, and has plenty of great parking.”
Henderson Park is a 103-acre park that includes soccer fields, a playground, Lake Erin, and walking trails. The improvement project will take place along the Native Plant and Wildlife Walk, a paved path meandering through a corner of the park. The project goal is to restore a natural Georgia Piedmont habitat to provide sanctuary for birds and other wildlife and offer educational opportunities for the community, including bird walks and seminars for adults and youth.
The project will include large-scale removal of invasive, non-native plants, such as Chinese privet and Japanese wisteria. In their place, Atlanta Audubon will install bird-friendly native trees and shrubs that provide fruit, seeds, and nectar for birds and others wildlife. In addition, Henderson Park plans to install educational kiosks and signs along the trail, and they will also add a water feature, bird feeders, and bird houses. The restored habitat along the trail will serve as an outdoor education center for bird walks, bird banding demonstrations, seminars for the community, and outdoor education classes for children.
“Atlanta Audubon is delighted to award this Habitat Restoration Grant to Henderson Park to help offset land that is being lost to development and urban sprawl,” says Nikki Belmonte, Atlanta Audubon Executive Director. “After the project is completed, the Native Plant and Wildlife Walk will be certified as an Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary and will not only benefit birds and other wildlife who rely on these areas but also serve as a demonstration area so the public can learn how incorporating native plants into the landscape can benefit birds and wildlife.”
The Habitat Restoration Fund is a new grant program of Atlanta Audubon sponsored by a private donor. Henderson Park is the first grant recipient, but there will be others in the future. To learn more about applying for the Atlanta Audubon Habitat Restoration Fund, visit www.atlantaaudubon.org/habitat-restoration-fund.
Atlanta Audubon Society is building places where birds and people thrive. We create bird-friendly communities through conservation, education, and advocacy.
Atlanta Audubon was recently awarded a grant from the Georgia Ornithological Society’s (GOS) Bill Terrell Avian Conservation Grants fund to implement bird-friendly habitat restoration at Big Creek Greenway in Alpharetta. Grant funding from GOS will be combined with funding from Patagonia Atlanta to allow Atlanta Audubon to restore approximately ten acres of important habitat along a stretch of the Greenway. Atlanta Audubon is partnering with the City of Alpharetta and the Ed Isakson/Alpharetta Family YMCA to complete this work.
Big Creek Greenway is a linear park that runs approximately eight miles from its northernmost point near Windward Parkway in Alpharetta to its southernmost point near Old Alabama Road in Roswell. This park has proved to be very important greenspace for resident and migratory birds in Fulton County, with more than 180 bird observations recorded on eBird, a real-time, online checklist program that has revolutionized the way the birding community reports and accesses information about birds.
The focus of this restoration project will be to create bird-friendly habitat by removing invasive and exotic plant species such as Chinese privet and oriental bittersweet, and installing native plants as appropriate that will assist resident and migratory birds to use the area as nesting, foraging, and stopover habitat.
In addition to the restoration work, Atlanta Audubon will monitor bird activity at the site and will create a set of data from which to better inform conservation decisions in the future. In particular, the data collected through field surveys and banding sessions will provide valuable information on individual and species movement, survival rates, annual apparent reproductive success, habitat selection, species density at focal locations, site fidelity, and dispersal of offspring. Additionally, this project will allow Atlanta Audubon to conduct volunteer work days and community education programming, which will help raise awareness of the importance of birds and healthy habitats.
“Alpharetta’s Big Creek Greenway is a highly used public amenity, not only by birders, but also by walkers, joggers, cyclists, and other who enjoy the outdoors,” says Nikki Belmonte, Atlanta Audubon Executive Director. “We are delighted to receive these grants from GOS and Patagonia that will allow us to remove invasive plant species and strengthen the native forest ecosystem to the benefit of birds and other wildlife. This project will provide a tremendous opportunity for us to create a strong public-private partnership to educate the public about the important dual roles that our parks must play as recreational and therapeutic spaces for people and high quality habitat for wildlife.”
Birds that will benefit from the habitat restoration work include several species that are listed on Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), including the Brown-headed Nuthatch, Common Grackle, Chimney Swift, Brown Thrasher, Wood Thrush, and Rusty Blackbird. SWAP is a statewide strategy to conserve populations of native wildlife species and the natural habitats they need before these animals, plants, and places become rarer and more costly or difficult to conserve.
“The City of Alpharetta is grateful for our partnership with Atlanta Audubon, whose efforts benefit the local wildlife and residents,” says Jason Binder, Alpharetta City Council Member. “Maintaining natural habitats is essential for us to maintain the natural beauty and wildlife we all enjoy in Alpharetta.”
For more information on the Big Creek Greenway, visit
Atlanta Audubon Society is building places where birds and people thrive. We create birds -friendly communities through conservation, education, and advocacy.
By Melanie Furr, Director of Education
When I texted David Bean on the way home from a recent family trip to Florida to let him know that we planned to drive by to look for “Charlie,” the Burrowing Owl who has spent the past three winters on his farm in Miller County, GA, he promptly texted me back, “stop by the house and we’ll fix you a cup of coffee.” I first met David and his wife Judy, the definition of southern charm and hospitality, when a good friend and I decided to chase a few rarities in southwest Georgia last winter. We’d been virtually introduced by a mutual friend and had been invited to stop in for breakfast when we arrived at their 1500-acre farm in the rural town of Donalsonville. Having never seen a Burrowing Owl before, I was eager to find it, but David assured us we’d get a glimpse. Over coffee we learned that David and Judy both grew up on farms in Donalsonville but spent many years in the northwest part of the state, where David had a career in law enforcement and Judy was a school superintendent. When they retired several years ago, they returned to Judy’s family farm in Donalsonville, moving into her childhood home that her parents purchased in the late 1940s. Their breeding stock of Angus cattle is also retired, grazing in wide open pastures, and the Beans are now focused on improving the land for wildlife, including Charlie.
When David emailed the Director of the Global Owl Project, David Johnson, to let him know about Charlie, he received a prompt reply that began, “A very exciting observation there. . .You have something very special!!!!” As Georgia’s only confirmed Burrowing Owl since the mid-1990s, Charlie is pretty extraordinary. According to Johnson, the rich brown coloration on the chest and flanks and the lack of a prominent white eyebrow and chin indicate that Charlie is most likely female. Based on her arrival in early October and departure in early May, he thinks she is probably a migratory western subspecies overwintering at the Bean farm, possibly journeying from as far north as the Dakotas or Manitoba, or maybe the Midwest. With a breeding range extending from central Mexico through most of the western United States into Canada (though absent in mountainous areas), the western subspecies of Burrowing Owl consists of migratory, partially migratory, and resident populations. (The Florida subspecies, found in southern Florida with disjunct populations in the panhandle and a few Caribbean islands, is non-migratory.) Limited data from geolocators suggests that owls from the northernmost breeding areas spread out across a remarkably wide area in winter, many leapfrogging resident populations in southwestern states to winter in Mexico. Johnson also noted that winter site fidelity is high, with owls returning to the “same burrow year after year, even if they do not use the same nest site.”
The only owls in the world that nest exclusively underground, Burrowing Owls are birds of dry, open places including deserts, prairies, pastures, and coastlines, but they have readily adapted to living in proximity to humans and can be found at golf courses, airports, and vacant lots. Both subspecies have faced significant population declines in recent decades, and the western subspecies is listed as endangered in several states in which it occurs. Habitat loss is a major threat, and in the west, the persecution of mammals like prairie dogs, badgers, and ground squirrels that provide the burrows the owls need compounds the problem. (The Florida subspecies will dig their own burrows.)
This year, when Charlie returned for the third consecutive winter, she found not one, but two luxurious new burrows awaiting her. (In previous years, she has roosted in a sewer pipe and an armadillo burrow.) Last spring, Wayne Schaffner helped David install the artificial burrows in a pasture near her previous roosts. Using plans suggested by the Global Owl Project, they dug five-foot deep holes and filled them with sand before installing the burrows, which David constructed with a 55-gallon drum cut in half for the main chambers and flexible corrugated drain pipe for the 10-foot long tunnels. On most days, Charlie can be seen sitting just outside one of her two burrows, which David has cordoned off with rails that keep her safe from the cows (and mark the spot for birders, who are asked to stay in their cars so they don’t disturb her). David says Charlie perches on a nearby fencepost at dusk, probably getting ready for her nighttime hunt.
Charlie is not the only notable snowbird on the Bean’s farm. A Vermillion Flycatcher and a Say’s Phoebe have also wintered there in recent years. David regularly sees Loggerhead Shrikes, American Kestrels, Great Horned Owls, and Cooper’s Hawks (which he calls “blue darters”), and he gave up his small flock of chickens a few years ago when a pair of Bald Eagles took up residence nearby. When I called recently to ask a few questions about Charlie, he’d just installed a nest box for a pair of Barn Owls he discovered roosting in his silo. (Charlie must be extremely savvy to make a living with so many aerial predators nearby!) In keeping with a practice started by his father, David has built and installed more than 40 bluebird boxes on his land, as well as giving them away to neighbors and friends. Birds aren’t the only beneficiaries of his handiwork though. During my recent visit, he showed me the nest box he made for a colony of wild bees after Hurricane Michael slammed the area last fall and destroyed their tree hollow. “Well, they’re so beneficial,” he replied, when asked what motivated him to help them.
I hope Charlie will return to Georgia for many years to come. She was lucky to land at David and Judy Bean’s farm, and the birding community has been lucky for the welcome we have received as well. If only everyone would be so gracious to strangers and the wildlife with whom we share the planet! I was excited to get a life bird when I first saw Charlie last winter, but I consider myself even more fortunate to have met the remarkable people looking out for her.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
Reviewed by Anne McCallum
In this real-life detective story, the author, a journalist and Iraqi War survivor with PTSD who finds solace in fly fishing, learns that a promising young virtuoso classical flautist and well-known fly-tier has stolen a massive number of irreplaceable exotic skins and feathers from the Tring Museum, an outpost of the British Natural History Museum. This sounds to him like a story ready made to get his mind off a messy war and its tragic aftermath, and he jumps into it.
The book opens with the crime, but then backs WAY up to the real beginning of the story—the amazing life and collecting expeditions of Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary, who overcame huge personal disasters to become one of the greatest names in biogeography. The next chapter examines the museums that gathered and preserved these kinds of amazing collections for posterity—particularly the Tring Museum of uber-rich Walter Rothchild. The author also explores the millenary feather craze that almost wiped out the exotic birds themselves before women themselves began the pushback that lead to the legal protections that have become the bulwark against extinction. While wealthy women were sporting exotic feathers on their heads, wealthy men were using them for fly fishing on their estates—an avocation that has today morphed into the cultish fine art of fly-tying.
Enter young Edwin Rist, who, at 22 was so consumed with fly-tying that he was willing to risk his stellar musical career to stage a heist of some of the most gorgeous and irreplaceable Tring specimens to supply his own needs and to sell on secretive online sites. Guilty or not guilty, your honor? The remainder of the book explores Rist’s motivations, his methods, the discovery and solving of the crime, the plea, his co-conspirators, and the frustrating search for what remains of the stolen goods. Along the way the author meets one angry scientist, Dr. Richard Prum, who happens “to be looking for a journalist willing to shine a light on a hobby that he wanted to stigmatize into oblivion.” (188).
Those of us in the Early Birds Book Club all agreed we loved the book. We learned new and fascinating things in every chapter. Were the specimens ever recovered? Read and find out!
About the Early Birds Book Club:
The Early Birds will be reading and discussing Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience for our March 24 meeting. Instead of tackling the whole book, each Early Bird member is invited to read one or two chapters and present a short summary/commentary at the meeting. If you plan to attend, just pick one or two (or more) and join us for the discussion.
The April book is Of a Feather, by Scott Weidensaul. We will not meet in May as there is no meeting due to the Atlanta Bird Fest Closing Celebration.
The Early Birds is a drop-in book club. There is no commitment other than to enjoy reading and sharing books about birds and birding. Each meeting begins at 2:00 PM prior to the Monthly Meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. If you wish to join the Early Birds’ e-mail list for announcements and reminder notices, please e-mail Mary Nevil.