By Michelle Hamner, Atlanta Audubon Director of Development
Late this past April, on what turned out to be one of the single “birdiest” days for me in Fayette County yet, my south-metro birding buddy Richard and I decided to hit up a few favorite local haunts to see what we might find during the peak of Atlanta spring migration. We began the morning at my favorite local patch, a 120-acre conservation easement called Nesmith Preserve, which is owned and managed by the Southern Conservation Trust. It’s a lovely wetlands habitat that exists behind a local high school and in the middle of very-suburbanized Peachtree City.
As we were slowly making our way along the roughly half-mile trail at Nesmith (“What’s that?! IS IT A … oh, no, it’s just a female Blackpoll Warbler.”), Richard and I chatted about some of the yet-to-be-recorded-in-eBird-but-should-be-present species in Fayette and Coweta counties. Northern Bobwhite, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Bobolink were some that topped the Fayette County list, surprisingly.*
We made our way back to our cars shortly thereafter—after spending 30 minutes or so tracking a Cape May Warbler through the tree tops—and thought our addition of seven new species to the Nesmith property list that morning would be the highlight of the day.
A few minutes later, however, I received a text message from Richard stating that he had just heard Grasshopper Sparrows in the tall grasses surrounding the local Peachtree City airport—a county first!* I headed over, got the sparrows, took some photos, and headed back home, content with the day’s findings.
A few days later, I stopped back at the airport, where the Grasshopper Sparrows were still singing. However, to my horror, the sound of a massive combine also filled the air, as the grounds maintenance crews were making their way across the fields surrounding the runway, cutting the tall grasses to the ground.
While Grasshopper Sparrows in Georgia are categorized by the 2016 State of the Birds Report as a common bird in steep decline, there are no laws that would prevent the maintenance crews from mowing simply due to the birds’ presence. As do most sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows depend upon long, undisturbed grassland habitat to avoid predators and to nest. After sending around a few messages to colleagues about what could be done to possibly stop the mowing, the consensus was that my only recourse would be to plead with the airport authorities to leave a patch of grass un-mowed through the summer.
As an Atlanta Audubon employee, I talk a lot to people about bird conservation and what we can do as a community to build bird-friendly communities that benefit birds and people alike. Faced with a problem (sparrow nesting habitat being mowed down just as nest building was potentially beginning or had already begun), I suddenly realized that the potential solution (convincing the airport authority to cease mowing…and soon!) seemed a bit overwhelming for just one person. There was no time to organize a coalition of other volunteers to speak up in person or to make calls—those mowers were steadily making their perfect lines across the fields and getting closer to the sparrows’ “turf.”
The next morning, after tracking down whom I needed to speak to at the airport and arranging an appointment, I arrived in my finest Atlanta Audubon attire, including official staff nametag and bearing loaner binoculars in order to show off these lovely little sparrows. Unfortunately, the staff weren’t interested in heading out to the field to see the birds. However, after showing them the area on a map where the birds were centered and explaining sparrow decline due to habitat loss, they agreed to leave the fields in the “sparrow corner” undisturbed through the summer.
As many of you may be, I’ve been discouraged by recent environmental protection setbacks and wondered if our fight to prove the importance of habitat preservation, bird conservation, and environmental education is in vain. If I, as an Atlanta Audubon employee, have doubts that I, as one single concerned citizen, can convince a city airport authority to care about two birds that may or may not be nesting, what do the rest of Atlanta Audubon’s members think when they see ecologically harmful activities in their neighborhoods? How can we as staff help you as members speak up for birds
and to safeguard their habitats?
Introduced formally earlier this year as part of our advocacy work, the Atlanta Audubon Ambassadors program aims to do just that. As an Audubon Ambassador, you strengthen the work of our organization by monitoring topics or areas of interest to you and by reporting back to us with any questions, requests for assistance, or updates. Together, as a united coalition fighting for local change, we can make a difference, even by just two sparrows at a time. You can learn more and sign up to become an Audubon
Ambassador at www.atlantaaudubon.org/advocacy.
*You just checked eBird to verify that claim, didn’t you? Grasshopper Sparrow was indeed recorded in eBird for Fayette County for the first time in June 2016 by Bob Hargrave, but Richard and I didn’t realize that at the time of our conversation.