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Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

Grassland, canebrake habitat work gets boost from Georgia Ornithological Society

Part 2: Rare birds & state lands

By Tim Keyes and Nathan Klaus

The Georgia Ornithological Society initiated the Bill Terrell Avian Conservation Grant program last year. This grant is a tribute to GOS' commitment to bird conservation in Georgia. The Georgia Wild Resources Division's Nongame Conservation section received significant funding from this grant for habitat restoration work in upland grassland habitats and bottomland canebrakes.

Over the last century, grassland birds have shown the strongest declines of any guild of North American birds due to land-use changes. Grassland nesting species in Georgia like grasshopper sparrow and eastern meadowlark as well as pine savanna species such as Bachman's sparrow and loggerhead shrike have all suffered significant declines. These grassland habitats also provide habitat for migratory sandhill cranes and wintering sparrows and raptors.

Canebrakes are another threatened habitat in Georgia. Historically, extensive canebrakes covered miles of bottomland habitat, housing an array of species from Swainson's warbler to several butterfly species that depend on cane (Arundinaria sp.) as a host plant. Cane now exists only in small isolated patches, with large canebrakes being virtually non-existent.

The Nongame Conservation Section has been working to restore both upland grassland habitats and canebrakes, and the GOS grant program has been helping the section achieve those goals. Upland habitat work focused on Joe Kurz Wildlife Management Area in Meriwether County and Panola Mountain State Park in Rockdale County. Both sites have extensive areas of bermudagrass pasture. Bermudagrass is an exotic grass planted for cattle forage that competes with native grasses and forbs and is poor habitat for native wildlife. Birds like bobwhite quail and sparrows prefer native bunch grasses, which grow in clumps leaving bare ground between for young birds to move while being protected by tall grasses overhead.

With the GOS grant, biologists are in the process of converting 100 acres of pasture to native warm-season grasses at Joe Kurz WMA. At Panola Mountain, researchers are working to establish 20 acres of native grasses from hand-collected seed. This technique ensures that local genotypes of grasses are restored, rather than buying seed from distant sources that may not be best adapted to the Georgia Piedmont. In order to let the native grass grow, the bermudagrass must be killed with an herbicide before planting.

Charlie Muise, Georgia Important Bird Areas coordinator, is using a network of volunteers to mist-net birds at both sites and monitor the avian response to habitat management. So far, the results have been excellent.

During the breeding season, grasshopper sparrows and eastern meadowlarks have been located. Wintering sedge wren, vesper sparrow and many swamp and song sparrows have been banded, and northern harriers have been seen hunting over the restoration area.

While they weren't caught in mist-nets, migratory sandhill cranes have used both sites over the last year.

The canebrake restoration work included mulching and applying herbicide to 10 acres of privet at Panola Mountain and transplanting native cane into these sites. Volunteers helped dig, plant and water the clumps of cane. Despite the dry weather last spring, the area has shown more than 50 percent survival of cane stems transplanted and a significant pulse of new growth is showing where the privet canopy overhead was removed.

Biologists also are working on a site at Riverbend WMA in Laurens County. Fortunately, there is not much privet there, but a rapidly growing 15- to 20-year-old hardwood thicket is shading out patches of cane in the understory. A skidder-mounted mulcher was used to clear about 7 acres in several patches. Dense stands of cane should rapidly grow into these newly created light gaps, creating dense canebrakes.

Riverbend WMA has a large population of Swainson's warbler that should make good use of this habitat as it develops. Biologists surveyed Swainson's warblers before management began and will tracking the birds response to the restoration work over the next few years.

An application for a GOS grant for 2009 has been submitted and the hope is to continue these types of projects at a number of other sites.

Tim Keyes is a wildlife biologist and Nathan Klaus is a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section.

Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

January 2009

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