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Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

Birding boot camp brings south Georgia's wild side in focus

By Rick Lavender

The mist and morning sun seemed to bring the best out of Silver Lake's birds.

Arch-winged ospreys guarded ragged nests in tall snags. Fish crows lumbered past, their twangy caws giving away their identity. The strong "tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle" song of a Carolina wren pierced the background chatter of songbirds along the shore. Lanky cormorants fled for the lake's far edge where swallows swarmed, barely visible.

Scores of sights and sounds, all with a story to tell. And Nathan Klaus and Phil Spivey, wildlife biologists with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section, told those stories in late April for a group of mostly birding novices at a birding boot camp.

That pileated woodpecker? He's hammering a tree picked for its sound, not its food potential, Klaus said. The Northern parula, a miniature migrant lured to a small cypress by iPod audio, will nest only in Spanish moss or old man's beard, "one of the few (bird) species really tied to a plant." And those two male moorhens chasing and dunking each other by the dock? They're apparently fighting over a favorite log. "There's not a female in sight," said Klaus, grinning.

It was the start of a rich birding education in deep south Georgia.

The goal of the camp, one of three Wildlife Resources is holding this year, was to educate and involve the public and others in volunteer bird-monitoring projects such as the breeding bird survey routes.

The following two-day camps were scheduled in the piedmont region and the north Georgia mountains. But the opener explored the state's southern end and attracted interpretive specialists from the Department of Natural Resources' State Parks & Historic Sites Division interested in boning up on birds.

They were treated to an avalanche of nature, thanks to the insight of Klaus and Spivey and the magical places toured: newly acquired Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area near Bainbridge, a former Thomasville plantation now made public as River Creek, the Rolf and Alexandra Kauka WMA (often simply called River Creek), and to the south the Wade Tract, a privately owned, old-growth longleaf pine forest managed by Tall Timbers Research Station.

The dawn to mid-afternoon sessions yielded one memory after another.

· Peep camera images of young red-cockaded woodpeckers nestled in a heart-of-pine cavity.

· An adult bald eagle glimpsed cruising at treetop level.

· Bachman's sparrows, pronounced back-man's and named after 19th century naturalist and Charleston, S.C., pastor the Rev. John Bachman, flitting elusively through calf-high groundcover at the Wade Tract.

· Teen-age versions of great blue herons crouched, all angles and eyes, in a nest almost outgrown. Their anhinga counterparts watching from nearby trees, beige heads marking the snake-birds' youth.

· A Kentucky warbler caught by song and then by glance behind the River Creek office.

"Probably 90 percent of what we count, we don't get our eyes on," Klaus said of birding.

Not all of the highlights had feathers.

The 200-acre Wade Tract offered views seen almost nowhere else: age-old longleaf pine savannas stretching to the farthest hill. The pines are not crowded. The underbrush is laced with wire grass, runner oak, bracken fern and other native plants kept low but vibrant by decades of regular burning.

One lightning-struck pine was aged at 495 years old. The trees hide it well. Flattened tops, not thick trunks, are the crow's feet of longleaf, according to the biologists.

Machines have never rolled across most of the Wade Tract. Spivey smiled as he encouraged the group's youngest member to push a 5-foot piece of rebar into the soil. The steel shaft sunk as if piercing mud. The top soil here comes in feet, not inches, according to Spivey, who works out of River Creek WMA.

The uniqueness extends to plants. Klaus said the Wade Tract held rare species at every step. Literally.

The information gleaned from the camp ranged kingdom-wide. Klaus, a senior biologist based at Nongame Conservation's Forsyth office, explained that the way to tell fish crows from the more common American crows is not by looks but by their comparatively nasal sounds. Particularly their double-noted "Uh-uh" call. His wife, Joyce, added, "They say if you ask him if he's an American crow, he'll say, 'Uh-uh, Uh-uh.'"

Spivey told of a photograph showing a snake skeleton found stuck to the covering of pine pitch that is common around red-cockaded woodpecker nests: evidence that the endangered woodpeckers' strategy of chipping out resin wells to help protect the nests does work.

The name boot camp denotes grimy work. But, even with River Creek's mosquitoes rebounding from a spring cold snap, this camp was a joy.

On the second day, a parks employee said it was hard to believe she and others could take part in such on-the-job training. Later, they would share the lessons learned with visitors at their state parks.

But first came the lure of another bird's song.

Rick Lavender coordinates public affairs for Wildlife Resources Nongame Conservation Section.





Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

May-June 2008

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