A birding “big day” in May promises to pay big for nongame wildlife in Georgia.
Ken Blankenship, Nathan Farnau and Joel McNeal had conservation in mind when they set out May 1 to top the month’s record of 174 bird species seen or heard statewide in 24 hours. The three, all avid birders tackling their first big day, solicited pledges per species at Georgia Birders Online for the Nongame Conservation Section. The surprising result: nearly $1,600 in pledges for the Nongame Conservation Section, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources agency that receives no state funds and depends instead on fundraisers, direct donations and grants.
“I was hoping we could raise a couple hundred dollars,” said McNeal, who proposed using the birdathon as a fundraiser.
The trio spent a month researching and scouting a route aimed at maximizing their chances of documenting the most birds that migrate through or breed in Georgia. Then Blankenship, a middle school French teacher in Marietta, Farnau, a Georgia Aquarium biologist from Atlanta, and McNeal, a plant evolutionary biologist finishing postdoctoral work at the University of Georgia, birded from midnight to midnight in a blur that started in Athens and ended at the coast.
The final count was a record-tying 174 species.
But the birders almost stopped at 173, unknowingly. At 9:15 that night, swarmed by insects at Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, hungry and sleep-deprived, they quit early. They went to a Darien restaurant, ordered and began – for the first time that day – to compile and check their total.
The tally: one shy of the record and two of setting a new one.
“We couldn’t give up,” Farnau said, chuckling.
They went back to Altamaha WMA. Within an hour, they had heard a king rail. Yet, the men searched in vain until midnight for another species, driving to Brunswick and scouring every lighted billboard along Interstate 95 for a nighthawk, the only nocturnal bird they hadn’t counted.
The day had its wonders. The team heard or saw more than 100 bird species before leaving Greene County, Athens and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. They saw 14 roseate spoonbills at a rookery on Jekyll Island. They missed finding a yellow warbler in the Piedmont but unexpectedly heard one singing in a parking lot on the coast. They had no “unshared” birds – species reported by only one person.
At one point, Blankenship was driving the sleepy crew toward the coast when he spotted a Mississippi kite. He hit the brakes. “In less than a second all three of us were on the side of the road!” Blankenship said.
Like fishing, all big days have the birds that got away.
This Saturday morning, Swainson’s warblers weren’t singing, possibly because of an early drizzle and clouds. White-breasted nuthatches at the Botanical Garden were mum. Red knots were missing at St. Simons Island. A low tide had dispersed the birds. The next day, with the tide coming in, the team saw more than 2,000 red knots at Gould’s Inlet, a birding hotspot between St. Simons and Sea Island.
But this big day will have a lasting impact. The pledges totaled $1,591. “I’m really glad to give back,” Blankenship said.
There might even be a sequel. McNeal said the three were talking about next year even before midnight on May 1.