Above the Waterline: Building places where birds and people thrive

A Piedmont Park Bird Walk with Jason Ward (Photo by Dottie Head)

I am not, and probably never will be, a real birder. Certainly, not like my bird-loving parents who rarely traveled without several pairs of binoculars and, amazingly, could still identify birds by sound and sight, into their 90s.

Our family trips to Florida’s Sanibel Island in the late 1950s and 1960s always included outings to a protected wildlife sanctuary that, in 1976, became the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of the country’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems. There, we stalked Roseate Spoonbills that fed in the shallow waters, sifting the muck with their wide flat bills. The alligators were always the big entertainment for my sister and me, as we were not very interested in birds at the time.

I wish that I’d paid more attention in the incredibly diverse sanctuary and that I could visit Ding Darling just one more time with my parents and hear them tell me about the birds. When I see a Roseate Spoonbill now – in its natural habitat or in an illustration as I did recently – it always makes me think of my parents, our special island and the excitement of being the first one to spot the colorful birds.

I have other bird memories and favorites: the Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers that never failed to “guide” our boat down the Chattahoochee River, as we patrolled during my riverkeeping days; the Swallow-Tail Kites that swooped over our boat on the Apalachicola River, catching flying insects, gliding, rolling upside down and then speeding through the air; and, more recently, the hundreds of Sandhill Cranes that flew over downtown Atlanta on a chilly December afternoon, heading south, as we watched in awe from a fourth floor balcony and listened to their distinctive cries.

At home in my intown Atlanta neighborhood, it is the brown and white Barred Owl who thrills me, when I see him or hear his classic hoot which sounds like: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” One early evening, I looked out my back door and saw the owl sitting on a large tree branch, starring down at me with his penetrating eyes. Another time, I heard loud bird squawking and raced outside to find several small birds flying around the owl in agitation, dive bombing him. Just a few weeks ago, I heard him hoot in the morning, as I woke up to snow that had fallen during the night.

Maybe, I am a birder, of sorts: one who just needs to pay more attention (now that I’m retired) and learn about these amazing and beautiful creatures. Fortunately, there is a thriving chapter of the National Audubon Society in Atlanta, originally established nearly one hundred years ago as the Atlanta Birding Club.

For the past four years, Atlanta Audubon Society (AAS) has been led by Nikki Belmonte. A longtime birder with degrees in wildlife conservation and environmental education, Nikki says that she has a “job of passion.” Her organization, which offers field trips and lectures, organizes bird counts and monitoring programs and restores bird habitat in the 20-county metro region, is, according to Nikki, on a growth trajectory with new staff and initiatives.

Through its annual Bird Fest and other programs, AAS is helping bird and nature lovers take personal action in their backyards and local parks to reduce the threats that are killing birds – from building collisions (caused by certain lighting and reflectivity of windows) to habitat loss and the proliferation of poor quality, non-native species. The organization speaks for the birds to create a public policy focus on their conservation and habitat.

Birds play a critical role in our lives. They contribute to the diversity of plant life through pollination and seed dispersal, help control insects, create nesting cavities for other species and reduce disease through scavenger “cleanup” services. To learn more about what you can do to build and protect places where birds and people thrive, visit atlantaaudubon.org.

Bird Fest
Bird Fest 2018 will take place from April 14–May 13, featuring exclusive, bird and nature-centered field trips, workshops, and other special events across metro Atlanta and Georgia. Authors Julie Zikafoose and Janisse Ray are confirmed speakers. Registration opens to AAS members on March 1 and the public on March 8 at atlantaaudubon.org/atlanta-bird-fest. Slots fill up fast, so register early.

 

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

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