Youth Birding Competition
The main point of this competition is to have fun outside while learning about the wonderful birds of Georgia. You can count birds in your yard or traverse the state. A team that successfully identifies 20 species in their yard and has a great time is just as important as a team that drives hundreds of miles and finds 120 species or more. Because different teams will want to take different approaches, I have provided some general advice and several possible routes. None of this information should be seen as the right way to do it, as most of the fun of birding is exploring on your own and finding good places and birds.
1. Birds are creatures of habitat:
The more habitats you visit, the more bird species you will find. Many species are only found in specific habitats, and if you don’t visit these sites, you won’t find the birds. Therefore, as you plan where to go, try to include as many different types of habitats as possible such as ponds, lakes, streams, pine forests, hardwood forests, fields, wetlands, etc. By understanding the basic habitat preferences of our birds, you will know what to expect in each habitat you visit. Edges between habitat types can be particularly good places to look for birds.
2. Birds are also creatures of habit:It is helpful to know what to expect in spring in Georgia. Many wintering species, including many sparrows and ducks, will have already left the state. Most of the breeding birds will be back, and of course there will be many birds migrating through Georgia that breed further north. A good reference is the bar chart section of Giff Beaton’s Birding Georgia that shows when each species can be found in Georgia (see below).
3. The more you know, the more you will find:
It goes without saying that the more you know about the birds, the more you will find. You will learn to make identifications with just a quick look, or even by the song alone. This type of skill takes time to develop however, so don’t get frustrated. Instead, take advantage of your team mentor and training days designed to help you develop these skills. Just as important, get outside on your own with binoculars and a field guide, and practice. Don’t stop once you have identified a bird. Studying behavior can be a great way to learn more about a bird and will help you identify it more quickly the next time you see it.
4. Take advantage of easily available birding resources:
If you plan to travel throughout the state, Giff Beaton’s book Birding Georgia is invaluable. It shows over 100 top birding sites in the state with birding strategies and species to expect. Most of the sites mentioned in this discussion are in this book, with detailed maps and directions. There are many local Audubon chapters in Georgia with expert birders and monthly meetings where you can meet and learn from other birders. A great resource for up-to-date information on good birding sites by county in Georgia can be found at wingsoverga.com. See the Birding Resources section of this booklet (page 20).
Since different teams may approach this event with a wide range of intensity, below are three possible routes based on a mellow, intermediate or hard-core approach.
If you want a good night’s sleep and a relaxing day, consider staying at the Wildlife Resources Division's Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center's Conference Center on Saturday afternoon and enjoy birding the 6,400-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA). You can look for owls in the evening and explore the rest of the area on Sunday. A day birding within the borders of Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center can be exciting. In one day in late April, 100 species were seen on the property alone (75 species is more typical). Pick up an area map at the Visitors’ Center kiosk on Elliott Trail, which is off the main entrance road (Marben Farms Road) from Hwy 11.
One of the highlights at Charlie Elliott is that you can find all of Georgia’s nesting owls on the property, usually without too much difficulty (if you get up early enough). Typically, the mixed pinewoods along the road by the Visitors’ Center will house an Eastern Screech Owl, while the creek bottom behind the Visitors’ Center will often yield up a Barred Owl. Great-horned Owls take a bit more work, but they are often heard at the south end of the property near the farm complex, which is also where Barn Owls nest. Standing next to the tile barn silos at night, you can often hear the young Barn Owls hissing, which is enough to count the species. You will want a recording of the other owl calls to get them to call back to you, because by May, our owls are calling less than they do in the winter. [Keep in mind this site around the barns is closed to the public except for this event – so only visit the barns during the competition – and do not enter the barn]
While looking (or listening) for owls, keep your ears open for other nocturnal species as you can often hear Whip-poor-will, Chuck-wills-widow, and even diurnal species such as Yellow-breasted Chat and Grasshopper Sparrow.
When the sun rises, you want to be in places where the sun is hitting the treetops, warming up the insects and getting the birds excited. The woods around the Visitors’ and Conference Center can be good, but the most productive place tends to be the woods and trails around the Brooke Ager Discovery Room and Campsites. These areas often hold most of your migrants. Find flocks of Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, because warblers and vireos often travel with them. Look for Orchard Orioles fighting over territories and the brilliant Baltimore Orioles showing off in the tops of the Tulip Poplars. The little cove of trees around the Gopher Tortoise enclosure near the Brooke Ager Discovery Room tends to be good for migrants such as Cape May Warbler, American Redstart, and many others. As the day warms up, many migrants will move into creek bottoms, which remain cooler later in the day. There you can also find the loud-but-cryptic Louisiana Waterthrush and Acadian Flycatcher.
At some point you will want to visit open fields for grassland birds. A reliable spot is the area between Highway 11 and the information kiosk on Marben Farms Road. A highpoint of land here is good for scoping birds of prey, as well as finding Meadowlark, Grasshopper, Savannah and Field Sparrow, as well as Killdeer and some of the scrub-loving birds like Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak and Common Yellowthroat. If there are any lingering Northern Harriers or American Kestrels, this is the place to find them. Then you will certainly want to visit many of the ponds to find herons and any lingering or breeding ducks. Always keep your ears open for the dry rattle of a passing Belted Kingfisher. Look over the water for swallows, which often feed on insects over the lakes.
While driving through the area, look for bushes approximately head height in size and you may find Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow - breasted Chat. Also keep your eyes on the wires and you won’t miss Eastern Bluebird and Northern Mockingbird. Look carefully at the Mockingbird because there are usually a few Loggerhead Shrikes hanging around as well, especially around open fields.
If you are interested in doing some serious exploring, but driving to the coast sounds a bit crazy, there are many great birding locations within a relatively easy drive of Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center. A great place to start is Pine Log Wildlife Management Area north of Atlanta, where you can get Whip-poor-will and Chuck-wills-widows as well as several owls if you start early enough (several hours before dawn). As dawn breaks, you will be overwhelmed with the dawn chorus, so any preparation on bird songs will pay big dividends. Listen for Black-throated Green Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, Ovenbird, Blue-winged warbler, Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler and others. If lucky, you may even find a Red-crossbill, a rare species in Georgia.
From here consider making your way to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (a good alternate start point if you want to sleep in a bit). On weekends, you cannot drive to the top, so prepare for a rapid walk, again keeping eyes and ears peeled for the sometimes-daunting flocks of warblers, vireos, tanagers and thrushes moving through the treetops. Virtually anything is possible here, as up to 30 warbler species have been seen in a single day in late April.
A good spot to visit south of Atlanta is The Newman Wetlands Center of the Clayton County Water Authority and E.L. Huie Land Application Facility in Clayton County. The boardwalk at the nature center can be excellent for migrants and offers the possibility of all but one of Georgia’s woodpeckers (Red-cockaded Woodpecker). The treatment ponds at E. L. Huie, though often a bit smelly, are a great spot for herons, a few lingering ducks, Purple Martins andusually an assortment of shorebirds if the water levels are low. Keep your eyes on the treetops and distant power poles because birds of prey are often seen around the treatment ponds.
If you are feeling ambitious (and have time) you should head straight for Bondsview Road at Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) just east of Macon. This single dirt road will often yield the elusive Swainson’s Warbler, as well as the brilliant Prothonotary Warbler, American Redstarts, the drab Acadian Flycatcher, and with luck a Mississippi Kite that has nested in the area.
By now you probably will need to return to Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, about an hour north of Macon. If you have time, you may be able to stop at Piedmont NWR (see below) or head straight to Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center before turning in your list at 5:00 PM.
In order to see the most birds possible in one day (the record is just under 200 species), you need to bird the coast of Georgia. Given the finish line at 5:00 PM Sunday, the best way to do this would be to position your team on the coast on Saturday and find as many coastal specialties between 5:00 PM and dark. You will need to select at least one beach site (either Jekyll Island south beach or Gould’s Inlet on St. Simons Island) and one inland/freshwater wetland site (Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area or Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge) to maximize your species count.
On the beach sites, look for gulls, terns, migratory shorebirds and Reddish Egret. Anywhere you have scrubby vegetation, look for the brilliant Painted Bunting. Freshwater wetland sites should turn up almost every heron species in Georgia, as well as possible Wood Storks, rails and lingering ducks. Keep your eyes on the sky for a Bald Eagle, Mississippi or Swallow-tailed Kite.
If you made good time on the coast, you may want to visit the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum & Nature Center, which offers bottomland forest species such as Swainson’s Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher and others.
If you are driving on I-16, a productive stop is a loop around East Georgia Turf Farm near Statesboro (Exit 116), which is often a key site for picking up grassland shorebirds, Horned Larks, Loggerhead Shrike, and maybe even an American Kestrel. If you skipped the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal a quick trip down Bondsview Road to Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (just east of Macon) may pick up your bottomland hardwood forest species.
Doing this route you will be pressed for time, but if you have time to stop at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, you may even be able to find an endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (check with refuge staff about the best places to find them), along with other open pine species like Bachman’s Sparrow, Bobwhite Quail, Brown-headed Nuthatch and others. At this point you will probably need to head straight to Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center. If you arrive with time to spare, see above for specific places to visit before turning in your list.
Regardless of where you go, the most important thing is to stay safe, have fun, and turn in your checklist by 5 p.m.!
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