Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Swamp is burning Ware County Breeding Bird Survey

Under any other circumstances, 3:30 am would NOT be a welcome time to get up, but this morning I am excited. This is my 21st Ware County Breeding Bird Survey. The first 20 years have raced by; in the early days my father and I ran this route together, and it took awhile to get the stops defined. My father's fifty plus years of working in the “woods” came in handy when it came to describing the stops. (Trust me: it is very hard to find landmarks in evenly aged pine plantations!) My father's input was invaluable. The route has some odd twist and turns: it starts out east of Waycross Georgia (Waycross was and is a main railroad town about an hour west of Jekyll and St. Simons Islands), then skirts Waycross and heads south toward the Okefenokee Swamp. The Okefenokee can be seen as a fringe of cypress and gum trees on the horizon to the left. Little fingers of the “Swamp” snake along my route.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, let me back up a little... What is a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS)? It is a point count survey conducted at the height of the breeding season from late May to early June. The best description of the survey is found on the Breeding Bird Survey website, and I quote: “The BBS is a long-term, large-scale, international avian monitoring program initiated in 1966 to track the status and trends of North American bird populations. The USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Canadian Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Research Center jointly coordinates the BBS program. Each survey route is 24.5 miles long with stops at 0.5-mile intervals. At each stop, a 3-minute point count is conducted. During the count, every bird seen within a 0.25-mile radius or heard is recorded. Surveys start one-half hour before local sunrise and take about 5 hours to complete. Over 4100 survey routes are located across the continental U.S. and Canada.” The trained observer who does these counts must know the breeding birds not only by sight but, more importantly, by sound. It is an intense morning: it starts very early with the observer racing out to be at the first stop at the assigned time. He/she then drives from stop to stop, getting out to look and listen at each stop. This goes non stop for about five hours, until the observer reaches the last stop.

There have been changes over the years, both large and small. In the beginning there was a huge landfill between stops #16 and #17. The landfill closed in 1990; now it is a small green mountain surrounded by coastal plains. I’ve watched trees grow up, be cut down, and then grow up again. The Okefenokee Swamp has been plagued by wild fires this year, and one of those fires went right through the last half of the survey route. I am wondering what, if anything, is going on in these burned areas.

I have made plans to meet my friend Sheila Willis, who has lived most of her life in Ware County. She is as curious as I am about what has changed about the area along Swamp Road. The first part of the survey moves along at a good pace; there are no real changes. There are fewer Eastern Kingbirds and Eastern Bluebirds than in years past, and this year I have noticed that we have more Orchard Orioles than usual (this is true on our coast as well). As we move south on Swamp Road, more fire-fighting trucks are barreling down the road. Around stop #25 we start to notice little areas damaged by fires, but the last ten stops are hit the hardest: there is some kind of fire damage on each stop. What's amazing to me is the fact that birds are still singing: we even have a Bachman’s Sparrow singing close to one burned area! It's been quite a few years since I’ve heard Bachman’s Sparrows on this route!
One point has to be made here: although we don’t like wildfires, nature requires it. Wild birds and animals live or die by it; fires are an integral part of the Balance of Nature. But they can still pose a serious threat to humans. The fire-fighters are doing an amazing job protecting homes on the Swamp Road, and there were homemade signs in several places along the road praising the hard work these dedicated folks are doing. Next year will be just as interesting.
With Georgia Wildlife on my mind, Good Birding! Lydia

Help Those Who are Fighting Fires

Wildfires continue to rage in Ware County, home of First Presbyterian Church in Waycross. There are many fire-fighters battling these blazes every day, and you can help them by keeping them supplied with necessary items. You can donate the following items to First Pres who in turn hand them out to firefighters: lip balm/chap stick, travel size baby powder or foot powder, 45 or higher SPF sunscreen, eye drop/saline, socks, energy snacks (that can go in their pockets), Gatorade/PowerAde. For more information, call First PC at 912-283-5077.
Thanks to Mary Beth for being my editor!


Larissa said...

Thanks Lydia for keeping us posted on the birds in the fire damaged areas!

Lydia said...

Lydia asked me to comment on our own experiences here in San Diego County California after two of the worst fires in the state's history. Under the sponsorship of the San Diego Natural History Museum and Cuyamaca State Park, we've been carrying on a series of post-fire surveys along several burned routes (and chosen control routes) to monitor how the birdlife is responding to the initial devastation and regrowth over a five-year period. The surveys for the 2002 Pines Fire are finishing up this summer, while the surveys for the Cuyamaca portion of the 2003 Cedar Fire may go on indefinitely (habitat loss in the Pines Fire was limited mostly to oak woodland, desert scrub, and chaparral, whereas the Cedar Fire wiped out acres of old-growth coniferous forest as well which will take generations to recover).

The museum's website ( has detailed information about the Pines Fire survey results, but my little corner was quite fascinating over the five years. My main route, which covered a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail southbound from Barrel Springs, at one time was a lush carpet of chaparral which was totally wiped out by the fire. (My own website has photos of the survey routes I covered: see At first, it seemed like only Ravens and Rock Wrens could handle the barren landscape, but during the second year the area exploded with Lazuli Buntings and Black-chinned Sparrows! Numbers have tapered off dramatically as the vegetation has returned, and the common chaparral-dependent species such as Wrentit and California Thrasher have returned. So I'll be curious to see what Lydia comes up with as the area around Okefenokee Swamp recovers!

Mary Beth Stowe