Birding in Atlanta and beyond, 21st-century style — with digital tools
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest contributor James Zainaldin, amateur birder and Harvard University doctoral student, talks about bird-watching in the Atlanta area.
By James Zainaldin
Believe it or not, bird-watching is fast becoming one of America’s favorite pastimes. Surveys estimate that some 50 million Americans identify as bird-watchers, and this number has been growing rapidly since the middle of the twentieth century. Though not all are toting expensive binoculars and telephoto lenses, the popularity of bird-watching does suggest that many people are making the time to stop and admire the remarkable beauty, elegance, or (often) silliness of the creatures that cohabit their environment.
Think about those 50 million stopping to follow a robin strutting across a manicured lawn, or a bluebird as it sails through the air. There is something special about this “watching” of bird-watching, a subtle pleasure that only nature can give to us: you can’t own wild birds; money and influence won’t attract them; only patience, concentration, and perseverance count.
Georgia, the largest state east of the Mississippi River, is an excellent place to watch birds. Its diverse habitats, from the mountainous Blue Ridge region in the north to the low-lying barrier islands, are home to an amazing variety of wildlife. I grew up in Atlanta and developed my own passion for birding (a term that can sometimes suggest a more avid sort of bird-watching) both from observing backyard feeders and from trips outside of the metro area to Georgia’s ecologically diverse state parks and wilderness preserves.
While I was an undergraduate at Emory, Lullwater Preserve (in Decatur) was one of my favorite spots for a quick bird count: there, I could see great blue herons, cattle egrets, and belted kingfishers fishing in Candler Lake, while the surrounding forests teemed with woodpeckers, wrens, sparrows, and other songbirds. Overhead, red-tailed or Cooper’s hawks traced lazy spirals, silencing the chattering forest whenever one dove after an unlucky squirrel or bird.
While the awesome wilderness of, say, the mountains of north Georgia guarantee an incredible experience for birders and other naturalists, local parks and preserves like Lullwater have much to offer as well. Just recently, for example, I stopped in at the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve (also in Decatur) and the Dunwoody Nature Center (in Dunwoody) and managed to get a few glimpses of some of the metro area’s more interesting avian visitors, including the pileated woodpecker, red-shouldered hawk, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and winter wren. A vigorous hike in Sweetwater Creek State Park (in Douglas County), also not far from downtown Atlanta, turned up a young Cooper’s hawk in addition to more common birds of the forest, such as titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and so forth — a good day, considering that I was also treated to incredible vistas and the historic mill ruins on the Sweetwater’s banks.
In most cases, birding means getting out into nature, whether that is close to or far from home; it is a hobby that is easily combined with camping, hiking, walking, or just picnicking, all activities most of us can easily pursue. (I should also say, however, that a feeder you can see from the kitchen window can bring a remarkable amount of happiness for all those times you can’t get outside.)
There are many ways to learn more about birds in the Atlanta area. A good option is the Atlanta Audubon Society, which offers frequent bird-watching excursions that are free and open to birders of all levels of interest and experience. A field guide to birds of the southeastern U.S. is a must, but the proliferation of online (Cornell’s All About Birds website is especially good) and mobile resources (applications like iBird or Merlin) mean that it might not be a traditional book. Still, some will swear by Sibley’s or Peterson’s guides, and it must be admitted that there is a definite allure to leaving the electronics behind when getting out into nature.
For those who are serious about birding in Georgia, exploring the resources that the Georgia Ornithological Society (GOS) provides is a must. The GOS, founded in 1936, offers information valuable for beginning to advanced bird-watchers, from scientific studies of Georgia’s birds published in its biannual journal The Oriole to regional checklists to references for Georgia-specific birding materials. Finally, additional resources, including a brief history of ornithology in Georgia, can be found in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
One online resource needs special mention, however, and that is Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird. eBird is a crowd-sourced database for recording bird sightings tied to location. It is one of the most successful “citizen science” initiatives, as ornithologists at Cornell and elsewhere employ the database to learn about resident bird populations, migration patterns, and so on. Browsing eBird’s map is a great way to find new and surprising places for birding. It’s also an excellent way to check recent sightings at locations. On one recent trip to Arabia Mountain State Park (in Rockdale County), I checked the sightings before visiting. The last checklist had reported substantial flocks of red-winged blackbirds, and I was happy to find them still present in great numbers when I visited.
If I may, I’ll leave you with a very small “checklist” of some common Georgia birds. There is always an element of luck when it comes to seeing birds, but you can encounter most of these around Atlanta without changing your daily routine: 1) red-tailed hawk, 2) red-bellied woodpecker, 3) downy woodpecker, 4) Carolina wren, 5) Carolina chickadee, 6) tufted titmouse, 7) northern cardinal, 8) white-breasted nuthatch, 9) house finch, 10) house sparrow, 11) blue jay, 12) American robin, 13) mourning dove, and of course, Georgia’s state bird, 14) brown thrasher.
James Zainaldin is an enthusiastic amateur birder, and has watched birds around the United States and in Latin America. He grew up in Atlanta and attended Emory University, where he studied philosophy and classics. He is now a doctoral student in classics at Harvard University.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.