Photos by Stephanie Spencer
By Dottie Head, Director of Communications
Students at Sagamore Hills Elementary School in Atlanta, DeKalb County, have a newly certified Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary to use for outdoor learning thanks to the diligent work of Stephanie Spencer, a K-5 STEM teacher at the school. The school garden habitat is accessible to the public and students use it daily for activities ranging from studying the monarch life cycle and bird habitat requirements to conducting bird and butterfly counts.
The wildlife habitat is certified by both Georgia Audubon and Monarchs Across Georgia, and the project has been several years in the making. Stephanie and another teacher, Allison Nelson, enrolled in a three-day, Georgia Audubon Taking Wing and Flying Together workshop back in June of 2019. One of the assignments was to design a native bird habitat for their school. Stephanie chose a weedy hillside near the playground for the project, and she worked with Trecia Neal, a Master Gardener and retired biologist from Fernbank Science Center, on the habitat design. Stephanie also wrote two grants to help fund the project and received plant donations. The whole school came together on the garden installation. More than 60 staff, students, and parents showed up for three Saturday workdays to clear the hillside, plant, and mulch.
During an initial visit to the school by Gabe Andrle, Georgia Audubon habitat conservation manager, and Melinda Langston, Georgia Audubon board member and an active avian advocate volunteer, recommended that the area needed less turf grass and more native plants in order to qualify for certification as a Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. They also recommended that a nearby hillside be converted to a native habitat due to its wonderful potential with a great native canopy, public-facing location, and outdoor classroom space.
Stephanie went back to work, consulting with Fernbank horticulturists to map out an additional 250-foot garden along the side of the building and identify a list of native plants that would do well in this habitat. An additional work day on the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service resulted in 100 volunteers planting more than 100 native shrubs and other plants and adding a 3-4” layer of mulch to all the beds. The school was officially certified as Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary in November 2020.
“The garden has thrived, and the students have enjoyed seeing the monarch, Gulf fritillary, and swallowtail eggs and caterpillars on all of the host plants,’ says Spencer. “The number of birds has also increased dramatically, or maybe we’re just noticing them more!”
One final addition to our campus was 22 nest boxes for seven species of birds, thanks to a generous donation from Scott Scheivelhud, a grandparent and owner of The Garden Enthusiast, in Tucker. Each grade level was assigned a species of bird to monitor, and each homeroom participated in the installation of their nesting box.
In spite of the difficulties posed by the pandemic, students have continued using the garden. A grant by the Sagamore Hills Foundation allowed the school to purchase 25 pairs of student binoculars. Stephanie and Allison developed a bird unit and taught all second-grade students how to use the binoculars both on campus and at nearby Turtle Creek. “We saw a Great Blue Heron, Gray Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Cardinals, chickadees, and many other birds, quite a few of which the students were able to identify,” says Spencer.
In addition, students collected monarch, gulf fritillary, and swallowtail eggs to raise in the classroom. Each fall, students tag the monarchs and report tag numbers to Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. Students also take part in the Great Pollinator Count and monitor and report data from the nest boxes using Cornell’s Nestwatch Program. “The students love being involved in citizen science projects like NestWatch, Monarch Watch, Journey North, and Project Monarch Health,” says Spencer.
The first question students ask when they come to class is, ‘Are we going outside today?’ says Spencer. “The kids absolutely love being outside. They take their jobs outside seriously, whether it is looking for birds, collecting leaves, measuring the rainfall, planting vegetables or identifying invasive plants. They take their clipboards and record their data and return to enter it on national data bases or in their STEM journals. The excitement is evident through their discussions and what I hear from parents. Parents tell me they are learning things they never knew about plants, animals, stream health, pollution, and invasive species from their children. The children’s enthusiasm is contagious, and they get their parents involved. They even involve the community by collecting seeds from our native plants and sharing them with the neighborhood in our seed library.”
When asked what she recommends for parents and other teachers who want to get started with more engaging outdoor learning, Stephanie recommends getting outside and enjoying all the parks in Georgia. She also recommends taking advantage of the programs offered by Georgia Audubon, the Chattahoochee Nature Center, and local parks, as well as the many outdoor education programs such as Project Learning Tree, Georgia Audubon’s Taking Wing and Flying Together, Project WET, Adopt a Stream, and Captain Planet.
“I have been a member of Georgia Audubon and the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia for years,” says Spencer. Through these organizations I have met a lot of amazing scientists and environmental educators who have inspired me and/or helped me plan our outdoor spaces, provide programs for my students and provide a wide range of training for teachers. Networking with outdoor educators has had a big impact on me and how I teach my students. They have given me the information, encouragement and motivation necessary to plan the expansions to our outdoor spaces at Sagamore Hills.”
Georgia Audubon is thrilled to add Sagamore Hills Elementary School to the list of more than 600 certified Wildlife Sanctuaries in Georgia.
“Stephanie deserves a lot of credit for this amazing wildlife habitat,” says Andrle. “The school has really embraced birds and pollinators and tied them into curriculum in many meaningful ways.”
Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary Program - https://www.georgiaaudubon.org/wildlife-sanctuary-program.html
Georgia Audubon Taking Wing and Flying Together - https://www.georgiaaudubon.org/professional-development.html
Cornell Nestwatch - https://nestwatch.org/
Monarchs Across Georgia - https://www.eealliance.org/monarchs-across-ga.html
Monarch Watch - https://www.monarchwatch.org/
Monarch Waystation Certification - https://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/certify.html
by Dottie Head, Director of Communications
Georgia Audubon recently completed habitat restoration work at the Little Creek Horse Farm and Park, in DeKalb County, as part of a 2019 Habitat Restoration Grant. Over the past two years, Georgia Audubon has worked with the Little Creek Farm Conservancy to restore a creek bank and create a bird- and wildlife-friendly habitat in an under-utilized meadow area along the South Fork of Peachtree Creek in the north-central portion of the park. The restoration area has also been certified as a Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary.
Located at 2057 Lawrenceville Highway in Decatur, the Little Creek Horse Farm and Park is a 40-acre site that encompasses an equestrian facility and greenspace for local residents to enjoy. The South Fork of Peachtree Creek traverses the property from its east to the west borders. The property was designated as a DeKalb County park in 2004 and is one of the last remaining horse stables inside the Atlanta perimeter.
“Georgia Audubon was pleased to work with the Little Creek Farm Conservancy to make the farm a better place for birds and wildlife,” says Gabe Andrle, Habitat Conservation Program Manager. “By removing non-native invasive species and replacing them a variety of native grassland plants, we were able to convert an old paddock into a native meadow that complements the open areas of the horse farm and provides important habitat for many grassland species that are threatened due to habitat loss and alteration. The Conservancy is actively building upon this restoration work in other areas of the park and will continue work to make habitat improvements.”
Georgia Audubon removed invasive plants along the creek bank and meadow and installed a variety of native meadow plants, including cutleaf coneflower, broom sedge, false indigo, black-eyed Susan, and other species. Georgia Audubon and Little Creek Farm Conservancy have also been monitoring bird species abundance monitoring and offering community outreach programs.
“We are grateful for the support and opportunity to work with Georgia Audubon on the habitat restoration grant,” says Bobbi Woolwine, outreach chair for the Little Creek Farm Conservancy. “Gabe and Walter spearheaded an educational and fun experience for our volunteers. We look forward to continuing our partnership protecting the park greenspace from invasive, non-equine friendly plants and scheduling guided bird walks for the community.”
About Georgia Audubon: Georgia Audubon is building places where birds and people thrive. We create bird-friendly communities through conservation, education, and community engagement.
About the Little Creek Farm Conservancy: Formed in 2007, the Little Creek Farm Conservancy partners with DeKalb County to provide stewardship of the park and to offer educational, environmental, and recreational outreach programs and events for the public. DeKalb County Parks and Recreation offers operational support, maintains facilities, and provides land upkeep. They are also responsible for animal care.
Master Birder Teacher by Kimberly Johnson: Introducing the Next Generation to the Joy of Birds
by Kimberly Johnson, Georgia Audubon Master Birder and Elementary School Teacher
Hutchinson Elementary was the site of Georgia Audubon’s first garden installation in 2017. Kimberly Johnson was part of the Taking Wing teacher training in 2016, and a beautiful connection was made between Kimberly and Melanie Furr, Georgia Audubon’s director of education. Since then, Kimberly has embraced every opportunity to gain knowledge and resources to connect her students to birds and nature, including taking the Georgia Audubon Master Birder course. Kimberly shares her experiences teaching children about birds in this article.
I start my school day on hallway duty, playing bird calls from The Backyard Birdsong Guide by Donald Kroodsma. Children walk by and ask, “What bird is that, Mrs. Johnson?” I tell them the name of the bird, and to my surprise, they walk by the next day and can identify the bird by the sound. This is just one way I get kids interested in the birds in their community. Beginning with the simple question “What is a Bird?” can open a child’s mind to exploration and discovery of a whole new world. As a Master Birder and teacher at an inner-city school, I have learned that the more I share my knowledge about birds and nature, the better connected my students will be to their environment and community. Enhancing children’s awareness, knowledge, and attitudes toward birds and wildlife is truly rewarding.
After being awarded a native plant garden from Atlanta Audubon Society (now Georgia Audubon), my students now have a hands-on approach to learning about native plants and birds and understanding how birds thrive. We have several types of bird feeders and nesting boxes. Some of the plants include beautyberry, aster, blueberry bushes, cherry laurel, and many different types of grasses. Students have set up a kiosk and created checklists with photos of the different birds and plants found in the garden for students, school staff, and visitors to use when they visit. Students also have access to field guides and binoculars provided by Georgia Audubon to help them with identifying birds found in the garden. Thanks to our ongoing partnership, Georgia Audubon staff comes out periodically to provide programming and take students birding. Formal teaching comes from Georgia Audubon’s Learning About Birds curriculum, as well as from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s K-12 Education resources. These lessons give a more in depth look at birds, ranging from bird diversity, flight and migration, anatomy and more. Georgia Audubon also provided a mini library of books for students to read and learn more about birds.
Next year, we plan to offer an after-school bird watching club, “Bird Buddies,” where students will have the opportunity to experience nature walks, scavenger hunts, and off-campus field trips. It is truly a joy to help kids make connections to nature and improve their awareness, environmental knowledge, and attitudes toward local wildlife.
Species Profile: Mississippi Kite
by Steve Phenicie, Georgia Audubon member
If Mississippi Kites were circus performers, they might be the Flying Wallendas. If they were military pilots, they might be the Blue Angels. The printed page cannot adequately describe the aerial maneuvers these birds can perform, but if you’d like to see for yourself, search “Mississippi Kite Barrel Roll” on YouTube for a demonstration.
When this bird isn’t flying just for fun, it can catch large flying insects high in the air, often holding them with one foot and eating them while on the wing. It can also skim low to catch prey on or near the ground. Major items in the diet include cicadas, grasshoppers, katydids, beetles, and dragonflies; it also eats moths and bees, and lesser numbers of frogs, toads, snakes, bats, rodents, small birds, and turtles. It won’t turn up its beak at road-kill either.
Despite the name, they aren’t particularly associated with the state of Mississippi or the Mississippi River. During the breeding season they are most common in southern South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama and on the Great Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In the winter they take off for the interior of South America. Except during migration, you’re unlikely to see one in metro Atlanta.
The coloration of this bird is a mix of gray and black, becoming pale gray-white on the head and in the secondaries of the wings. The wingtips and tail are black. Juveniles are streaky, with brownish chests and underwings, and have banded tails. In size, they’re between a crow and a goose and have long, pointed wings. The tail is fairly long and square-tipped.
Nesting tends to be in loose colonies, with the site in a tree usually near the edge of woodlot 20 to 35 feet above ground, although it can be up to 140 feet. The nest, built by both sexes, is a rather flimsy platform of dead twigs, lined with green leaves. Adults add greenery throughout the season.
The female lays one to two white eggs, and incubation is by both parents for 29 to 31 days. Both parents care for the young. First they may feed the nestlings mostly insects, regurgitated into the nest, with larger prey coming later. The young may climb out of the nest onto nearby branches when about four weeks old and make their first flights at about five weeks. Adults feed them for at least eight weeks after hatching.
In Georgia, Mississippi Kites are more common in the coastal plain and on the coast rather than in the Piedmont. They like to nest along the edges of expansive bottomland forests of many of the larger Coastal Plain rivers, in large forest tracts near pastureland, and in some smaller forested areas near cities/towns, according to the Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia.
In late summer, they team up with Swallow-tailed Kites to form foraging flocks. One reliable spot for these flocks is in the Glennville area (west of Savannah), specifically the Skeens Farm. Last year there was also a group near Watkinsville/Athens. During the breeding season, some of the locales you might see them are Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon, Oxbow Meadows near Columbus, Okapilco Floodplain and Pasture in Brooks County near Quitman, and Paulk's Pasture near Brunswick.
By Diana Churchill, Ogeechee Audubon Society
I first met Pat Wolters in 2001 while working at Wild Birds Unlimited. A petite, energetic woman of 71 years came into the shop to buy food and feeders to support her passion for tending the wild birds in her new backyard on Skidaway Island. Pat and her husband, Art, had just relocated to Savannah from Delaware.
In 1989, while living in Maryland, Pat had taken her love of birds to a new level by becoming a volunteer at Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Delaware. Her first job was doing the laundry, but she quickly moved on to other tasks, serving as Banding Chairperson, Release Chairperson, and a member of the Oil Spill Core Team.
After she moved to Savannah, Pat looked for similar volunteer opportunities and found that Savannah had almost no resources for bird and wildlife rescue. While Pat worked part-time at Wild Birds Unlimited, she was surprised by the number of people who walked into the shop with birds in a shoebox. She realized she needed to obtain the permits required to operate as a licensed rehabilitator.
Even though she intended to focus on birds, permitting from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service required that Pat study all the materials about mammals, too, and pass a 100 question /1-hour timed test. The other requirement to earn her permit was to accrue a certain number of hours as a volunteer at an existing facility. She and Nicole Janke, the manager of Wild Birds Unlimited, began making weekly trips to McIntosh County to work with Emmy Minor at Sanctuary on the Sapelo.
After Pat received her permits and started Orphaned Bird Care, Nicole became her assistant and chief volunteer. Working with both of them at Wild Birds Unlimited, I’ve had a chance to observe first-hand all the joys, challenges, and heartache that go along with a commitment to helping birds.
For starters, helping birds takes more than knowledge and a permit. You need food to feed them, baskets and cages to house them, and medicines to treat them. All of this takes money. Pat is fortunate to receive grants from Ogeechee Audubon, Skidaway Audubon, The Landings Garden Club, the Landings Landlovers, and the Green Thumb Garden Club, as well as donations from individuals. If you find a bird and bring it to a rehabilitator, please consider making a donation, no matter how small.
Pat’s permit requires that a veterinarian must see injured birds. There are only a handful of vets who have the necessary licenses and the willingness to treat wild animals, usually pro bono. Through the years, Pat and Nicole have been fortunate to have the help of a number of vets, including Dr. Chris Gall, Dr. Leslie Mailler, and Dr. Stacy Wilkinson.
I went out to Pat’s house in early April to get a tour of her “facilities.” Nesting season had just gotten underway so the basket on the desk in her half of the office she shares with Art was empty. It has a heating pad on the bottom, covered with a towel, a small soft substitute “nest bowl,” a mirror, a branch perch, and an elastic-edged fabric screen cover. More than likely, by the time this article appears in print, the basket will house a family of hungry babies, needing to be fed at least every hour. Thankfully, the birds do not have to be fed at night.
The “season” will begin with a phone call, a story, and then a handful of gaping mouths to be fed. Nicole will walk into the shop one day with her basket, announcing, “I have dependents.” The resident wrens, chickadees, bluebirds, nuthatches, woodpeckers and doves will come first, followed later by the migratory warblers, great crested flycatchers, eastern kingbirds, green herons, and chimney swifts.
Early on, Pat and Nicole developed a kind of job-sharing for tending baby birds. Nicole takes on many of the tiny nestlings that can easily be confined in baskets. When they get too big and active to be happy in a basket, they move to a cage, often at Pat’s nursery. During the height of the season, the two may be tending as many as 60 to 70 nestling and fledgling birds.
Indoors, in her bird room, Pat has two cages, baskets, and an incubator. In the garage she has three large cages on wheels that can be moved outside during the day. They are not predator proof so must be returned to the garage at night. She also has an outdoor aviary designed by her architect son, and built with money from a Landlovers grant.
Both Pat and Nicole have a variety of feeders, birdhouses, and watering stations outside in their yards, to take care of the local birds as well as the special birds they care for and release.
Orphaned Bird Care also focuses on education. Not all baby birds need to be rescued. Parent birds can be very quick about the task of bringing in the bugs, so unless you spend thirty minutes or more watching, you might mistakenly assume that the babies are not being fed.
Helpless nestlings do need to be fed and tended, and take well to being fed by humans. Fully feathered fledglings, on the other hand, are out of the nest naturally. Their parents care for them, and teach them what they need to know to survive as a bird in a perilous world. Fledglings, when “rescued,” do not take well to being fed by humans and are deprived of that period of essential learning.
When I asked Pat to tell me about one of her favorite bird friends, she immediately mentioned a pileated woodpecker. I happened to be at the shop the day a man showed up with two young woodpeckers that came from the cavity of a tree that had been cut down at Hunter Army Airfield. One bird had sustained serious injuries in the fall and did not make it, but the other grew and thrived. Nicknamed “Big Red,” Pat eventually released him in her yard. He returned frequently that first year, coming to a particular tree to get his supplemental snacks, until he found a mate.
Nicole and Pat treat over 340 native birds annually. Eighty percent of the birds they care for are released back into the wild. For more information, visit Pat’s web site at www.orphanedbirdcare.com.
Georgia Audubon is building places where birds and people thrive.