By Lauren Gingerella, President, Oconee Rivers Audubon Society
The North Oconee River flows through the heart of Athens. The forested river corridor provides important habitat for many wildlife species and a stage for the songs of Louisiana Waterthrushes and Summer Tanagers yards from downtown and the campus of the University of Georgia. A linear park system with a network of multi-use greenway trails connects the Athens community to this wonderful greenspace. It is here, along the North Oconee River Greenway, where the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society (ORAS) set out to build a bird-friendly native plant demonstration garden.
Birds need all the help they can get right now. A 2019 study published in the journal Science reported a net loss of nearly three billion birds in North America since 1970. Some of the species with the greatest population declines are common species we may see every day at our backyard bird feeder. Though this is depressing, there are easy activities we can do in our everyday lives to support bird conservation. One of the best ways to help is to add native plants to your yard or garden.
Many of you reading this are already aware of the benefits of planting natives for birds, such as more nutritious food resources, shelter, and resilient landscapes against climate change. However, more people need to be aware of the importance of native plants to help increase avian populations. ORAS wanted to target members of the diverse Athens community not typically involved in bird conservation and native plant restoration. By placing the demonstration garden along the greenway, we are able to engage audiences who use the greenway for exercising, commuting to work or school, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
In January 2020, ORAS was awarded a Burke Grant through the National Audubon Society’s Plants for Birds program to create the high-profile demonstration garden. Our ultimate goals are to emphasize the importance of native plants for wildlife, encourage community members to choose native plants in their home and garden, and create a gathering space to engage the community in conservation efforts. The garden plans consist of more than 1,500 native plants, interpretive signage, a bench, and a small water feature.
The Athens-Clarke County’s (ACC) Sustainability Office enthusiastically partnered with ORAS on this project. The location of the garden at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Parkway and North Avenue fits nicely into ACC’s plans to restore habitat along the North Oconee River corridor. The garden restores approximately 15,000 square feet of wildlife habitat in an area historically fallow and often plagued by invasive plant species. Now, this sunny patch of land will be a mosaic of native prairie and meadow perennials and grasses.
The COVID-19 pandemic added an unexpected challenge to the project. The anticipated springtime site preparation and plantings were delayed until summer and fall. Our vision of large volunteer events was scaled down to a dozen people socially distanced from another. Hand-sanitizer was readily available on workdays, and dedicated volunteers wore masks while shoveling mulch in excessive heat and humidity. By mid-November, the garden was fully planted, and all that still needs to be added are the bench, water feature, and interpretive sign.
Students from the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia designed interpretive signage and helped create a list of native plant species. The sign highlights the importance and connection of native plants to birds and other pollinators, and describes the ecological importance of Piedmont prairie habitat. A QR code to access a Spanish translation is on the sign as well, so we can engage as many members of our community as possible.
ORAS purchased many of the native plants from Beech Hollow Farms in Lexington, Georgia, as well as the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Volunteers, ACC staff, and members of Lilly Branch Audubon Society added more than 30 species of perennials and grasses to the garden primarily as plugs and pint-sized plantings. We are looking forward to seeing the results of our efforts over the next few years as the garden grows, matures, and shows off all its flowering glory.
Next time you are in Athens, grab your binoculars and go for a walk along the North Oconee River Greenway. In ORAS’ new Plants for Birds demonstration garden, you may now be able to spot Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, or Eastern Kingbirds and be inspired to add native plants to your own landscape.
Georgia Audubon is building places where birds and people thrive.