Bird man of Glennwood: How his photos united a community during COVID

Steve Rushing eyes a Red-tailed Hawk as it flies high above the trees in his driveway at his residence in the Glennwood Estates neighborhood of Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Steve Rushing eyes a Red-tailed Hawk as it flies high above the trees in his driveway at his residence in the Glennwood Estates neighborhood of Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

When you stand in Steve Rushing’s yard talking to him, his eyes drift past you, sometimes over your head, or around you, as he points out the red-headed woodpecker, the towhee, catbird, or thrasher nearby. He says, “I hear them before I see them.”

Rushing considers himself an amateur naturalist and birder, but he’s been on a mission to spur our Decatur neighborhood into encountering the extraordinary bird life right under our noses.

It started in early April of 2020, just after full-on pandemic isolation took hold. An email on our Glennwood Estates Neighborhood Association (GENA) listserv, which goes out to over 300 households, alerted us to be on the lookout for migrating Neotropical songbirds, who would be easier to hear because of the drastic reduction in traffic noise. Accompanying it was a beautiful photo of a cedar waxwing with a berry suspended in the few millimeters of space between its wide-open beak. In the weeks ahead, more emails arrived with equally riveting photos: a pair of red-tailed hawks in flight, a bluebird feeding its fledgling, barred owls courting, pine siskins overrunning our feeders, a Cooper’s hawk perched on a mailbox — to name just a few.

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Cooper’s hawks have short, rounded wings and long, rudder-like tails, which allow them to maneuver among trees and underbrush. (Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

Cooper’s hawks have short, rounded wings and long, rudder-like tails, which allow them to maneuver among trees and underbrush. 
(Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

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Cooper’s hawks have short, rounded wings and long, rudder-like tails, which allow them to maneuver among trees and underbrush. (Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

Rushing has been sending weekly emails — and sometimes two or three in a week — for over a year. Having spent 40 years consulting on design and implementation of electronic health records systems, Rushing, now 71, works part time at Georgia Tech as a senior adviser for health care information technology. He says quarantine gave him the chance to set up his home office on a terrace outside his brick suburban house, surrounded by trees, bushes, native plants and plentiful bird life.

We’ve all learned something about isolation and disconnection this past year. Rushing’s bird messages gave my neighborhood a way to reconnect, online and in brief, socially distanced exchanges on our many walks. Our lives have been deeply enriched by his emails, our eyes opened to the wealth of bird life around us, and our minds more attuned to environmental problems that threaten a natural world Rushing has been devoted to since childhood.

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“We moved to the neighborhood about a month and a half before we locked down due to COVID. This meant we rarely left the house except to walk the dog,” neighbor Mindy Stombler emailed about Rushing. “…Steve’s photos helped us feel connected to our new neighborhood despite our isolation.”

The bird emails have engaged people new to the neighborhood, as well as those who have been here for decades. We may not all be avid birders now (although some were before the emails started), but the dozen or so neighbors I talked to have all found Rushing’s messages restorative.

“There was so much devastating news all around us, and so to have that window out, and to bring nature in, was very meaningful and a real gift for our whole community,” said Erin Braden, a former president of the neighborhood association , the organization that started the listserv. Kay Lee, the association’s current president, feels there’s great benefit in connecting us all to the bigger ecosystem.

“There’s a magic to birds, they are boundary-less. We all share the birds — they connect us as a neighborhood,” said neighbor Neil Norton, executive director of the Georgia Arborist Association.

According to Rushing, our neighborhood is a hot spot for migrating birds, thanks to its tree canopy, native plantings, and proximity to the 54-acre Decatur Cemetery. Rushing’s beautifully detailed photos reveal bird life not visible to the casual observer, and his vignettes of bird behavior offer insight and provide great entertainment. We’ve even enjoyed communal outrage over the despicable behavior of the brown-headed cowbird (considered a “brood parasite” because it lays its eggs in other birds’ nests to the detriment of the host’s chicks).

Birdwatching grew exponentially when the pandemic hit. The National Audubon Society reported use of its bird identification app doubled in March 2020 over March 2019, and users logged up to 128% more bird sightings through the year. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a renowned conservation organization that tracks birds and bird-watchers around the world, saw double the expected growth rates of people using its bird app and submitting bird observations to its online database, eBird. One of its signature public-participation events, the Global Big Day in May of 2020, set the record for most checklists of birds submitted in a single day.

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An American robin eating service berries. (Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

An American robin eating service berries.
(Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

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An American robin eating service berries. (Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

Locally, Joel Lehmann, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited stores in Decatur and Buckhead, says he saw a huge uptick in sales of bird feeders and seed as people were looking to create nice environments for working from home. Adam Betuel, director of conservation for the Georgia Audubon Society, says they saw a 34% increase in membership between 2019 and now that was partly due to the organization expanding in 2020, but also due to more people birdwatching and wanting to know what they were seeing.

“To care about something, you have to learn about it,” Betuel says.

That’s where Rushing’s messages strike a chord. He started an Instagram account for his photos, a blog for his thoughts, and put the two together in his neighborhood listserv messages. People like learning about the birds they’re seeing.

“His stories and pictures have been a bright spot during the pandemic; they’ve been funny, educational, and sometimes poetic. The photos have been jaw-dropping, kind of like the things we would see in National Geographic!” neighbor Richard Catrambone messaged.

A year of transition

We traveled through the seasons with Rushing and the birds. Spring of 2020 was all about birds courting and breeding. In May, we got photos of a Carolina chickadee with a juicy bug clamped in its beak. We learned that baby birds can’t digest seeds yet so our bird feeders might be empty as parent birds searched for caterpillars and other bug proteins to feed their young. How many insects does it take to feed a brood of three to 10 chickadees? A mere 4,000-5,000.

An email in August showed a scruffy-looking gray catbird and explained that we might not be seeing birds on our feeders because they were molting: “The molting birds are very vulnerable, especially during the time their flight feathers are in transition. They hunker down in cover and for the most part go silent. I also think some are very vain & don’t want to be seen (or have their picture taken :), kind of like some of us with the quarantine look.”

At the end of September, Rushing told us that BirdCast (an online tool that shows real-time bird migration in the U.S.) was predicting that nearly 600 million birds would be on the move across the country that night: “That sounds like a lot and it is, but it’s about 2/3 the number from just a few decades ago,” he wrote.

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Steve Rushing sits at a table on his front porch that he converted into his office space at his residence in Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Steve Rushing sits at a table on his front porch that he converted into his office space at his residence in Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Steve Rushing sits at a table on his front porch that he converted into his office space at his residence in Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Fall brought pictures illustrating bird-beak specialization; the “great American comeback story” of Eastern Bluebirds; and an explanation for why our bird feeders were being overrun by little gray finches with yellow stripes in their wings: “Irruption years happen when there is a shortage of food in a species’ normal wintering range. In the case of Pine Siskins, this year it appears to be a shortage of conifer seeds across Canada’s boreal forest and northern U.S.,” Rushing reported.

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“I once had the notion that birdwatching was for stuffy, old fuddy-duddies,” said Ginny Lester, another Glennwood neighbor. “When Steve’s emails started up, I wondered how many neighbors would be that interested? I began to read his posts once in a while, and then found myself looking forward to them because his pictures and stories were so entertaining.”

In January, Rushing introduced us to my favorite resident bird, a towhee: “This is Dempsey. He has become my office mate over the last few months. When I’m remote working in my front porch office he’s out working the yard for insects. He doesn’t mind me as long as I don’t interrupt him or his mate as they go about their business. As you can see, he has a bum right foot. That’s why I named him after Tom Dempsey the NFL place kicker who had a bum right foot (born without toes). Tom Dempsey played for 11 years and held the record for longest field goal at 63 yards for 43 years…Towhee Dempsey is as tough as his namesake and is not letting his disability hold him back either. Look at the confidence in his eyes…”

“Hi Steve, I grew up in Philadelphia where Dempsey played after leaving NOLA. He was beloved in Philly, to the extent Philly fans can feel love. :),” Catrambone messaged Rushing.

‘Why I care to do this’

Rushing sent an email on April 10 marking the one-year anniversary of his project. Neighbors responded, encouraging him to keep it up:

“Steve, Thank you for your photos and info! They are so beautiful and have helped us see the bright side of this difficult year,” neighbors Lori Leland and David Kirk messaged Rushing.

And the cycle continues.

Rushing grew up mostly in Florida, a “feral” child who spent his days out exploring the aquifers and orange groves where artificial lagoons and amusement parks now stand. In a January blog entry titled “Why I Care to Do This,” he explained his impulse to share his natural world: “I took an outdoors childhood for granted. Then I saw the natural resources that filled this childhood with beauty and wonder disappearing. Now in my 7th decade, I record and share what I’m now seeing, the best that I can in photos, to raise awareness of nature’s vulnerabilities and the wonders of nature that can yet be lost from our lives.”

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Barred owls show courtship feeding and preening rituals for relationship bonding before mating and the female going on the nest. (Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

Barred owls show courtship feeding and preening rituals for relationship bonding before mating and the female going on the nest. 
(Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

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Barred owls show courtship feeding and preening rituals for relationship bonding before mating and the female going on the nest. (Courtesy of Steve Rushing & Rushing Outdoors)

In 2019, scientists announced that the U.S. and Canada had lost 3 billion birds since 1970, based on the population of birds at the start of breeding season in the two countries, a revelation that hit Rushing hard.

“I’m just not seeing and hearing some of my favorite birds. It struck me that the call of the whippoorwill will become mythological. It’s a gut punch,” says Rushing.

Rushing and his family have lived in this Decatur neighborhood since 1984. He says he doesn’t like to lecture people on environmental concerns, but in his own quiet, self-deprecating way, he does seem to enjoy a little nudging. He mainly wants people to be aware of what they can do in their own yards.

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Steve Rushing and his neighbor Erin Braden watch a Red-tailed Hawk as it flies high above the trees in his driveway at his residence in Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Steve Rushing and his neighbor Erin Braden watch a Red-tailed Hawk as it flies high above the trees in his driveway at his residence in Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Steve Rushing and his neighbor Erin Braden watch a Red-tailed Hawk as it flies high above the trees in his driveway at his residence in Decatur, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

For instance, he used discussions on the neighborhood listserv in the past year to urge homeowners to let up on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, so that leaf litter could accumulate and be a home to creatures that serve as food for populations of native birds such as brown thrashers, robins, towhees, song and white-throated sparrows, Northern mockingbirds and the migrant thrushes.

Norton says he deeply appreciates the conversations Rushing initiates. “Rushing’s messages have meant the world to me. Anything to get people to respect nature is good for the habitat, and good for our own health.” Braden, the former neighborhood association president, has also gotten the message: “It’s one thing to think about climate change, but it starts with what can I do. For instance, I don’t like mosquitoes but if I spray for mosquitoes, I’m killing off something else at the same time.”

When asked about his bird knowledge, Rushing says he does know a lot but the emails give him a good excuse to research and gather more information. He’s self-taught and has taken classes like the “master birding” course offered by the Georgia Audubon Society, but says he relies on his youngest son, Clark, to “keep me honest about scientific claims.”

Clark Rushing is an avian ecologist who’s starting a position as professor of ecology at the University of Georgia in August. He appreciates his father’s photos for showing the number and diversity of bird species in an urban area like the neighborhood where he grew up. Like his father, he is deeply affected by the huge declines in bird populations and has focused his research on what’s driving those declines, particularly painted buntings.

He’s glad his father’s emails are making people more aware: “Maybe that’s the silver lining of the last year. So many people looked out their back windows and saw the birds.” And, by the way, he hasn’t had to call his dad out on anything he’s written.

Many of Rushing’s neighbors forward his emails to friends and family all across the country. Braden forwards the messages to her 85-year-old mother in Berkeley, California, an avid birder who hasn’t been able to go birding. Some parents forward emails to grown children no longer living at home. For Leland and Kirk, the sound of the barred owls in our neighborhood are “the sound of home” for their daughters in college; Rushing’s pictures of the barred owl “lovebirds” are their favorites. They credit Rushing’s emails as something positive and a distraction from all the negative things of the past year.

Kirk says they remind him of something his grandfather once said to him: “With all the stuff that goes on in the world, it still is a beautiful place.”

Catherine S. Williams can be reached at cathwill@icloud.com.


How he gets those bird photos

Steve Rushing’s neighbors wonder how he gets such incredible bird pictures. He doesn’t photoshop, saying “I try to keep it as close to what I see as possible.” Of course, the time of day and quality of the light make a huge difference, he points out, but admits he’s “worked hard to know the correct settings and rules of composition and exposure and has taken (thousands) of bad shots that no one sees.” He’s also got a good camera (Olympus OM-D 1X) and lens (M.Zuiko Digital Ed 150-400mm, f/4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO), and shares that information on his blog at rushingoutdoors.net.