WILD GEORGIA: A record Atlanta Christmas Bird Count amid pandemic

Credit: Greg Hume

Credit: Greg Hume

With cameras and binoculars dangling from our necks, warm caps covering our heads and heavy jackets zipped up against winter’s chill, 11 of us birders set out early last Sunday on a daylong quest to count all the birds we could see or hear in southeast Atlanta.

It was part of the Intown Atlanta Christmas Bird Count, one of 25 holiday counts that took place across Georgia this season between Dec. 14-Jan. 5.

This year, in addition to our usual birding accouterments, we wore something else — face masks to protect ourselves and others from the COVID-19 virus. Carpooling was out and social distancing was in, all part of Georgia Audubon’s guidelines for safe birding during the pandemic.

Led by birders Joy Carter and Nathan Farnau, our team’s assigned count area was southeast Atlanta. Twelve other count teams fanned out across other parts of the city in a 15-mile diameter circle centered near the intersection of Briarcliff Road and Ponce de Leon Avenue.

On the south side, our team’s first count location was Constitution Lakes Park in an industrial section off Moreland Avenue, where we tallied 48 species. While looking for the feathered creatures along a trail, we heard loud bugling sounds above us. Looking up, we were thrilled to see large V-shaped formations of migrating sandhill cranes flying high against a clear blue sky. Seeing flocks of sandhills can be breathtaking, even for us who’ve seen them many times.

But our most unusual birding venue was a huge, now-closed dump — the corporate-owned Donzi Lane Landfill on Moreland Industrial Boulevard where tons of construction debris are buried (including wastes and rubble from demolition and construction for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta).

The landfill has become a wildlife haven, especially for grassland-loving creatures. During our visit there, we saw flocks of Eastern meadowlarks and a low-flying American kestrel, North America’s littlest falcon.

With all 13 teams reporting, the final tally for the day was 96 species, eight more than the previous high.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be new on Wednesday. Mercury is low in the west at dusk and will appear near the moon on Thursday. Venus, low in the east, rises just before dawn and will appear near the moon on Monday morning. Mars is high in the southwest at dusk.