Sparrows return to Georgia

While banding birds in a meadow at Panola Mountain State Park in Rockdale County the other morning, Charlie Muise was overjoyed to find two already-banded swamp sparrows in his capture nets.

His records showed that they were banded at Panola in fall 2007. The fact that he caught them again means they survived at least two annual migrations. (Like most of Georgia’s 20 sparrow species, the swamp sparrow is a “winter bird,” which nests up north in summer and migrates here for the winter.)

It also indicates that efforts to restore native grasslands in metro Atlanta and elsewhere in the state may be paying off – good news for “grassland species” like sparrows, which depend on such habitats for survival. The swamp sparrows’ return to the same Panola meadow indicates that the habitat is healthy. It also suggests that the birds were in good shape when they left, allowing them to survive migration, said Muise, a licensed bird-bander who lives in Lamar County.

He and others have been leading efforts at Panola and other locales in the state to restore native grasses and sedges to “old fields” and meadows to create more natural habitat for grassland birds. Volunteers harvest native grass seed from the meadows and fields at Panola and other sites. Funding is provided by Together Green, an alliance of the National Audubon Society and Toyota.

Grasslands themselves are fast declining in metro Atlanta and many other areas of the nation because of rapid development. As a result, populations of many grassland birds also are in sharp decline.

The Atlanta Audubon Society’s yearly Christmas Bird Count used to turn up sparrows, bobwhite quails, eastern meadowlarks and other “field birds” in abundance in the region. But their numbers have plummeted as subdivisions and shopping centers have chewed up the landscape.

Downtown birding: You don't always have to go to wild places for good bird watching. Nathan Farnau of DeKalb County, who works in downtown Atlanta, often goes birding in Centennial Olympic Park in the heart of the city. Amazingly, amid the skyscrapers and human commotion, he has found an array of species. During the past few weeks, he has spied several warbler species, hermit thrushes, summer tanagers, cardinals, mockingbirds, a yellow-bellied sapsucker and others in the park.

Now, his reports have inspired others to go birding there. “The trees that most of these birds are in are mostly small maples‚ just downhill from the Quilt of Dreams terrace, so the birds are very close,” said Jeff Sewell of Tucker.

In the sky: The Leonid meteor shower will be visible through Thursday, reaching a peak of 15 meteors per hour on Monday night, says David Dundee, astronomer with Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum. Look to the east from about 2 a.m. until dawn. The moon will be new on Monday. By Wednesday, look for a thin crescent moon low in the west just after dark. Venus rises in the east just before the sun. Mars rises out of the east about midnight. Jupiter is high in the south at sunset and sets in the west about midnight. Saturn rises out of the east about two hours before sunrise.

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