Wild Georgia: Learning how to become a master birder

The Atlanta Audubon Society periodically conducts an intensive introductory course in ornithology -- the Master Birder Program -- designed to help participants become better birders and gain a keen appreciation for our feathered creatures.

During a series of 12 lectures and five field trips, participants are taught how to identify birds by sight and sound. They also learn, among many other things, about bird anatomy, flight and migration patterns, nesting and feeding behaviors, bird habitats, and the best binoculars and scopes for spotting birds.

My friend Lisa Hurt of Atlanta, one of the instructors, invited me to sit in on one of her lectures the other day. Here’s just a smattering from her wide-ranging lecture:

  • Georgia has two genera of hawks -- buteos and accipiters. Buteos include broad-winged, red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. Noted for their broad wings and sturdy builds, the buteos are the hawks that you see soaring on thermals at midday over open spaces.

The accipiters include sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, commonly found in wooded and shrubby areas -- and in your yard. Accipiters are slender, with short, broad rounded wings and a long tail that helps them maneuver with great skill through the woods. A hawk hanging around your bird feeder most likely is a Cooper’s, waiting to pounce on one of the small birds that come there.

  • Georgia has two vulture species, turkey vultures and black vultures. Though they look similar, they are different in many ways. The slightly larger turkey vulture is common statewide. It has a pinkish-red head and longer, narrower, two-tone (black with gray lining) wings that are held in a shallow V-shape when soaring. It has an acute sense of smell and feeds almost entirely on carrion, mostly dead mammals.

The black vulture lives in most of Georgia but is less common in the mountains. Curiously, it won’t cross over large bodies of water. Its head is gray; wings have silvery tips. It is more aggressive and will drive off turkey vultures when feeding on roadkill or other carrion. It also will prey on small live mammals and reptiles, eat other birds' eggs and feed at garbage dumps.

Turkey vultures gently wobble when soaring; the heavier black vultures do not, although they flap their wings more often.

For more on the Master Birder Program, visit www.atlantaaudubon.org.

Don't forget: The Great Backyard Bird Count is taking place this weekend through Monday. Anyone can participate: Just spend at least 15 minutes counting the individual birds and species that you see and hear. Report results at www.birdcount.org. Other count details also can be found there.

In the sky: The moon will be new on Tuesday -- a thin crescent low in the west just after dark, said David Dundee, an astronomer with the Tellus Science Museum. Mercury is very low in the west just after dark and will appear near the moon on Wednesday evening. Venus, shining brightly, also is low in the west just after dark. Mars rises out of the east a few hours before midnight. Jupiter is high in the west at dusk. Saturn rises out of the east a few hours after midnight.