May 16 – Global Big Day – Part 2 of 2

Dowdell’s Knob, a favorite place of President FDR for hosting cookouts and picnics

After walking my 3 Schnoodles along the back loop of F. D. Roosevelt State Park and recording 15 species of birds singing from trees, flitting from post to post and diving for food in the grasses and shrubs, I resumed my Global Big Day bird count at the top of Dowdell’s Knob on Pine Mountain in Georgia overlooking the valley below. The dense fog was beginning to lift, making it possible to see more of what I was hearing. I was thinking of my friends who were also out participating in this event – Fran Haley from North Carolina, who was out looking for eagles at a dam with her husband on her birdday birthday, and my colleague Dawn Lanca-Potter and her son Grayson, who were out observing in Pike and Upson Counties in Georgia.

After completing my eBird Essentials course and researching the local hotspots for bird activity, I chose Georgia’s largest state park, F. D. Roosevelt State Park just outside Warm Springs, for my birding adventure. I was excited to live these opportunistic moments observing the plethora of species in this biodiverse area in close proximity to Callaway Gardens. My mother, who had been a lover of birds her entire life, was close – I could feel her spirit in the breeze, her presence in the harmonious, sweetly chirping birdsong.

I had no idea that she would make her presence more even powerfully known in such an unquestionable way.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Male and Female Summer Tanagers on pine branch overlooking Pine Mountain Valley

In 2008, I’d applied for a teacher scholarship to spend a week learning alongside scientists in the field at the Jones Ecological Research Center near Albany, Georgia. Four courses had been offered, and we could pick two of the following: wildlife, aquatics, forestry, and plants. I chose wildlife and plants and completed both of these sessions the first year. I returned the second summer to complete the other two. As part of the grant that funded our teacher scholarships, we received copies of Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a memoir about the author’s days growing up in poverty in Baxley, Georgia and learning all aspects of the Long Leaf Pine ecosystem; and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which is in my top three favorite books of all time. I savored these pages, and I return to them often still. They teach me a lot about plant and animal species – especially the rare and dwindling ones, like the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow.

I turned on my Merlin Bird ID to figure out which species were in the area, and I used the tone sensor to figure out where each bird was located in proximity to me. My strategy was to let Merlin’s unmistakable expertise lead, and then to photograph and audiorecord and count the species as I encountered them.

I’d complete a checklist in one spot and move on to the next, all along the mountain. I almost didn’t stop in one particular spot, because the motorcyclists were out on rides in large groups and had a substantial gathering in one of the overlooks as they took a lunch break; I was thinking the noise would deter any birds, but as the cyclists began to leave, I changed my mind and decided to do an observation in this spot.

I sat on this rock overlooking the valley to observe.

I sat on a rock and started the checklist. 12:54 p.m. I was hot and tired. I took a long swig of icy water and tapped into my buddy Merlin, who had already led me to Indigo Buntings, Summer Tanagers, Great Crested Flycatchers, and a long list of other birds not too difficult to spot once I knew they held presence in an area.

Northern Cardinal, Pine Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Bachman’s Sparrow……

Bachman’s Sparrow!

No way. This one has to be a mistake, I thought. I watched the tone sensor. These are rare birds, far too shy and rare for a mountainside full of motorcyclists vroooming around.

I thought of Janisse Ray’s chapter on Bachman’s Sparrow. Bird-artist James Audubon discovered the sparrow in 1832 while exploring near Charleston, South Carolina, and named it for a Lutheran minister he had befriended on the street and with whom he was staying, John Bachman. Bachman’s Sparrow has declined since the 1930’s at a stunning rate. It is streaked buff-gray, with a shadowy bill and a long, dark-brown, rounded tail. It measures six inches from bill to tail tip, about the size of most sparrows, and has been called the stink-bird by quail hunters because its ground dwelling can throw off the dogs hot on the trail of a bevy of quail.

Sure enough, Bachman’s Sparrow appeared and continued to light up in yellow highlighting as I searched the trees and located a group of sparrows – and while I never could tell which sparrow was Bachman’s through the high-powered lens focused in the trees down the bank on the side of the mountain, I knew that at least one of these elusive birds was somewhere in that mix. Right there in that tree. Right near me, singing its cheery greeting, lighting up a few times on the app.

Bachman’s Sparrow in Merlin ID

On Global Big Day, that Bachman’s Sparrow was my mother reaching down from heaven for a tight hug on Mother’s Day weekend, letting me know she is watching over me, reminding me to be strong in my faith: many times, we can’t see something that we KNOW without a doubt is there surrounding us, and these things are forever real.

God, mothers in heaven, birds. Ever present, forever real.

With special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for giving writers space and opportunity to share our love of writing

May 15 – Global Big Day – Part 1 of 2

It’s 9:00 Saturday morning (May 13), and my husband and I are seated in the Country Kitchen near Pine Mountain, Georgia having breakfast.  Many camping folks get up and start a fire, “brew” pour-over coffee, and sizzle bacon and eggs over a campfire or outdoor camper kitchen, awakening all the tent campers and anyone sleeping with open windows to a mouth-watering stirring of a new day.  

Not us.

Fueling up for a day of birding at the Callaway Gardens Country Store

We’re heading out birding for Global Big Day, so we came to the Country Store for their famous Callaway Gardens signature grits, scrambled eggs, sausage with sage, buttermilk biscuits with muscadine jam, muscadine muffins, percolated coffee, and iced water in lidless mason jars.  We finally got a window seat on the top of this mountain after all the times we’ve wanted one, and as luck would have it, it’s foggy outside and we can’t see fifty feet out. But it’s okay – we’re busy filling up on food for when the fog lifts.  It’s going to be a big day full of feathered species as we work together with Merlin Bird ID and the eBird app to create checklists of bird identifications at birding hotspots nearby to help researchers track bird migration patterns and species population densities.

Praying for the fog to lift while we eat – it’s hard to go birding in foggy conditions.

I completed the free eBird Essentials course on the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology eBird website Friday night – something I’ve been meaning to do since I opened my account and created a profile – and then texted Fran Haley to see if she was planning to participate today, too.  She is.  It’s her birdday birthday May 13, and she and her husband are journeying to a dam to see if they can spot any eagles.  

Complete eBird Essentials Course: Check

I submitted 3 checklists (one for each morning Schnoodle walk on the back loop of F. D. Roosevelt State Park Campground), with 15 species combined, before breakfast.  When she texted at 6:48 (we’re both early birds), shortly after I had returned from walking the dogs on their morning outing along the back loop of the camp, Fran had already  recorded 23 species. I’d prayed she would see some rare sightings on her adventures – the best birthday blessings for an avid birdwatcher!

We finished our breakfast, and right there in the Country Kitchen I found a fully stocked table of 50+ UV Protection adventure hats – just the kind I have been hoping to find. I tried several on, but I couldn’t land on a decision. Both Maureen Ingram and Stacey Shubitz made some helpful suggestions last week about hat brands – Outdoor Research and UVSkinz, and I’d gotten both too busy and too tired over the week to give either more than a passing glance. I remained as lidless as my Mason Jar after trying on several kinds and not finding one that grabbed me.

But alas, there are still birds to count and trails to hike, so off we go!

Indecision is a decision of NO.

I’ll share Part 2 of the day’s adventure – and the species I found present on Global Big Day – tomorrow. For now, we are headed over to Dowdell’s Knob to begin hiking at the trail with the boys.



let’s count birds!

Boo Radley, Fitz, and Ollie – clearly looking to help spot birds!

Preparing for This Weekend’s Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count kicks off this weekend (February 17-20), and I’ll be counting the birds that come to visit the Johnson Funny Farm in Williamson, Georgia – partly because I love birds, but partly too in memory of my mother, Miriam Haynes, who adored them and worked hard to establish a nature-loving legacy that she would be proud to know lives on in ways that continue to make a difference.

Here is everything you need to know to prepare and to participate this weekend. I’d love to invite you to participate and to share your findings and photos on your blog post next week. It takes as little as 15 minutes to observe and only a few minutes to report.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) started in 1998 when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society collaborated to create the first online citizen-science project. In 2009, Birds Canada joined forces to expand the geographic data collection points. Its goal is to encourage people from all over the world to spend time watching and counting as many birds as they can, and then reporting their observations – which helps scientists better understand global bird populations and their migratory patterns.

To take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you can visit this link to learn more – but to make it quicker and easier, I’ve pasted this information from the link:

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, February 17-20, 2023.

Step 3: Identify all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and use the best tool for sharing your bird sightings.

How to Share Your Observations:

  • If you are a beginning bird admirer and new to bird identification, try using the Merlin Bird ID app to share what birds you are seeing or hearing.
  • If you have participated in the count before and want to record numbers of birds, try the eBird Mobile app or enter your bird list on the eBird website (desktop/laptop).

Here’s a link about the Great Backyard Bird Count from a former edition of Georgia Magazine.

We have two Great Horned Owls that I hope will make an appearance – or at least be heard – during the GBBC Weekend! Listen closely and you can hear them exchanging their innermost thoughts.
Special thanks to Two Writing Teachers at Slice of Life