Wood Thrush Project
It all began at National Audubon Society’s Hog Island camp with a conversation chapter members Kim Brand and Shelley Rutkin had with John Beavers of Audubon’s International Alliances Program (IAP). Our sister chapter, Elisha Mitchell Audubon in Asheville, had adopted the Cerulean Warbler as their “Species of Concern.” Why not adopt the Wood Thrush as our species, since it is the only Audubon Species of Concern that breeds in Forsyth County? Adoption is easy, but what should we actually do?
The Wood Thrush is a species of concern, because its numbers have dropped by 40 percent or more in recent years. Fragmentation of their forest habitat appears to be the major reason, not only in the eastern United States where they nest, but also where they winter in Central America and where they stop along the Atlantic Flyway during migration. Cowbird predation likely is another factor. We still have breeding populations at local parks such as Historic Bethabara and Reynolda. In fact, surveys at Bethabara in 2009 and 2010 revealed several Wood Thrush breeding territories.
Matt Jeffery of IAP works with Belize Audubon Society, which manages several national parks and sanctuaries where Wood Thrushes spend half the year. Matt suggested Forsyth Audubon and Belize Audubon could become partners for habitat conservation. With the assistance of Matt and IAP, five Forsyth Audubon members traveled to Belize in January 2014. In addition to adding many new birds to their life lists and seeing a number of Wood Thrushes, the travelers trained Belize Audubon park wardens and staff in how to use eBird to record their survey data. Until now, that data has been filed away in cabinets and not been very accessible for study. Belize Audubon also asked the group to help survey a preserve near Belize City and for advice on how to make their sanctuaries more ecotour friendly through creation of nature trails and educational signage. Read our Blog series on Belize.
Forsyth Audubon’s commitment to the Wood Thrush expanded long before the trip, however. We learned that little really is known about the migratory patterns of the Wood Thrush. For example, where do Forsyth Wood Thrushes winter? Where do Belize birds nest during the summer? Where do the birds stop in between? If we knew more, we could determine where to focus habitat conservation efforts. The chapter decided to partner with IAP and scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in a project to capture about 20 birds in breeding locations in our Piedmont area for the purpose of attaching GPS locator tags and bands to the birds.
Forsyth Audubon agreed to provide financial assistance for the purchase of the tags and to cover the scientists’ expenses. Members also assisted the scientists in locating the Wood Thrush territories. The cost was several thousand dollars. However, through use of Birdathon and Hopkins Fund monies, and generous support from individual chapter members, our fundraising efforts were successful. Thanks to all of you!On May 21, 2014, our Wood Thrush party was a great success. More than 50 people were able to mingle, eat great food, talk about Wood Thrushes and meet Peter, the Smithsonian Institution technician, who arrived to undertake the daunting task of catching some of these birds and attaching the GPS locator tags. Our target areas were Historic Bethabara Park and the Yadkin River section of Pilot Mountain State Park, where volunteers spent time seeking out nesting territories.
Between May 30 and June 16, we captured and tagged 22 adult male Wood Thrushes – 17 at the Pilot Mountain Yadkin River Section and 5 at Historic Bethabara. We also banded several young males and adult females, although these birds did not get GPS tags because their future fidelity to these same locations is less certain than with the adult males. Quite a number of volunteers crawled through privet and other underbrush to try to find thrush nests, got up before dawn to haul, set up and move mist nets, and to record data during the banding and tagging process. Despite the early hours, people were excited to take part, to learn about banding protocols and the birds, and to see the birds up close. It certainly was great fun and educational to work with Peter.
The GPS tags that were used do not transmit data. It was necessary to recapture the birds in 2015 to collect any tags we could. Volunteers began scouting Pilot Mountain State Park and Bethabara in April, looking for newly arrived Wood Thrushes carrying GPS backpacks or bands. The focus was on areas where birds were captured last year. The hope was that the banded males would return to their same territories, or at least close to them. The early scouting found many Wood Thrushes, but alas it was tough to get close enough to see any bands or backpacks. Tim Guida, arrived on May 25, 2015, to recapture birds to access the data about the birds’ travels. Between then and June 7th, Tim captured 44 birds. Two carried GPS backpacks and four others had been banded in 2014. The 10% success rate was less than optimistically hoped for, but still quite amazing if you really stop to think about it. And, yes, one of the tagged birds spent the winter in Belize. More about that and other details, later. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, much thanks to the approximately two dozen members who scouted, helped set up and move mist nests, logged data, and more between April and June. And, special thanks to Katherine Thorington and Jean Chamberlain, who were out in the woods nearly every day, for lending their expertise during the whole process.
Wendy Hawkins and Don Lendle have created a 4th grade bird curriculum presentation tied into the wood thrush connection. In the Fall of 2018 Wendy and her sidekicks launched the program by presenting it to 4th graders at The Montessori School of Winston-Salem, Kimberly Park and Brunson Elementary schools. It was well received by students and teachers alike. Students were enwrapped in learning about bird migration through the dynamic Power Point presentation, participating in reenactment of a woodpecker rescue, and playing an outdoor game of tag called Migration Headache in which they were able to replicate a scientific study of the effects of obstacles as well as positive initiatives on migratory bird populations. In closing, students were sent off well equipped with Kids’ Bird Packs for further inspiration, exploration, and positive impact they can make for birds. Wendy is exploring followup projects like nest box installation, native plant projects and pen-pal Skype with Belize students. Our partners at Piedmont Environmental Alliance have helped with launching this educational program.