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Winter Sanctuary
Wetlands Center home to birds of 94 species

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Driving to the Newman Wetlands Center in southeast Clayton County, falcons can be seen scouting the land for prey, while cardinals and rare songbirds flutter across the highway.

Starlings, grackles, and red-winged black birds take off in thick clouds from the trees above. Chickadees and various types of songbirds hop about bird feeders spread throughout the property.

Anyone walking by will notice uncommon species of birds that have migrated to the man-made wetland marshes, including the red-breasted nuthatch -- a bird common to the New England area -- and American bald eagles.

The lure to Newman, according to Carol Lambert, senior conservationist at the wetlands center, is the abundance of seed-bearing plants many birds depend on for food that the unusually warm fall and winter has created. Also, a minimal level of human interference and an abundance of food has caused some birds to travel off of their normal migratory patterns.

"Sometimes, its a fluke," said Lambert. "Birds are always opportunistic. The red-breasted [nuthatch] is a real unusual bird to spend its winter here, but it's a treat. Why do they need to go to Virginia when we have all this cool stuff here."

The center has documented 8,755 birds from 94 different species in a survey taken at the beginning of this month. Eight species were never before seen at the wetlands center. Included in the 2008 survey are 18 species of waterfowl, unusual to the metro Atlanta area, and Clayton County in particular. On Jan. 5, the center documented the nests of the rare tundra swan.

"This place is unique, because its an inland county, it's a small county, it's all man-made lakes and reservoirs, but yet we have all these species of birds," said Lambert. "There's a lot of rarities that have shown up in the state of Georgia in the last month ... they are definitely showing up in larger numbers where people are seeing them now."

The man-made wetlands area was constructed by the Clayton County Water Authority for the purpose of natural water purification.

Started in 2004, the artificial marshes spread throughout the 32-acre property, and naturally remove any contaminants left behind during the CCWA's initial purification process before the water goes back into county reservoirs. In addition to being a more efficient and cost-effective method to release clean water back into the environment, the constructed wetlands provide a new habitat for many displaced animal species.

"If we can build a facility that not only improves wastewater treatment, but builds bird habitats, we feel that we've done a good thing," said Mike Thomas, general manager of the CCWA. The wetlands are "a critical piece of our water treatment ... [that] gives us some piece of mind knowing that you have that safety net," he said.

Lambert said while the wetlands center was an excellent place to learn about nature, it is not the only place that people can see the birds. "One of the things about watching birds is that you can do it all year, pretty much anywhere on the planet," said Lambert. However, "we have to be careful," she said. "Birds, for many of us, are a good indicator of environmental health."