By Joel Hall
The pine siskin, the king rail, the herring gull, and other rare birds have flocked to the Newman Wetlands Center this winter.
Conservationists discovered, during a recent annual winter bird survey, that many rare, migratory birds have chosen to make Clayton County their home. And other birds are staying longer than usual.
The Newman Wetlands Center, a conservation wetland owned by the Clayton County Water Authority, has gained a reputation in the metro Atlanta area as a paradise for spotting birds.
At the end of January, 3,700 avian inhabitants, 80 different species, were documented in and around the property.
Carol Lambert, senior conservationist at the center, said this year's survey recorded fewer species than last year's, but the ones spotted were often rare for the area.
"We had kind of a late seed season here," she said. "Things stayed greener longer. When you have seeds falling later in the fall, you have birds eating them later, and migratory birds sticking around a little longer."
Among the birds noted in the survey were a variety of songbirds and waterfowl, such as the cormorants, Canada geese, mallards, mergansers, ring-necked ducks, bluebirds and nuthatchers, and coastal birds, such as the herring gull and king rail. Their spotting represents first-time sightings for the water authority.
"The herring gull is very odd," said Lambert. "That is a kind of bird you would see at Jekyll Island, but not here everyday. We found it near the Smith Reservoir. It was just flying over Panhandle Road and we were lucky enough to see it pass by. Rails are birds that live in tall grasses and marshes. They are kind of secretive birds.
"If they are not vocalizing, it is very hard to find them there, but we were just lucky to see it walk out of the marsh grasses. As soon as it detected movement, it just disappeared back into the grasses."
The survey also revealed several "irruptive events," where birds that have never inhabited the center have shown up in great numbers, such as the pine siskin.
Lambert said the birds are "ruling the bird feeders" and the center has had to adjust many of its feeders to allow only smaller birds through.
"That [pine siskin] is more of a northern bird," said Lambert. "They are cleaning out the feeders. They are big eaters. It's small, but it's pushy, and they love sunflower seeds. It's fun to see them, but it's fun to see them leave as well."
Lambert said the center also has seen an increase in some aggressive birds such as starlings, which are native to England. "They were brought to America in 1890 from England," said Lambert. "They were brought to New York by someone who wanted to have every single bird mentioned by Shakespeare, and lo and behold, we have them here.
"They are sort of like the kudzu [of] birds," Lambert said. "They are very aggressive, they breed aggressively, they are even mean to each other. They are very social in a way, but they are kind of like thug birds."
Stan Chapman, field trip coordinator for the Atlanta Audubon Society, said the wetlands in Clayton County are a "premiere" site to view birds and waterfowl in the Atlanta area, and the survey is responsible for letting people know what kind of birds live here.
"A lot of times, a lot of strange birds show up," he said. "I think it's great that the wetlands center has a senior conservationist there full time. She really keeps up on the things here."
"Birds are a very good barometer of the environmental health of an area," said Lambert. "Eighty species for this county, which is so small, highly developed, and is inland, is pretty amazing."