This is part one of a three part series on how to win to Georgia Youth Birding Competition. Elements of this series can be applied to having a successful big day anywhere, but it has been tailored for the state of Georgia.
I know what you’re thinking ‘The competition is about identifying birds, why is he starting with the route?’ Well, bird identification is important, but we’ll get to that. Without a good route, your chances of victory are low despite your best ID skills. If you have a new team, it’s a good idea to get a route set up and have them learn the birds at the locations. Then, they can add more locations as the learn, slowly expanding the route as their knowledge grows.
The state of Georgia can be divided into three sections: the Mountains, the Piedmont, and the Coast. Each have their pros and their cons.
Let’s start with the mountains. When you go to the mountains you increase your chances of seeing migratory warblers significantly. Kennesaw Mountain is a good place to see Cerulean Warblers, Bay-breasted Warblers, Magnolia Warblers, and more. Pine Log Wildlife Management Area is another good area to hit. The Etowah Indian Mound Sod Farm (I think it’s official name is “Legacy Sod Farm”) has chances for both Yellowlegs, Horned Lark, American Pipit, and other birds of note.
The Piedmont is a mixed bag. Less chance for rare warblers, but more habitat for grassland birds. The Nongame Office at Rum Creek has chances for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Orchard Orioles, vireos, and feeder birds. The office has a hummingbird feeder if you are having trouble crossing the Ruby-throated Hummingbird off the list. The MARSH Project is good for Swainson’s Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Wood Duck, and Yellow-breasted Chat. The road from Rum Creek to the MARSH Project has Eastern Meadowlark, Loggerhead Shrike, and swallows.
Piedmont Natural Wildlife Refuge has Bachman’s Sparrow and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. It also has Prairie Warblers, Field Sparrows, woodpeckers, and nuthatches.
Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center is a good place for sparrows. The fields behind Teal Pond has Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Palm Warblers.
Behind the Visitor’s Center there are feeders, if you are still missing feeder birds. Also, it is a great place to listen for Louisiana Waterthrush.
Georgia has a beautiful coast. Plentiful species all around. Jekyll Island is a migration bottleneck. A lot of birds come through the island going south. South Beach is a great spot for Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Caspian Terns, Forester’s Terns, Least Terns, Willets, Wilson’s Plovers, Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, and more. Occasionally you get lucky,and get birds like Black Scoters. The Amphitheater on the island has nesting Great Egrets and both nightherons. Ovenbirds, Black-and-white Warblers, and Wood Storks can be found there also. Even the campground on Jekyll is good for birding. Across from the campsite J7 is a group of feeders that hosts Painted Buntings, American Redstarts, and Northern Parulas. Just outside of Jekyll Island, is its Welcome Center. At low tide you can see Short and Long-billed Dowitchers feeding along with Black-bellied Plovers, Semi-palmated plovers, Killdeer, Whimbrels, and Ruddy Turnstones. The Jekyll causeway is good place to stop for Seaside Sparrows.
Andrews Causeway is a decent place to stop. On your way to the causeway you’re sure to pass the Bald Eagle while you’re crossing the bridge into to Brunswick. Andrews Causeway is home to Clapper Rails and American White Pelicans in addition to the normal coastal species.
I once wrote an essay in 5th grade that Altamaha Wildlife Management Area in Darien, was my favorite place to go. Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis, Marsh Wrens, Mottled Ducks, Black-necked Stilts, and more, could you blame me for like it so much? At night at Altamaha you can hear Barred owls and Common Nighthawks.
Paulk’s Pasture in Brunswick, is a good stop for night birds also.
Now that we have discussed the different locations that can be part of a route, we can discuss which ones make up a good one. All the teams that have won the YBC have gone to the coast. The Coast has too many different species you can’t get anywhere else to be eliminated. The official YBC checklist has over forty species listed just as coastal. Successful teams have then gone to the Piedmont or the Mountains. Going to the Mountains makes sense on paper. Yes, you will get warbler species and possibly Common Ravens you can’t get anywhere else, but you run the risk of being trapped north of Atlanta with no way to get to Charlie Elliot. Or you plan for this and sit in traffic wasting valuable birding time. Going to the Piedmont is less risky. The record has broken by people using both strategies so it is a matter of personal preference.
Here are three tips when planning a route that will help you out considerably:
Get everyone to agree to the route before to competition.
Remember the tides.
Plan to eat.
Try to have everyone voice their concerns about the route early on, so you can avoid having to defend it on the day of competition. Also, your teammates might have valuable information about the locations that could change the route drastically.
Having a tide chart will make your life a lot easier.
Remember to eat! Obvious, right? Well, time flies when you are mesmerized by an American Redstart. Plan for that, or your teammates and drivers might turn on you. It isn’t pretty.
The most important element of route planning is diversity. You must be constantly be asking yourself ‘How many species will get there?’, and ‘Can we get this anywhere else?’. The more species you can get at the least amount of locations, the better are your chances of victory. If you do want to go after species that are very localized like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, try to keep the stop short. Don’t get dazzled by the idea of one species. Focus on the competition as a whole.