March 17, 2013

DNR officials look for rare sparrow


— STERLING. (AP) — For a group of experienced Department of Natural Resources biologists and birding volunteers, netting the tiny Henslow’s Sparrow is far from an exact science.

They were reminded of that recently during an exercise to capture, band and release the birds.

Biologist Todd Schneider of the state’s Nongame Conservation Section walked ahead of Rob Hicks, a senior forester for Plum Creek Timber Co. Plum Creek Timber Co. and freelance biologist Chris Depkin, who followed behind, dragging a nearly 100-foot-long rope across the ground. The goal was to flush the rare migrating sparrows from the high grasses in Paulk’s Pasture Wildlife Management Area in Sterling.

Within the first few minutes, a bird frantically emerged from the tall grass, flew roughly 100 yards and suddenly dipped back to the ground.

“That’s a Henslow’s,” Schneider announced to the researchers and volunteers.

The bird gets its name from John Stevens Henslow, a 19th century botanist, minister and a good friend of John Audubon, the pioneering naturalist of the 1800s.

With the bird spotted, state biologist Tim Keyes sprang into action, quickly setting up a badminton-type net while Schneider, Hicks and three volunteers circled around to behind where the bird landed, in hopes of flushing it toward the net.

With a cacophony of whooping, clapping and stomping that sounded like an ancient tribal ritual, the group walked through the thicket, making the bird take to the air and fly into the net.

The work was part of an effort by the DNR to get bands around the ankles of as many Henslow’s Sparrows as possible before they begin their spring migration back to their nesting grounds in Midwest grasslands. In the past three years, the research team has been able to band about 190 birds.

Schneider wants to learn more about the bird’s behavior when it winters in the grassy areas of pine flatwoods and pitcher plant bogs in southeast Georgia’s coastal plain.

“We really don’t know much about what the Henslow’s do here in Georgia,” Schneider said.

The species is considered of high conservation concern, because of its small population and greatly reduced habitat, Schneider said.

He says some estimates put its numbers at a total of 85,000 birds, a small number for a small songbird.

“Over the past several decades, this species has declined precipitously, likely due to habitat loss on its breeding and wintering grounds,” Schneider said.

The attempt to band as many birds as possible will give researchers an idea of where they live during winter and roughly how many birds make the southern migration.

Research similar to that at Paulk’s Pasture is also being conducted in the Townsend Wildlife Management Area, near Jesup, and the Moody Forest Wildlife Management Area, near Baxley.

The success of the work at Paulk’s Pasture has been, in part, due to Hicks and the Plum Creek Timber Co., which cleared more than 50 acres of prime pine timber land to expand the sparrow’s winter habitat.

Plum Creek works with the state through the Sustainable Forestry Initiative of the American Forest and Paper Association.