They squinted through binoculars and surveyed the marshy floor along Lovers Lane, hoping the bird of the moment would make an appearance. They propped a telescope along the Columbia Nitrogen Swamp and scanned the brush for any sign of it.
“Nope, no Rusties,” said Lois Stacey, president of the Augusta-Aiken Audubon Society.
As Stacey pulled out her smartphone to upload to the National Audubon Society’s online database all the bird species the group did see that day – ring-necked ducks, a Great Egret, Hermit Thrush, and about 50 others - she said the Rusty Blackbird’s absence would be noted as well.
“That’s still good data,” Stacey said. “Not seeing them tells us something, too.”
Once one of the most common land birds in North America, the Rusty Blackbird’s drastic 95 percent decline over the past 40 years has puzzled biologists and prompted a nationwide call for help from the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group. Dubbed the 2014 Spring Migration Blitz, the working group is asking experienced birdwatchers and citizen scientists to upload sightings, or lack thereof, to the national database during peak migration times for each state.
Because the local Audubon Society already makes weekly bird watching trips, the group has kept an eye out for the declining bird during Georgia’s target period of early March. The goal is to help provide clues about what factors are impacting the bird the most before it’s too late.
“Nature is all around us, and we should care about what’s around us,” said Judy Gregory, Audubon member and lab technician at Georgia Regents University. “We know we are basically destroying our planet, some places quicker than others. Birds are beautiful. The whole nature system is beautiful. If we lose that, we lose the beauty, too.”
Although humans have increasingly taken over the Rusties’ favorite forested wetlands over the past 100 years, scientists still can’t pinpoint a single cause for their decline, said Judith Scarl, international coordinator for the Blitz and conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Data-keeping on the birds only began in the 1960s, and before the Blitz, almost nothing was known about their migrational habits.
Scarl said even though the decline is clear, biologists do not even have a dependable estimate of how many are left in North America.
“Something really wild and really dire is going on,” Scarl said. “Conservation is the goal. One of the first steps toward conserving a species is understanding its basic behavior and habits.”
Birdwatchers across 39 states and Canada are being asked to look out for the Rusty and to submit data about where and when they were sighted, how many were together, what other types of species were around, and other information.
“We’re going to look at that data and see are they going back to the same places, what’s the status of those places and are those areas being conserved?” Scarl said.
The Rusties are the lesser known relatives of the Grackle, a common blackbird notorious for pestering gardeners and traveling in big flocks, said Dean Demarest, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But unlike their cousins, the Rusties are more inconspicuous. They travel in small packs and prefer a swampy marsh to a gardener’s lawn.
Scarl said besides the rusty color dusting their black feathers, the bird is also known for its song, which sounds like a rusty door hinge or an audio tape on rewind.
Demarest said he hopes the Blitz will also spike awareness about the species and the decline of other lesser known animals.
“For blackbirds in general, no one’s really looked at this species,” he said. “It’s not a colorful species, it’s one of those off-in-the-corner species. We love pandas and tigers and whales, but snakes, spiders and blackbirds, it’s like, ‘forget it.’ ”
Anne Waters, a retired high school teacher and Audubon member, said people can get into bird watching by just observing what shows up in their backyards.
It becomes a challenge, she says, to be able to identify the dozens of different cardinals, sparrows, finches and others that flitter around Augusta. After 40 years of practice, she can close her eyes, tilt her head and tell the difference between a Hermit Thrush and a Goldfinch just by listening to their songs.
It’s also about being aware of your surroundings, Waters said.
Birders can’t walk into the grocery store, or out of their front door without looking in the trees to see what’s there, she said.
“It’s about nature,” she said. “It’s a shame to lose a species. Even if it’s not (a) particularly lovely species, it’s sad to lose them.”