Originally created 04/28/00

Camp helps volunteers identify birds



By the third day of birding boot camp, Krista Weatherford was beginning to get it.

She could now distinguish "witchety, witchety, witchety" from "sweet, sweet, sweet" in the cacophony of spring bird songs that filled the deep woods beside Tupelo Swamp Trail in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

It took three days to learn to isolate the different songs, to learn to really listen, said Ms. Weatherford, an educator at Georgia Southern University's raptor center. The center, known for its birds of prey collection, is getting ready to add a section devoted to song birds.

That's why Ms. Weatherford was at birding boot camp.

"I'm finally able to see -- I guess hear -- the parts isolated from the whole," Ms. Weatherford said.

Georgann Schmalz, educator from the Fernbank Science Center, and Emily Jo Williams, senior biologist from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, were proud. Ms. Schmalz and Ms. Williams are the drill sergeants of birding boot camp.

During the next few weeks, Ms. Schmalz and Ms. Williams will conduct about a dozen boot camps around the state. The special outdoor classes teach volunteers to recognize birds by their song alone. The critical and hard-to-master skill is needed to help conduct a special breeding bird survey in May.

The survey will identify birds that nest in Georgia, especially neotropical migrants. Neotropicals are birds that raise their young in North America and migrate to Central and South America in the winter. The neotrops include many tiny warblers that fill the summer woods with song. The birds are so small and so eager to stay hidden that they are hard to spot even with the best binoculars. But they are easy to hear.

"Witchety, witchety, witchety" is the song of the common yellowthroat warbler.

"Sweet, sweet, sweet" is the song of the yellow warbler.

The birding boot campers use sound-a-like phrases or mnemonics and phonetic phrases to learn the song.

But nothing beats hearing the song, finding the bird with binoculars and watching it sing, Ms. Schmalz said. That cements the bird and its song together in the observers' mind, she said. Hopefully, forever.

Repetition is critical to keeping the skill once learned, Ms. Williams said.

Boot camp graduates are expected to spend as much time as possible listening to tapes or CDs that offer recorded snippets of bird song and identify the birds for the listeners.

Kendall Smith, a manager in training at the Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, seemed to be doing better than the other campers when it came to identifying song.

"I practiced with tapes before I came," Ms. Smith, who will be charged with conducting a breeding bird survey on his refuge, revealed.

Ms. Schmalz had sympathy for those who were still struggling between the "zweet" of the prothonotary warbler and the "sweet" of the yellow warbler on the third day of boot camp.

A recent trip to Arizona meant that the birds were singing songs unfamiliar to the East Coast bird song expert. The West Coast birds all sounded foreign to Ms. Schmalz.

"Now I know what my students go through," she said.

The spring nesting bird survey helps scientists determine what types of habitat the warblers and other neotropical migrants need, Ms. Williams said.

Ms. Williams is Georgia' representative to the Partners-in-Flight bird conservation team. The international team is developing nonregulatory ways such as conservation easements to conserve bird habitat on both ends of the neotropical migrant's migration.

Partners-in-Flight sponsors International Migratory Bird Day each spring to draw attention to the neotropical migrants. This year it is May 13.