Originally created 10/16/00

Lab chronicles wetland avians



Warren "Cub" Stephens waves a ball-point pen as though it were a wand and points out tiny specks a few hundred feet below.

"There's an egret - no, two egrets," he said. "Now there are two ring bills. And a wood duck, too."

The wildlife technician from Savannah River Ecology Lab spends one morning a week flying in circles above Phinizy Swamp and the nearby Merry Brothers property - just to count birds.

He's counted a lot of them: About 90,000 birds representing 157 species have been documented since the lab was hired to conduct the unusual census 2 1/2 years ago.

"The idea is to find out if Augusta's sewage treatment plant and the artificial wetlands behind it are attracting birds from other areas," Mr. Stephens said. "We want to know what they are, how many and where they're staying."

The Messerly Wastewater Plant, tucked between Phinizy Swamp and Augusta Regional Airport, has a long history of contaminating the Savannah River. The city is under a court order to reduce pollution by 2001 or face huge fines.

The solution was to create a 400-acre "constructed wetland," where man-made marshes filter pollutants from treated sewage as it makes its way to the river.

Although the $10 million project is having excellent environmental results, it also attracts birds.

And that's the problem.

Because the wetlands are adjacent to Augusta Regional Airport - and in the path of long-range runway expansion plans - the project has drawn concern from the Federal Aviation Administration.

FAA's opposition involves claims that more birds will be attracted to the entire area - thus endangering aircraft using Augusta Regional.

"As the EcoPark wetlands become more of an attractant to wildlife, the potential for safety conflicts between aviation and wildlife will grow," wrote Dell Jernigan, FAA regional manager, in 1998.

Augusta's position, however, is that the wetlands won't attract birds, a conclusion validated by recent studies by Mr. Stephens and others.

But, those studies - and the wetlands - are relatively new, and more long-range data will be needed as the wetlands are completed. FAA agreed to a 10-year evaluation period that has almost eight years left to go.

Today, there is no question the wetlands are attracting birds - even though the city doesn't want them to. Canada geese by the dozens and flocks of early migrating blue-winged teal were there this week.

But Mr. Stephens and other scientists doubt the wetlands will bring any radical changes to bird movement, especially because the area is already part of the Phinizy Swamp ecosystem that includes the Merry Brothers properties.

"The Merry Brothers property probably has the most," Mr. Stephens said, checking off wood ducks and cormorants as the plane droned aloft over the former quarry ponds. "By winter, there will be thousands."

The counting is a tedious job but provides lots of surprises, such as giant deer and the occasional bald eagle or endangered wood stork.

While Mr. Stephens counts, Eelco Oosterwijk pilots the tiny Cessna in circles, using airspeed and centrifugal force to tilt the plane diagonally for a better look.

"The most influencing factor is the river," Mr. Stephens said. "If it floods up into the fields and woods, the swamp is under water and there are more birds. Last year, during the drought, everything was dry."

Although individual birds and small groups are counted by number, bigger flocks - often numbering 500 or more - are counted with a computer model that uses square footage of the flock to calculate numbers.

"People don't realize just how much wildlife there is - right in downtown Augusta," he said.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.