A cool breeze drifts through the Al Bungard Conservation Area of the Chatham County Wetlands Preserve. Roughly 20 birders stand scattered across the marsh armed with cameras, scopes and impressive binoculars. Their eyes are trained on a dark silhouette just beneath the moon, minutes before it gives way to sunrise. Leslie Weichsel, president of the Ogeechee Audubon Society, wades through shoulder-high grasses with her neck craning upwards toward the treetops as she watches the black vulture circling the air.
For the past 50 years, Ogeechee Audubon Society has worked to educate the Savannah community about the environment and ways we can help protect our natural resources. They also provide opportunities for people of all ages to engage with wildlife through weekend birding excursions, hoping to create a community that has a deeper understanding of, and intimate connection with, nature.
“Birds are just incredible,” Weichsel says. She continues down a narrow path, pines closing in around her. Water pools on either side of the trail as the group combs the marsh for signs of bird activity. “You can look at birds as an indicator species of what’s going on with the climate,” Weichsel explains. “That gets into the bigger picture of what’s happening in nature across the world.”
Weichsel says that hundreds of thousands of birders across the country, like the members of Ogeechee Audubon, are documenting and submitting bird sightings to environmental data-collecting facilities like Cornell University. Researchers then correlate that data with factors such as agricultural expansion, deforestation and climate change to chart environmental shifts on a global scale.
“The data with birds, it will just knock your socks off,” Weichsel says. “Rusty Black Birds have declined 70% since the 1970s, and we don’t know why. What we do know is that they come to the Savannah Christian Prep School. So, we count them, and we survey them to see if they’re consistently coming and how many there are. Then we send off that information to Cornell.” Annual migratory information on an endangered species like this one is invaluable to environmental scientists working to unravel the mysterious cause for alarming declines in avian populations.
Ogeechee Audubon Society is one of 500 local chapters across the country that comprises the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit, grassroots environmental organization dedicated to conserving the nation’s wildlife. “People here have been collecting data on birds for half a century,” Weichsel says. As such, the society is a small group that contributes to a big impact; their efforts, in collaboration with other environmentalist groups, has led to historic conservation milestones like Georgia’s Barrier Islands becoming designated as a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network in 2017.
“I think this milestone of 50 years is a testament to people’s commitment to Audubon, and to the chapter in the Savannah area over all these years,” Weichsel says. While members of Ogeechee Audubon Society reminisce about their past, Weichsel shares that they are also looking to the future to see what birds will reveal next about the ever-changing world around us.
Science aside, this early morning in the marsh is also undeniably peaceful— therapeutic even. It is a moment to connect with the natural world we sometimes stray too far from.
The trail breaks out into a clearing. A small wooden footbridge arcs over a stagnant stream, giving way to a scene almost too picturesque to be true. A large red-shouldered hawk rests on a low hanging branch above the water, streaks of earth tones darting to the edges of its feathers. The air is quiet as Weichsel peers through her binoculars, taking a moment to focus the lens. The dial clicks into place, and she relaxes and smiles.
Birds are as beautiful as they are important to the ecosystem, which is why bird-watching is an excellent source of outdoor relaxation and recreation. The Ford Plantation organizes bird counts throughout the year, some of which are in coordination with national bird efforts.
Great American Backyard Bird Count
This free, fun and easy event engages bird-watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real- time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for a minimum of 15 minutes on one or more days of the four- day February event and report their sightings via email or by turning in a bird count booklet to The Ford Plantation naturalist.
Global Big Day Bird Count
Each May, participants join our naturalist to count bird species at The Ford Plantation for the annual Global Big Day, where citizen scientists and researchers alike share data on local bird species from all over the world in one day. If you are not on property at The Ford Plantation, you are invited to record your observations and submit them online at ebird.com.
Christmas Bird Count
No experience is necessary to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count—just a love of our feathered friends. Two-hour time slots with our staff naturalist are available for reservation. This is a great way to get the whole family outside to enjoy nature. Grab your binoculars and hiking shoes and let’s get counting!