The O'Grady Bird Habitat Restoration Project: Restoring wildlife-friendly plantings to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia

Located on the banks the Middle Oconee River, an important migratory corridor for many of eastern North America's imperiled songbirds, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (SBG) is Athens' premier birding spot. Recognizing its value as habitat for breeding, overwintering, and migratory birds, Bill and Karla O'Grady spearheaded efforts to document bird sightings at the SBG starting in 2004.   They recorded their sightings on eBird, the largest online repository of citizen science bird data. To date, 180 bird species have been recorded in the SBG, and the O'Grady's efforts resulted in the State Botanical Garden being declared a Georgia State Important Bird Area.

To honor their contributions, and the memory of Karla's late husband Bill, Oconee Rivers Audubon Society (ORAS) is partnering with the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in its ongoing efforts to remove invasive plants and restore native, wildlife-friendly plants. Restoration of native plants will provide food, shelter and nesting sites for birds and other wildlife.

To do this, we have established a dedicated fund to which ORAS members, friends of the O'Grady's, and the general public can directly contribute to habitat restoration and maintenance. Additionally, ORAS has pledged to continue monitoring how birds respond to these habitat improvements by completing regular bird surveys in the floodplain. ORAS will also offer volunteer hours to assist with plantings and invasive species removal. More details on how to volunteer will be outlined in future ORAS monthly speaker meetings, our email listserv and newsletter.

L-R: Bill and Karla O'Grady at the State Botanical Garden; Swainson's Warbler; Creole Pearly-eye; Thomas Peters and a healthy canebrake

Fall/Winter 2016: River cane restoration in the floodplain.

Prior to the invasion of Chinese privet, stands of native cane (Arundinaria spp.) known as canebrakes were a key habitat along Georgia rivers, providing safe nesting sites and foraging opportunities for insect-eating songbirds that return from the tropics each year to breed in our region. Among them is the engimatic Swainson's Warbler, whose entire breeding range is in the southeastern US. These shy birds spend much of their time quietly foraging in leaf-litter, but have a deceptively loud song. Once common in the SBG, Swainson’s Warbler numbers have declined as their favored cane nesting sites have been replaced with stands of invasive Chinese privet, in which they experience lower nesting success. Canebrakes provide important habitat for other species as well, including butterflies such as the Creole Pearly-Eye and Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper whose caterpillars feed only on cane.

 In 2014 the Botanical Garden charged UGA graduate Thomas Peters with removing large stands of Chinese privet from the river section of the Orange Trail. Peters is an expert in cultivating and restoring native cane. In the late fall and winter of 2016, the O'Grady Bird Habitat Restoration Fund will support the planting of an extensive cane stand in the lower powerline, and replenish existing stands along the Orange Trail.