Audubon to host talk on songbirds and their shifting breeding range in southern Appalachia

ATHENS – Two UGA graduate students will discuss their graduate research regarding two species of Neotropical migrant songbird species, Black-throated Blue Warblers and Canada Warblers at the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society’s next monthly meeting.

Ryan Chitwood and Sam Merker, both Master’s students at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, will discuss their research regarding migratory songbirds in southern Appalachia. Mounting evidence suggests that climate change is shifting species’ ranges poleward, but few studies have attempted to uncover the mechanisms that drive range shifts. Sam and Ryan will discuss two different approaches they are using to address this issue when the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society holds its next meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 2, at Sandy Creek Nature Center.

Ryan will describe how long-term study of Black-throated Blue Warbler demography has provided key insight into how changes in within populations contribute to range shifts. Sam will discuss experimental approaches he used to pinpoint specific mechanisms that may limit the distribution of Canada Warblers and how these mechanisms may be contributing to shifting ranges. Finally both will discuss the implications of their research and the future of research on this topic.

Ryan Chitwood is a second year Master’s student co-directed by Dr. Robert Cooper and Dr. Richard Chandler. Currently, he serves as a teaching assistant for the Applied Population Dynamics course and as the conservation chair of the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society board. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree from the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology and has been working with Black-throated Blue Warblers at various levels for four years. He has also worked with the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring program on automated methods for detecting bird species from audio recordings. After finishing his degree this fall, Ryan plans to begin a PhD.

Sam Merker is in imminent danger of finishing his Master’s degree at UGA and is advised by Dr. Richard Chandler. He is a lifelong birder and bird bander. He has served as a teaching assistant for ornithology classes at both the University of New Hampshire, his alma mater, and UGA. Prior to graduate school Sam spent 5 years, accounting for 11 field seasons, working on various ornithological field projects around the world. Sam has been working with Canada Warblers at the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab in North Carolina since 2014 and plans to continue this work.

The meeting will be held in the Nature Center’s Education and Visitor Center, 205 Old Commerce Road off U.S. Highway 441 north of Athens. To reach the center from the Loop 10 bypass, exit at U.S. Highway 441/Commerce Road and turn north toward Commerce. Go approximately a mile, turn left at the Sandy Creek Nature Center sign and go to the end of the road. Turn left at Old Commerce Road; parking for the Education and Visitor Center will be on the right.

For more information, visit, or contact Audubon chapter President Brian Cooke at or Publicity Chair Heather Abernathy at

The Oconee Rivers Audubon Society is a nonprofit organization of people brought together by a love of birds and nature. We strive to promote conservation and provide a voice for environmental issues, we organize several local conservation projects each year, and we host public presentations on subjects related to birds, nature, and conservation at our monthly meetings. Audubon meets at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month at Sandy Creek Nature Center. Please check our news and events pages to learn about upcoming activities.