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Audubon’  NORTH CAROLINA

“This woman comes up to me and says ‘I have all these dead birds in my freezer and they’re from downtown,’” said Kim Brand. “Can Audubon do something to turn the lights out?” The woman had caught Brand’s attention when she began describing what kinds of birds she had on ice, the Connecticut Warbler being one that Brand was very curious about.

“That’s a rare sighting in Forsyth County,” Brand said. “There are only five records of Connecticut Warblers in Forsyth.” Birders, like any sub-culture devoted to the passion of the cause, are meticulous in documentation.

That was in 2010 when Brand was still a board member with Forsyth Audubon, and by 2011, the local chapter was monitoring bird collisions in the downtown district. The woman that approached Brand initially had worked in New York City with Project Safe Flight, an effort very similar to Lights Out.

“Winston-Salem was the first in North Carolina,” Brand said. Mecklenburg Audubon implemented Lights Out in Charlotte, and Wake County’s Audubon chapter is monitoring migration and birds in Raleigh and the surrounding areas. Brand also said that Wake Audubon is pushing for Raleigh to enact some sort of legislation similar to New York state in making it mandatory for government owned and operated facilities to shutter the lights.

Since 2012 when Lights Out Winston- Salem started, Brand said that Audubon has seen about 30 percent decrease in dead birds due to light pollution.

“It’s simple to collect the data,” Brand said, “but that’s where you focus your efforts in the beginning.”

With birders collecting dead birds at random around downtown prior to the implementation of Lights Out, there was a plethora of data sitting in waiting. One of the holding centers is Wright’s Birding Center located in Winston-Salem on Country Club Road.

“There has definitely been a dramatic decrease in the amount of birds collected,” said Nathan Gatto, co-owner of Wright’s Birding Center. “It’s always nice when we don’t have a ton of them [in the freezer.] I think we have 30-40 right now.”

This time last year, Gatto recalled having upwards of 100 stored in his freezers.

Gatto said that there are other variables to take into consideration when looking at dead-bird collecting. For instance, nature comes first, almost always. Raccoons and cats are pretty quick to haul away a carcass, but if a volunteer happens to beat them to the find, and the specimen is in decent condition, he or she will bring them to Wright’s for safekeeping until transport to the Natural Science Center in Raleigh. Gatto also organizes two monthly bird walks for Forsyth Audubon (the second Saturday and last Monday of each month) and another one for Wright’s Birding Center (last Saturday of each month) where anyone can come out for free to see what our local bird population is doing during which months.

In May and June 2014, Audubon North Carolina began working on the Wood Thrush Project, which was designed to trap and tag 22 wood thrushes from the Winston-Salem area to monitor the migration.

“We put little GPS backpacks on them,” Brand said,” and they don’t transmit, so we had to recapture them.”

The project kicked off with the help of University of Maryland PhD student Callie Stanley, whose dissertation focused on the wood thrush. Together, Stanley and Brand set up mist nets – small gauge netting designed to remain invisible to the birds so that they will not avoid flying into it – to trap potential GPS birds. Once 22 were captured and tagged, they were sent off.

One year later, this past May, two of the five birds tagged at one of the locations returned to the spot. Because wood thrush are very territorial, it was a safe bet to keep the mist nets in place and simply play a bird song to attract the wood thrush. Upon capture, the data revealed that North Carolina’s wood thrush population travels all the way to Belize. There are a lot of cities in the way en route to Belize.

“I liken it to moths being attracted to a porch light,” Brand said. She said that on clearer nights you’ll find a lot less collisions with buildings because birds can fly at higher altitudes, but when the cloud coverage is low and heavy, cities create a dome of light that birds can essentially become “trapped” in.

“You can see YouTube footage of the tribute light at One World Trade Center, the birds just fly around in those beams of light and don’t know how to get out,” Brand said.

Thankfully, there are Audubon volunteers monitoring this and the One World Trade is open to the idea of turning the lights off, if only briefly, for the birds to escape.

But Winston-Salem has similar issues, or, had similar issues.

Liberty Plaza was one of the buildings in the area that was providing much of the detrimental light pollution causing bird collisions. The building was lit all night by floodlights that pointed upward, which is the worst thing for migratory patterns of all types of birds.

“BB&T tower is next to it, which is nice and dark, but it’s mirrored,” Brand said. Liberty Plaza working with Lights Out to greatly reduced the collisions in that part of downtown.

Moving forward, Audubon North Carolina and the Forsyth County chapter would like to see other buildings in Winston- Salem follow suit. The GMAC Insurance building located on Fifth Street has been a tough one to land, mainly because it’s been mired in ownership changes for the past few years. The Nissen Building, which has a rooftop pool and an old light that shines from the roof, has yet to jump on board, although it would greatly help the movement to save the birds during migration. It also saves on electricity bills and reduces the carbon footprint.

“Audubon recently released this huge birds and climate report,” Brand said, “that said we could lose half our bird population by 2080 if we don’t drastically reduce our carbon emissions. We can already see that impact.”

“It’s amazing how just because it’s a foreign idea they haven’t heard of… does it really make that much difference? It does,” Hawkins concluded.

Hawkins also added that it’s bittersweet finding specimens and being apart of data-collection and researching for something that she has loved and devoted so much time to, but there is still joy in the opportunity to rescue and help.

“There are various birds I’ve had the opportunity of rescuing,” she said, “and last fall I rescued eight.”

With binoculars by her side, and the passion to help, Hawkins and the rest of Audubon might just be the light at the end of the tunnel.

Even if that light needs to be turned off to do so. !

WANNA get involved?

Go to ForsythAudubon.org for more information on what you can do to make your community more bird friendly. Visit WrightsBirdingCenter. wordpress.com to learn more about Nathan Gatto and his bird walks. Or visit the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (naturalsciences.org) in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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