Winston Baker, a resident of Alex City and an outstanding naturalist, recently sent me a photo of a frog with some unusual markings and asked me to confirm his conclusion that it was a Cope’s gray treefrog. I agreed that it was. He also asked me if I was experiencing a ‘silent spring’ around my place. He said he’s hearing fewer songbirds calling from the woods around his property this spring than in any other he can remember. I replied that, except for rousing choruses of green treefrogs and several other frog species, to me this spring has been eerily quiet. The only songbird I consistently hear every day is a red-eyed vireo.
I occasionally hear cardinals, a great-crested fly catcher, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, blue jays, yellow-billed cuckoos, brown-headed nuthatches, and red-bellied woodpeckers, but not on a daily basis. Most nights, I hear the call of a single chuck-wills-widow, when it’s not ‘drowned out’ by the frogs’ choruses.
This year is the first in the 28 years I’ve lived here that I haven’t heard the beautiful, loud ee-oh-lay song of at least one wood thrush, and I really miss hearing it. Avid birder Virginia Roe of Opelika told me she hasn’t heard one this year either. Auburn ornithologist Dr. Geoff Hill says he hears them regularly in Cary Woods. Residents there are fortunate that for whatever reason, wood thrushes find their neighborhood desirable.
Other birds that I worry about are some of the day-flying insect-eating birds that were once abundant but have declined in recent years. Chimney swifts nested regularly in my chimney until about two years ago, and I miss the little ‘flying cigars’ and the cheerful chattering of nestlings in my chimney. Some Canadian provinces have listed the species as endangered. Perhaps the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should consider the bird for inclusion on its threatened list.
Barn swallows have declined in recent years. Not long ago, they nested under numerous bridges in our area and could be seen flying around in the vicinity of these nesting sites. Relatively few bridges now have nesting colonies. A few pairs were still nesting under the side porch of Husky Kirkwood’s mansion, but are now gone. One or more pairs still nest under the roof over the entrance to the AU Small Animal Veterinary Clinic. The reasons for this beautiful bird’s decline remain a mystery. Some authorities blame climate change; they say that droughty weather results in weight loss and slower feather re-growth. Use of insecticides on agricultural fields reduce populations of insects on which the swallows feed and may have caused the disappearance of some colonies. Purple martins seem to be declining. Starlings and house sparrows compete with these birds for nesting sites, and the martins may also be suffering from degradation of their South American overwintering habitats.
Some other birds I seldom see or hear anymore include nighthawks (a.k.a bull bats), woodcocks, Kentucky warblers and yellow-breasted chats, the largest of our warblers. And, of course, eastern meadowlarks no longer contribute to the aural ambience of our rural countryside, and Bobwhite quail have become exceedingly scarce. The gray catbird was once a common yard bird, but relatively few are now seen or heard.
Fire ants have undoubtedly caused the disappearance of nesting meadowlarks and the scarcity of several other ground-nesting species.
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The City of Opelika and dedicated individuals should be commended for securing a $70,000 matching grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a Wood Duck Heritage Preserve and an adjoining seven-acre Nature Park. The preserve consists of the ponds that were formerly used as the city’s sewage lagoons and their surroundings. The Nature Park will be developed on property donated by Irtaza H. Siddique. Together, they will provide valuable outdoor recreational opportunities for general public and for scientific studies of wetlands and their resident plants and animals. They will be recognized as one of the 34 sites in East Central Alabama’s Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail. Interested individuals and corporate entities desiring to help in this endeavor, which requires in-kind or cash donations amounting to $70,000 total, are urged to contact Mrs. Virginia Roe, at (334) 749-0122, or send contributions to her by mail, 1106 Willow Run, Opelika, AL, 36801. For additional information, contact John Seymour, Administrator, City of Opelika, (334) 705-5150.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.