Nothing but nature: Local branch of the National Audubon Society aims to foster appreciation, awareness of our environment
By Carrie Ann Knauer
Mar 16, 2016 | 5:00 AM
As the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, the Audubon Society of Central Maryland works to protect natural spaces for birds and other animals while also educating the public about wildlife and how humans can positively impact their natural environment.
The nonprofit group has been in existence since the 1980s, said Shannon Kennedy, board member and past president. Based in Mount Airy, the Central Maryland chapter covers most of Carroll and Frederick counties, as well as parts of Howard and Montgomery counties.
"Our highlight is really that we have two really large sanctuaries and they're preserved forever, and they're safe spaces for animals and birds," Kennedy, of New Windsor, said.
The chapter's original sanctuary, the Audrey Carroll Audubon Sanctuary, is located west of Mount Airy and consists of 129 acres of diverse habitat, including upland meadows, wetlands, woodlands, two streams, and a pond.
Its newer sanctuary, the Fred Archibald Audubon Sanctuary, is located west of New Market and consists of 140 acres of old fields, forest stands, and several streams.
"They're open to the public all the time, and they're very nice to walk around," Kennedy said.
The sanctuaries provide large swaths of protected environment, including specialized areas of habitat, allowing them to attract and protect specific species, said board member David Smith, of Mount Airy, who serves as the bird count coordinator for the group.
"One of the first things we did at both sanctuaries was to introduce some warm season grasses in fields that had previously been cropped in soybean and corn rotation," he said. "That has done quite well for providing food in the form of grass seed to a lot of wintering species, like sparrows."
At the Audrey Carroll Audubon Sanctuary, the chapter has focused on protecting early successional habitat, which is made up of land in transition between being a grassland and evolving into a forest, filled with shrubs and young trees. There are certain types of birds that can only live in that type of habitat, Smith said, and those types of birds never reach very high populations because they have to keep moving around to find habitat that hasn't evolved past their preferences.
Since the chapter has been managing fields to stay in a transitional state, they've seen increased numbers of yellow-breasted chat and field sparrows, Smith said, which makes them feel good about their work.
"We're definitely doing something right there," he said.
The group can tell that species like the yellow-breasted chat have increased their local populations by performing two annual counts of all the bird species they see at the sanctuaries, Smith said.
The mid-winter count, which is done in early January, tracks the resident bird populations that live in the area year-round, and then another count, which is done in early May, that serves as a snapshot catching some of the returning migrating species as well, he said.
"It's really become a huge source of information and it's a really good way to look at trends and bird distribution and so on," Smith said of the bird counts.
For example, the chapter has recorded the decline of game birds at its sanctuaries, such as bobwhite quail and ring-neck pheasants.
Both were familiar sights in the '80s but were extremely rare by the mid- to late '90s, Smith said. These species have disappeared not because of problems with the sanctuary land, he said, but because there isn't enough similar habitat nearby the sanctuaries to attract these species.
The Audubon Society also works with licensed bird banders to host a bird banding event each May, Kennedy said. The coordinators set up large nets before dawn when birds wake up and start to travel, then birds get caught in the fine netting. Trained volunteers remove the birds from the nets and place them in temporary cages to bring back to the coordinator.
If the birds don't have a band with an identification code on their legs, the coordinators put one on, she said, and record what kind of species they are before releasing them. If the birds do have a band, the coordinators record their information so they can later track where else that bird has been recorded.
"It's really interesting seeing the birds up close and the people banding them talk about what kind of bird it is and their habits and all that, so that's really cool," she said.
To make the sanctuaries more welcoming to the public, the Audubon Society offers a narrated nature walk from 9 to 11 a.m. the third Saturday of every month, with the exception of December, at one of the two sanctuaries.
"They're a way of getting people out and exploring our sanctuaries and getting interested in natural history, perhaps birds in particular, but our nature walks are sort of all encompassing," Smith said.
True birders know to start as the sun is just coming up, when birds are most active, Smith said, but the Audubon Society of Central Maryland realizes that's just not practical for families with children or even casual bird enthusiasts.
"We try and look at birds when we can, but we'll look at butterflies and anything else of interest," Smith said. "We've had very good participation, at least 20 people will show up almost every month, even in January."
Smith said he tries to participate in most of the nature walks and usually brings his spotting scope, which is often easier for children to use to spot a distant bird, rather than binoculars.
"The whole purpose is to help people who might have a casual interest that could get more serious if they could get exposed to it a little bit more, and that's exactly what we do," he said.
Other activities that the Audubon Society of Central Maryland offers as an outreach include their bird seed sales, which are held in early February and late October, and the native plant sale, which takes place the last Saturday of April.
The seed sales are offered to help backyard birders buy high-quality seeds, which can help them attract and sustain specific varieties of birds to their feeders, Kennedy said.
"A lot of the stuff you get at Walmart or Home Depot, it has a lot of filler in it which doesn't have a lot of nutritional benefits for the birds," she said. "[Our mix] doesn't have a lot of filler in it."
The native plant sale is both a club fundraiser and educational opportunity, Kennedy said. Many nurseries focus on selling non-native plants or hybrids, she said, but these varieties do not offer the same level of food and shelter for wildlife as the native plants do.
The Audubon Society pairs up with master gardeners to teach visitors about the different types of native plants that they have available for purchase that day, describing where they are best suited and how they benefit native wildlife.
Another way that the Audubon Society tries to interact with the public is through its garden grant program, Kennedy said. Each year the chapter gives out two $500 grants to schools or nature centers to help foster native gardens to benefit wildlife.
"We just gave a garden grant to Piney Ridge Elementary School [in Eldersburg] — they're improving their wetlands," Kennedy said. "It's just supporting local nature centers and schools and people who work with their local community or children."