The article originally appeared in Yes! Weekly Magazine.
On a cloudy morning in mid-May, early enough to watch Business 40 fill up with morning commuters and to catch the golden blanket of sunrise paint the Winston-Salem skyline, I was capturing photo and video with the YES! Weekly drone (a quadcopter with a camera attached to it controlled remotely.) Across the street a woman was looking at the drone in bewilderment, her binoculars glued to her face and her camera in-hand taking pictures. She saw me standing in the grassy field between Fourth and Third streets and approached me. Straying from the awkward salutation that one might assume would accompany a 6 a.m. introduction, this woman, Wendy Hawkins, began inquiring about the drone and what it’s capable of during flight. We chat briefly about the drone before I ask what she is doing walking around downtown in the early hours with binoculars – the obvious assumption relating to birds.
Wendy Hawkins has lived in Winston-Salem for roughly two years. She moved here with her husband in support of their son who is attending the University North Carolina School of the Arts studying the organ. Her reasons for walking around downtown at dawn have something to do with watching birds, or, birding as it’s called in the industry, but not to the extent of viewing them majestically circling the skies.
“I’m looking for dead birds,” she said. Hawkins then went on to explain just what that meant. “I volunteer with Audubon North Carolina and we’re collecting dead birds in cities near buildings and skyscrapers.”
With cities across the nation building bigger skyscrapers, commercial buildings, and even just condos, there has been a shift in the migration trends for birds. Since 1999, Audubon has been pushing an initiative called “Lights Out” to major cities across the United States. Starting in Chicago, Audubon has successfully established partnerships with more than 15 cities, including New York, Charlotte, and Washington, D.C., to support Lights Out.
Lights Out is Audubon’s attempt to create safe flight paths for birds during the migration seasons. It varies from city to city, but during the spring (March to June) and autumn (September to November) months, Audubon requests that buildings that impact the skyline turn the nonessential lights off after 11 p.m.
Forsyth County Audubon got involved in Lights Out in early 2012, and Winston-Salem now has five buildings in the downtown district that adhere to the program: Liberty Plaza, Reynolds American, R. J. Reynolds Buildings, Winston Tower and the Wells Fargo building have all joined in with the initiative to create a safer community for migrating birds.“It’s a really neat program and there is not a lot of controversy with it, but I think the biggest thing is making people aware and getting them to care about it,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins has been a birder for as long as she can remember, although not officially taking on the title until much later in life. When she was in fourth grade, she wrote a paper on parakeets, which apparently prompted her parents to ask if she wanted to get one as a pet.
“I wasn’t even asking for a pet, but my parents said if I wanted one we could get one.”
She also added that they did not clip the parakeet’s wings so that it was able to fly freely around the house. Clipping is a common practice for pet birds where the primary feathers are trimmed so that the bird is not capable of reaching it’s flying potential.
She also remembers asking for binoculars in the sixth grade because she wanted to see the birds in her backyard up close.
“I hadn’t even heard of birding – bird was just a noun to me back then,” she said.
As she grew older, birding always remained a constant in her life, whether she was watching them from afar or researching what birds she was looking at in her neighborhood.
“Every bird is a specific species. There is no such thing as a ‘regular bird,’” she said.
Her curiosity stayed with her over the years, and when she and her husband “semi-retired” to South Carolina, she found herself in a birder’s heaven. In the low wetlands of rural South Carolina, Hawkins was able to witness the multitude of birds that make up the swampy ecosystem – wood birds, water birds, predators, and game birds. Her husband purchased her a book dedicated to birds of the eastern region, which accompanied her birds of the western region perfectly, and she began studying the local species.
In her retirement, Hawkins found that with more time on her hands she could potentially help out with Audubon. She first learned about Lights Out last year, and has since been involved with organizing volunteer walks in the early hours to collect birds.
Starting very soon is the autumn migration.
This means Hawkins and whatever volunteers she has been able to connect with will start patrolling the streets and sidewalks of downtown Winston-Salem to look for dead birds.
The reason for Lights Out is this: Birds have been migrating for thousands of years and it has been only recently learned that birds do so by the light of the stars and the moon. With development and construction comes an increase in light pollution, which birds have not yet evolved to understand. Hawkins explained that light pollution is a factor, as is the fact that birds cannot see glass, a theory she even tested on herself.
“We expect in the past hundred years when lights have become an issue [for birds] to just adjust,” Hawkins said, “but that’s a really short time for adjustment. Windows, lights, reflections… it draws them off course.”
She also explained how humans also cannot technically see glass, but can perceive it based on window frames and conditioning. She has tested this theory, and in simply trying to focus on the glass, she found it impossible.
“How many times can any of us say we have bumped into a glass door or window?” she asked.
Most birds have eyes situated on the sides of their head allowing for a broader range of vision. However, this also doesn’t allow birds to possess the three dimensional perspective that humans have. This means that some birds, essentially, view the world in constant peripheral. Historically, birds have been able to migrate based on the light of night, but light pollution and the seemingly-invisible obstructions crowding cities are creating an issue that could be detrimental to the journey.
In the fall of 2013, less than two months after I had officially moved to Winston-Salem, I was walking around downtown on my way to dinner and saw what I believed to be thousands upon thousands of bats circling a chimney on the corner of Fourth and Spruce streets. I, of course, pulled my phone out to document this as I believed it to be an awe-inspiring sight and one I would like to share with my friends on Instagram (all 34 of them at the time.) For nearly 30 minutes, a frenzied black cloud of flying, screeching winged animals circled the chimney. It didn’t so much as strike me odd, but rather that Winston-Salem was just an old city – old enough to warrant thousands of bats to find a comfortable nesting ground in a downtown chimney. When my attention span ran out, I shared the video and moved on with my evening, telling what few people I knew at the time about what I saw. They were slightly less than impressed beyond my description of what I thought were bats, and I later found out it was, in fact, a flock of Chimney Swifts circling a potential nesting spot. This phenomenon can be seen during the autumn months, primarily in September during which time Forsyth County Audubon organizes a yearly Swift Watch to witness the event (this year’s Swift Watch is scheduled for September, but the date and locations have yet to be announced.) This, among other events and the Lights Out project, is what keeps Kim Brand, Bird Friendly Communities Coordinator for Audubon North Carolina, busy throughout the year.
“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.