Hooks, Bullets and Conservation – An Interview with Audubon’s Chandler Sawyer

The Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Sanctuary is a 2,600-acre complex owned and managed by Audubon North Carolina with a vision to preserve the rich history of the land and protect the diverse mix of birds, wildlife and coastal habitat along the Currituck Sound. The Sanctuary will be the site of North Carolina’s first Audubon Center built to engage researchers and the local community in developing conservation programs for birds.

For centuries, the lush and pristine land along the Currituck Sound has provided a wonderland for wintering waterfowl and the hunters that come to enjoy them. The tradition of the waterfowl continue to be celebrated by local residents, visiting hunters and conservation enthusiasts, all who have a deep respect for the land and the ducks that return every year. With the preservation of the Currituck Sound and it’s expansive marsh system, the traditions of the original Outer Banks can continue to be passed down for generations.

In this series, we will revisit the history of hunters and fisherman that helped spur these longstanding traditions and a respect for preserving the land and wildlife found here.

For the first installment, we have interviewed Chandler Sawyer, a native of Currituck County and seventh generation hunt guide. As Audubon North Carolina’s habitat manager, Sawyer takes care of the property and grounds at the Sanctuary in Corolla. Each workday, he ensures the overall health of the marsh and waterfowl populations by maintaining the duck blinds and impoundment areas, conducting controlled marsh burns, and monitoring the grounds to prevent illegal poaching, so the tradition of duck hunts are preserved for generations.

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Read on to see how Sawyer is preserving the legacy of the Currituck Sound, his own family’s traditions, and the wildlife that thrive at the Audubon Sanctuary.

Tell us about your history with the Audubon Sanctuary and how your family acquired this property.

The property now known as the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Audubon Sanctuary, was given to my great x4 grandfather, Abraham Baum, by the Queen’s Land Grants in 1715. They were farmers and market hunters, so the property was used for hunting long before it became a club. The family-owned property originally stretched from the current county line to the lighthouse in Corolla.

Later, 3,000 acres were sold to the Currituck Shooting Club (considered to be the oldest active hunt club in the nation) and the Pine Island Club now know as the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Audubon Sanctuary. The Pine Island Club property was used for raising cattle until 1890 when it became a hunt club. The hunt club property passed through different owners before landing on Audubon. Audubon North Carolina took over full management of the property in 2009 as a sanctuary for birds and wildlife and a conservation hub for the organization.

As a native of Currituck County, what have the presence of birds and wildlife meant to you?

For many years, duck hunting was a way of life for Currituck County natives. If you lived here back in those days you farmed, fished, hunted or you left because there wasn’t much else to do. Now, some from those types of old families are still making their livelihood from commercial fishing or working as hunt guides.

Members of my family have always been duck hunters or fishers, so I’m happy to have a job where I can guide duck hunts and take care of the wildlife at the Sanctuary. It’s a family tradition I get to live out every day.

Why is the Audubon Sanctuary special to the hunting community?

There are a lot of guides that make their living carrying hunters. Currituck has always been a different kind of place by providing the best habitat for ducks. It’s a special gem in the middle of the Outer Banks because of the fresh and brackish water. We have conditions ducks like more than anywhere else on the east coast. The reason why duck hunting is so good here is because of places like the Audubon Sanctuary and the hunt clubs that preserve the marshes and places ducks prefer.

How long have you been hunting?

I’ve been hunting for 28 years. I started hunting with my granddad when I was 5, and he trained me to guide when I was 9. We would take hunters across the Currituck Sound. It was in my blood and I loved it! I started carrying hunting parties at age 14, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Tell us about your experience guiding with your grandfather, author Travis Morris.

20141215_080507_resizedMy grandfather, Travis Norris, is a native of Currituck. He’s a county historian and knows everything there is to know about duck hunting in this county because it’s what he’s done his whole life. He taught me everything I know about the Sound.

Morris ran the Monkey Island Hunt Club, and then started the Piney Island Hunt Club on the opposite side of the Sound. While carrying famous artists to paint or write about the Sound, he would tell them stories about the region. One author convinced him to write a book, which eventually turned into 8 or 9 books with historical stories of the duck hunting, history of Currituck County, and Outer Banks developments. He’s a living legend.

How has the hunting and game industry in Currituck County changed over the years?

The tools have changed, like using fiberglass boats and plastic decoys when we hunt. The way we preserve the ducks and their habitat has also evolved. But there is just as much hunting activity today as there ever was. There are a lot of guides carrying hunters for a living.

How do hunting and fishing contribute to conservation efforts in Currituck County?

The Ducks Unlimited local chapter is one of the top chapters in the nation as far as fundraising for the largest duck conservation organization in existence. Additionally, the cost of federal stamps and hunting licenses go directly toward conservation efforts. Duck hunters work very hard to protect and conserve the habitat for ducks. The majority of people who are hunters and fisherman care so much for what they do they want to put back in and preserve the lands and wildlife so its there for their kids and their kids after that.

How has the history of the Pine Island Hunt Club been preserved at the Audubon Sanctuary?

The cool thing is that the area is very culturally and historically significant. We’ve got this beautiful campus that we aren’t going to change and shake it up that it’s unrecognizable. We’re going to keep the historic hunt lodge and guides’ quarters basically the way they are and restore with minor upgrades while maintaining the nostalgia and historical significance of the original buildings.

Hunting is only allowed at the Sanctuary in select areas and on a very limited basis. Ducks are able to thrive without human disturbance. Conservation is what we are all trying to do, preserve this special, pristine place for the ducks – that’s how it’s been since the 1800’s. Hunters came and put care into the ducks because that’s why we are all here. We are carrying on that tradition of old hunting times so ducks keep coming back.

How do the Audubon Sanctuary and the organized waterfowl hunts contribute to the local economy of Currituck County?

IMG_47124059408799_resizedThey contribute significantly if you think about the hunters coming in. There’s been a game board in place since 1921, which allows us to regulate our duck blinds. We have laws and regulations for our duck blinds, so if you don’t have a blind you have to hire a guide. When hunters come to Currituck from out of state, they pay for guides, rent hotel rooms, eat at local restaurants. The winter is slow on the Outer Banks; so hunting provides a boost to the locals.

When Audubon took control of the Sanctuary in Corolla the property’s duck blinds were included. Duck blinds in Currituck are yours as long as you maintain them until the day you die. If you do not meet the requirements, however, you can lose them, and they go into a lottery system where people can apply for them. The available blinds are drawn once a year. Audubon maintains our blinds at Pine Island so we can keep them and control how they are used.

Would bird and wildlife conservation efforts be hindered without hunters and fisherman to manage populations?

Yes. Hunting is regulated by what is most healthy for each species. You have to keep populations in check for greater health and survival. For example, the snow geese population would be out of control without regulations, and when you have too many snow geese, they are destroying habitats for the other birds. But conservation measures have allowed for extended hunting seasons and other additional measures to manage healthy populations.

How do you see hunters and conservationists working toward the same goals?

Hunters are conservationists. They are the same people. They are some of the best conservationists because they have a vested interest in trying to conserve the animals and their habitats. They love to watch birds, so they will put in what they can to preserve what they love and love what they do. It’s all connected.

What do you hope Audubon readers and visitors to the Sanctuary in Corolla can learn from the relationship between hunting and wildlife conservation. 

Hunters and fisherman can get a bad wrap, which is so far from the truth. They are good people who love what they do and want to give back in order to continue what they are doing. When anyone comes to the Sanctuary, they can see that we are an organization that supports the ducks, we also care about the resources and understand they are as important.

We are doing our best to make sure these resources are here for many generations. We put into the resources of the Sanctuary more than we ever take from it.

With your support, Audubon North Carolina can continue it’s vision to preserve the history of the Audubon Sanctuary while developing conservation programs that protect the waterfowl, birds and other wildlife that thrive here. Visit our website to learn more about the Sanctuary and future Audubon Center in Corolla.

Mapping Wood Thrush Habitat for Conservation

Often, we have almost too much information about priority species and the issues, threats and opportunities affecting them. Sometimes, it’s easier to wrap our heads around the information if we can see it as an image, and often maps are a great way to help us see how these things are linked together. In this blog series, the Audubon staff will use maps to highlight our work, our process of conservation priority setting, or other topics that are supported by these visuals.

Conserving the Wood Thrush

One species we are working to protect is the Wood Thrush. A priority species for our Important Bird Area, Forest work for the Atlantic Flyway, and for our Bird-Friendly Communities efforts, this species is well known and has quite a bit of data associated with it. The Wood Thrush’s distinctive voice and widespread distribution make it easy to find in most forested landscapes, and because of this, the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data is abundant.

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But the Wood Thrush is also declining over a good portion of its range. Here in North Carolina, it is declining at a rate of about 2.77% per year over the 50-year life of the BBS, and has shown an even quicker decline (3.98%) in the past decade.

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Map from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/tr2012/tr07550.htm.

We have worked with the regional GAP program for many years on developing models of habitat suitability for many of our priority species, which can help us see where our conservation efforts may have maximum impact or to locate those areas generally lacking in suitable habitats. The Wood Thrush model shows potential habitat to be pretty widespread across the state but concentrated in those areas of highest forest cover and less available in heavily urbanized areas (as we would expect).

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We worked with Steve Williams at the GAP office to evaluate our Important Bird Areas (IBA) and see how much of this predicted habitat is captured by our current IBAs. In total, about 45 of our IBAs capture some predicted habitat for the Wood Thrush or about 17.5% of the total predicted for the state. Of those 45, though, 13 of those capture the lion’s share or about 12.4% or 70% of the predicted habitat in the IBA system.

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If we add our priority forested blocks to existing IBA boundaries we add close to 13.75% more Wood Thrush habitat especially in three additional IBAs (Roan, Amphibolites and Plott Balsams).

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We can then layer on our climate change models for Wood Thrush in North Carolina to see how those priority areas match up with these priority IBAs.

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And the overlap is great! Meaning our work in these priority IBAs, through our forest stewardship efforts, helps Wood Thrush now, but also in the long term, as we adapt for climate change.

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Visit the Audubon North Carolina website to learn more about our Important Bird Area program and our work to protect the Wood Thrush

Frozen birds have flown the coop!

Launched in 2013, Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities initiative is a partnership program involving more than 20 organizations with a vision for creating a more bird-friendly North Carolina. This vision statement guides the goals and projects of the group: “Bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.”

Please welcome guest blogger Wendy Hawkins, an avid birder who coordinates Forsyth Audubon’s Lights Out program in downtown Winston-Salem.

Lights Out volunteers in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Raleigh spend their early mornings surveying the streets for birds injured or killed from window collisions during evening migration. Estimates indicate that 100 million to 1 billion birds fall victim to buildings every year in the United States alone. And this fall, dozens of birds were found in downtown Winston-Salem.

So, where do the birds go?

All of the birds collected by our volunteers of Forsyth Audubon continued a different kind of migration from downtown Winston-Salem to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh! This special blog series takes Audubon readers behind the scenes to see how Lights Out work supports important research and education programs for bird conservation in our state.

Birds Flock to the NC Science Museum

Recently, Nathan and Sarah Gatto of Wright’s Backyard Birding Center packed the collected birds in dry ice. Then Ron Morris, former president of Forsyth Audubon, Randy Hawkins and I, took the baton and carted them to the NC Science Museum where our day of exploring really began.

Curator John Gerwin, head of the “dead bird department,” escorted us into the hidden bowels of the museum. As we followed him solemnly in single file, various employees commented on the apparent “funeral procession.” “Yes,” we agreed, “in a way, it was.” Toward the basement we continued until we reached a room where the serious stuff happens.

Scarlet Tanager specimens showing color variations. Photo by Ron Morris

Scarlet Tanager specimens showing color variations. Photo by Ron Morris

The Basement: Little do most people know what happens “below deck!” Upon entering, we met two gentlemen diligently at work, each dissecting a bird carcass. Brian O’Shea, an expert and chief “dissector,” with the official title of Collections Manager for Ornithology, worked on his own specimen alongside Edward, a young, bright-eyed high school student who was just beginning his first bird dissection – ever! Brian worked on a Wood Thrush while Edward took on a Dovekie, which is a small black-and-white seabird that winters off the coast of North Carolina.

Frequently sprinkling sawdust to keep the parts dry and graspable, they worked – carefully, steadily and skillfully. Both were excited to show us their projects and explain their work. John showed us the cabinets where they dry the skins, preparing them for storage or mounting. Brian showed us the logbook where each bird is carefully recorded (species, age, sex, location found, date, etc.)

Suddenly, it was like Christmas, rather than a funeral, when John turned his attention to the cooler we had brought! Opening the lid he smiled, wide-eyed, at the 80 or so birds that lay frozen inside. Riffling through, he began extracting all sorts of interesting specimens. Some of the most intriguing findings included Cape May, Magnolia and Black-throated Blue Warblers, as well as a Grasshopper Sparrow and a baby Chimney Swift he said must have just fallen from the chimney because it didn’t look developed enough to be capable of flight. Sixty-two of these birds were found in Winston-Salem this fall, with a few more birds in the Gattos’ freezer from the previous year that must have “missed their flight” on the previous museum trip.

John commented on how amazing it is that many of the rather elusive birds migrate right through cities such as ours – often at night. So little we may realize about what is happening right over our heads – especially during migration!

A specimen of the extinct Passenger Pigeon, part of the permanent collection at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo by Ron Morris

A specimen of the extinct Passenger Pigeon, part of the permanent collection at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo by Ron Morris

The SUB-basement: If the basement wasn’t already enthralling enough, then it was on to the SUB-basement! Down there are about 30,000 preserved bird carcasses and wings all fully catalogued and labeled in drawers of huge cabinets – row after row. “What would you like to see, in particular?” John asked. Wow! I could hardly think of what I should say. So many possibilities! Fortunately, Ron was on his toes with some suggestions. “A Passenger Pigeon, a Carolina Parakeet?” Yes, he had a female Passenger Pigeon in the process of being repaired in order to be placed with her male counterpart on display in the main part of the museum. The Carolina Parakeets were already on display.

Thinking of extinct species, I remembered to ask about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. They didn’t have one of those, but they did have other interesting woodpeckers: the Pileated, Red-headed, Red-bellied, Northern Flicker and Downy. Also, there were amazing drawers of huge wings: Osprey, various swans and various hawks.

Since 2011, Forsyth Audubon’s Lights Out volunteers have contributed more than 250 birds – representing 50 species – to the museum’s collection. Click here to learn how the Forsyth Lights Out program was started. Mecklenburg Audubon and Wake Audubon volunteers also monitor their downtown buildings for collision victims.

Find out why museum specimens matter in the second installment here.

Research and Conservation – What Lights Out is All About

Launched in 2013, Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities initiative is a partnership program involving more than 20 organizations with a vision for creating a more bird-friendly North Carolina. This vision statement guides the goals and projects of the group: “Bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.”

Please welcome guest blogger Wendy Hawkins, an avid birder who coordinates Forsyth Audubon’s Lights Out program.

Lights Out volunteers in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Raleigh spend their early mornings surveying the streets for birds injured or killed from window collisions during evening migration. This special blog series takes Audubon readers behind the scenes to see how Lights Out work supports important research and education programs for bird conservation in our state.

This fall, dozens of birds were found in downtown Winston-Salem. So, where do the birds go? All of the birds collected this fall by our volunteers of Forsyth Audubon continued a different kind of migration from downtown Winston-Salem to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

Click here to read the first installment where Wendy helped deliver 80 bird carcasses to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. All of these birds were victims of window collisions found during daily surveys in downtown Winston-Salem.

Museum staff prepare bird specimens. Photo by Ron Morris

Museum staff prepare bird specimens. Photo by Ron Morris

Curator of Birds John Gerwin explained that only a small fraction of the birds that Lights Out volunteers and other citizens deliver to the museum get mounted for display. The rest of them are stored laying flat on their backs in drawers. Why store all those birds?

All of the Lights Out birds are kept at the museum because they are part of a special project. Although the museum has more than 30,000 birds in their collection, many birds are distributed to other museums for educational purposes. The bird bodies may be used for a wide variety of scientific research and education – some of which includes the still unknown.

For example, sometimes a professor may want to have some specimens for students to examine close up. What better way to learn about the structure of a bird! Other research projects involving DNA studies may arise. In that case, having specimens from a wide range of time (say before the use of certain pesticides were implemented) can provide valuable samples for testing. Any serious case argument has got to be substantiated with hard scientific evidence to have a significant impact.

North Carolina’s Lights Out program is a great example of collecting data during migration to make a case to building owners to turn out their lights at night.

What about the unknown? John explained that there is a lot of room for problems or questions that haven’t yet surfaced, for which these specimens may prove invaluable. DNA testing was not even developed when they started, and now the collection is an excellent resource for DNA samples addressing all kinds of questions. The massive database that accompanies this collection is also an important resource.

I emerged from the depths of the museum full of new visions and knowledge. Back to Winston-Salem I went, contemplating the relationship between our contribution to scientific research and to bird conservation. That is what the Lights Out program is all about!

Lights Out: Birds need a dark sky to navigate. That is the goal of the Audubon Lights Out programs in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Raleigh. Birds collide because they have evolved to navigate their migration route by the stars and moon. City lights (only a new problem – in the last 100 years) steer them off course. Once inside the glowing dome of city light, birds get confused and exhausted – then collide with windows, which they often don’t perceive as solid.

Estimates indicate that 100 million to 1 billion birds fall victim to buildings every year in the United States alone.

This affects many endangered and threatened species. A Lights Out volunteer contacts building managers to request they turn off their lights (especially outside, upward-facing ones, but also interior lights) from 11 p.m. to dawn during peak migration season. Amazingly, this makes a serious difference! In Winston-Salem, we have seen a 50 percent reduction in the number of collision victims since five buildings began participating in Lights Out.

Wendy Hawkins holding a Wood Thrush that didn’t become part of the museum collection! Photo by Kim Brand

Wendy Hawkins holding a Wood Thrush that didn’t become part of the museum collection! Photo by Kim Brand

How do we know? That’s where the “Dead Bird Patrol” volunteers come in. Requests for changes in practices or legislation regarding light pollution don’t come easily, especially without hard evidence. Volunteers, armed with a permit from John for collecting migratory birds (which would otherwise be ILLEGAL), go out early each morning during migration seasons, inspecting a certain list of buildings for dead or injured birds. Each finding is carefully recorded (date, location, species – if known, etc.) and entered into a database. The birds are then frozen and saved for the museum.

Our local data combined with larger efforts statewide, and even nationwide, provide the needed evidence to affect change — even then, it doesn’t come easily. That is why it is so important to press on toward the goal and inspire many more building owners and managers to participate in cities and towns across North Carolina. There are solutions that will help the entire animal kingdom, including humans, to live in harmony healthfully. If you work in a high-rise building with lights shining upward or outward, ask the building owner for Lights Out during spring and fall migration!

I’ll be looking forward to spring migration and more “dead bird patrol” in 2015!

For more information on Lights Out in North Carolina visit the Audubon North Carolina website.

Is that a Partridge in that Pear Tree?

Please welcome guest-blogger William McReynolds from the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society. Read on to see Highland’s results during the 115th Christmas Bird Count.

Photo by Russ Regnery.

Photo by Russ Regnery.

Birds count, and that’s why we count birds. In the early morning on December 18, twelve hardy and conservation-minded members of the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society gathered on Mirror Lake to inventory our winter avian residents. Teams of oglers, with binoculars in hand, set out under the leadership of their most experienced birders.

The clear, brisk day sparkled with beauty and promise.

A Global Tradition of Citizen Science

Local Audubon bird counters--Left to right back: Romney Bathurst, Kay Poole, Russ Regnery; Left to right seated: Janice Shure, Don Shure, Pat Strickland, Edwin Poole; Foreground: Kyle Pursel (L) and Mike Kaiser  (Photo by William McReynolds) Missing: Jack Johnston, Cynthia Strain and Sarah Pursel.

Local Audubon bird counters–Left to right back: Romney Bathurst, Kay Poole, Russ Regnery; Left to right seated: Janice Shure, Don Shure, Pat Strickland, Edwin Poole; Foreground: Kyle Pursel (L) and Mike Kaiser (Photo by William McReynolds) Missing: Jack Johnston, Cynthia Strain and Sarah Pursel.

Many other distant versions of this scene play out elsewhere in December and early January throughout North America and beyond. True to the generational mantra of many, these determined bird counters are acting locally and thinking globally.

This annual Christmas Bird Count is the largest and most important citizen science project conducted by the National Audubon Society in the U.S. and the Bird Studies group in Canada. Wrapping the 115th year, the numbers of birds and avian species observed continue to feed into a massive database that documents changing avian conditions in the Western Hemisphere.

The outcome is vital information about the changing numbers and changing habitats of birds:

  • Which species are thriving and which are dwindling or threatened by extinction
  • How habitats are changing given global warming, with what effects on bird populations
  • How migratory patterns and pathways are changing
  • What can be done to protect and safeguard this vital aspect of our life-sustaining ecologies

Photo by William McReynolds.

Photo by William McReynolds.

The CBC database has been central to the recent Audubon Birds and Climate Report.

What did our volunteers observe this year? Unfortunately, the trend is down both locally and nationwide, and the lovely weather enjoyed by all could not reverse that. The total number of species seen here this year was down by 2, to 41 and the total number of birds seen decreased by 99, to 977. Our birds are not thriving. Indeed, the Audubon Birds and Climate Report indicates that 314 bird species in North America are at risk, 126 of those species being climate endangered.

Photo by William McReynolds.

Photo by William McReynolds.

Some of the bird-watchers’ delights this year were a large flock of Pine Siskins, five species of woodpeckers including the impressive Pileated and two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Hermit Thrush, 25 Hooded Merganser and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Two of the teams enjoyed excellent views of Golden-crowned Kinglets, with males flashing their golden-edged, scarlet crowns.

It was a truly fun and rewarding morning for all, capped with bowls of hot chili and fresh cornbread provided by Edwin and Kay Poole. Hopefully more hardy souls will join in next year. This is citizen science at its best and everyone is invited.

To find out about upcoming events and local outings, visit the HPAS website at www.highlandsaudubonsociety.org.