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Birds on the Brain

By Kristin Hackler
Staff Writer

Yellow-rumped Warbler, also known as a “Butterbutt.” (Photo by Sarah Diaz)

Ever since she was two years old, Sarah Diaz has been fascinated with birds.

We used to have Zebra Finches when I was little and I carried them around with me. Then one day a cat ate them. That began my lifelong love of birds and my lifelong hatred of cats,” says Diaz.

Today, that passion has blossomed into a career. After graduating from the College of Charleston with a degree in biology, Diaz began attending the Citadel to earn her master’s degree in biology. She plans to graduate this December, but before she gets her degree she had to complete a study project in her particular field. Because of her love of birds, Diaz decided to conduct a detailed study of the many birds that live and temporarily visit the Greenway in West Ashley. As an added bonus, the data she collected was also sent to the Audubon’s Urban Oases for Migratory Songbirds program, a research program designed to educate local governments and communities on the types of vegetation preferred by migrating songbirds and passerines in order to make up for diminishing habitats and food sources.

Sarah Diaz conducted her research along the Greenway under the Audubon’s Michelle Frankel, who launched the initial Urban Oases study in Connecticut, as well as her Citadel supervisor, Dr. Paul Nolan.

Over the course of the fall of 2011 and this past spring, Diaz learned that approximately 79 different species of birds call the Greenway either their home or their favorite resting ground in West Ashley.

There were Yellow-rumped Warblers everywhere and I steadily saw Black and White Warblers as well as American Redstarts and Cedar Waxwings in the fall. In the spring, there were a lot of catbirds,” said Diaz.

To her surprise, Diaz also found some Indigo Buntings, a Sharp-Shinned Hawk, a Blue-winged Teal and some Great Crested Flycatchers.

The Great Crested Flycatchers are only here in the summer and a lot of people hear them. They’re really loud and raucous,” says Diaz.

She plays a clip from her phone of the bird’s call, which sounds like a series of loud “pips” and long “cheeps.” Diaz notes that she sometimes uses the recorded bird calls on her phone to attract birds while in the field, but only when she’s practicing her avian photography.

Every once in a while they just fly over and stare at me. It’s great for taking pictures,” says Diaz.

Even though Diaz is a lifelong resident of Sullivan’s Island, she chose the West Ashley Greenway as it’s a logical place for migrating birds to stop while travelling through the area. For migrating birds, a green space such as the West Ashley Greenway is a valuable location to stop, refuel on berries and insects, and rest before continuing their journey.

Migratory birds need stopover sights such as the Greenway. And with the Audubon, I’m also recording what plants they most frequently forage in and what they are feeding on,” says Diaz.

To help identify the plants along the Greenway, Diaz worked with Dr. Joel Gramling, Professor of Plant Ecology and Evolution at the Citadel. What she found was that a lot of birds tended to perch and apparently eat insects and berries in Wax Myrtles, Live Oaks, and Water Oaks.

Wax Myrtles tended to have the most birds,” says Diaz.

Diaz has completed her study of the Greenway for the Audubon, but encourages West Ashley residents who enjoy the Greenway to sign up to be a “Citizen Scientist” with the Audubon and help keep track of the many bird species that pass through and live in the Greenway.

For more information, visit Information collected by the Audubon will be available to the local government and organizations interested in developing habitats for migrating songbirds and passerines both in green spaces and around their own homes.

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