Carolinas & Georgia Ahead in Identifying Important Bird Areas

On spring mornings, Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest teems with bird life. Tanagers, vireos, orioles and warblers heading for their summer breeding grounds search for caterpillars and other insect life to fuel their journey north.

On an upland ridgetop where a hurricane knocked down trees a few years ago, Cerulean warblers seek nesting sites. High above them, ravens cavort in the updrafts. Last November, the Chattahoochee—a 700,000-acre forest that sprawls across most of the state’s northern border and is one of the greatest expanses of undeveloped forested areas in the Southeast—became Georgia’s largest Important Bird Area.

Georgia has already designated 44 IBA sites and “will probably add 25 to 30 more within the next year,” says Jim Wilson, coordinator of the state’s IBA Program for Georgia Audubon. “Chattahoochee National Forest is the only place in Georgia where Cerulean warblers nest and where you’ll find ravens.”

When the program got underway in Georgia three years ago, five criteria were adopted, any one of which would qualify a nominated location for IBA designation. Chattahoochee National Forest “meets all five,” he says.

Georgia’s IBA Program is part of a science-based global conservation effort spearheaded by BirdLife International, a global partnership of non-governmental conservation organizations working to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity. Active in more than 100 countries and territories, BirdLife International launched its International IBA Program in 1981.

Eventually up to 20,000 IBAs are expected to be identified worldwide, using standard, internationally-recognized selection criteria. The program is designed to identify, monitor and and protect a network of sites critical to the survival of the world’s birds.

The National Audubon Society, a BirdLife International affiliate, administers the program in the United States and launched its IBA effort in 1995. It pioneered a state-based approach through its network of of state field offices, and would like to see IBA Programs off the ground in all 50 states this year.

Programs are already underway in 40 states, though some are far ahead of others. In North Carolina, for example, 98 IBAs have already been identified, while 17 sites have received IBA designation in South Carolina. Neither Virginia, which launched its IBA Program a few months ago, nor Tennessee, where the IBA program is getting off to a slow start because National Audubon has no presence there, has yet designated any IBAs.

What’s An IBA?

According to National Audubon’s website (, Important Bird Areas “are sites that provide essential habitat for one or more species of bird.” Sites include breeding and overwintering grounds, as well as important stopovers for migrating birds, and vary enormously in size.

Georgia’s 30-acre Fernbank Forest near Atlanta—diminutive compared to IBAs like Chattahoochee National Forest—is nonetheless “an important little area to birds, whose populations there have been monitored for the last 25-30 years,” Jim Wilson says.

IBAs can include public or private land, or a combination of the two, and may be protected or unprotected. Designation as an IBA is non-regulatory, and sites cannot be designated IBAs without the landowner (or managing agency’s) permission.

To qualify for IBA designation, a site must support at least one of the following: 1) species of conservation concern (such as threatened, endangered and Watch Listed species); 2) species with restricted ranges; 3) species whose populations are concentrated in one general habitat type or biome; or 4) species or groups of species (shorebirds or waterfowl, for example) that are vulnerable because they congregate.

Nominations for potential IBA sites are sought by program administrators, then reviewed by technical committees who decide whether they meet IBA criteria. (Each state has its own technical committee, with members drawn from colleges and universities, museums, federal and state agencies, the birding community and others with ornithological expertise.)

Designated IBAs are subsequently ranked according to their global, regional, national and state significance to help establish priorities for conservation efforts. A National Technical Committee reviews data to assure credibility of IBAs deemed nationally, continentally or globally significant. The IBA Program has two major components: identifying sites crucial to maintaining species’ number and diversity; and finding ways to protect and preserve the designated sites.

State Of The States

Of the states in the southern Appalachians, North Carolina’s IBA Program is most advanced. Kicked off at the Annual Audubon Council of NC Conference in Asheboro in 1998, the program has already identified more than 3 million acres of habitat critical to birds throughout the state.

Audubon North Carolina’s website includes extensive information and maps for most of the 19 IBAs it lists for the mountain region. “We’re constantly updating the website as we write site accounts and complete GIS mapping,” says Walker Golder, NC IBA Program coordinator. “We will be adding more sites as we go along. This is not a one time, one shot deal.”

Because data was lacking for some key mountain sites, NC Audubon hired ornithologist Curtis Smalling to survey breeding birds in a couple of potential IBAs last summer. Between early May and mid-July, Smalling conducted “point count surveys” in Wilson Creek Gorge—an area of unfragmented forest under study for wilderness designation—and Rich Mountain, the largest mountain in the Amphibolite Chain and an area under heavy development pressure because of its proximity to Boone.

Smalling will continue gathering breeding data in the two areas this year, and is making arrangements to band migrating birds in the Elk Knob Gamelands, between Rich and Snake Mountains. Additionally, he’d like to survey areas along the Blue Ridge escarpment in Wilkes and Caldwell counties, because of the presence there of some NC species of special concern—among them Cerulean, Swainson’s and Kentucky warblers, and yellow-billed cuckoos.

“We are doing these surveys because these are areas in which not much systematic fieldwork has been done. Unlike some areas, where bird populations have been monitored for years, there is no baseline data for these sites,” he says.

“That’s one thing we’ve realized through our mapping process—that there are a lot of sites out there that may be very important to birds, that we know nothing about because we lack data,” Golder says. “We’re trying to develop a blueprint for bird conservation in the state, so we can maintain our diversity and abundance of bird species. In a sense, this whole program never ends. It’s a huge task; Audubon can’t do it alone.

“We recognize that there is no way we are going to be able to protect each and every site. But by raising awareness of these sites, by working to develop partnerships with public and private landowners, we hope to conserve adequate habitat for birds. IBAs put these places on the map, and recognition is an important step in their conservation. We’d like to get our data into the hands of land planners across the state, so that everyone — from small land trusts to the Department of Transportation — will consider IBAs in their planning process.”

Least far along in the IBA process in the Southern Appalachian region is Tennessee. “We are still soliciting [IBA] nominations from member chapters of the Tennessee Ornithological Society and other sources,” says state ornithologist Troy Ettel, an employee of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to whom responsibility for IBA Program has fallen in the absence of a National Audubon office in the state.

Though Ettel has been attending IBA meetings for the last 18 months, “our program is in its extreme infancy, and will probably continue just to creep along for some time yet,” he says. Eventually, a technical committee of 8-10 scientists and biologists from across the state will be appointed. Even before the process begins, Ettel acknowledges that locations like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Reelfoot Lake and Roan Mountain are “no-brainers” for future IBA designation.

“But there are a lot of remote areas in the state that may be very important to birds that we just don’t know about,” he concedes. “I had hoped to have the time to focus on [the IBA Program] last year — to get it off and running, but it’s a matter of priorities.”

Virginia Audubon launched its IBA Program last fall, and “is just in the beginning stages,” says coordinator Eileen Rowan. “We are in the process of determining priority species, and criteria for priority sites. Our technical committee isn’t finalized, but we have a formal nomination process in place, and are soliciting information about potential IBAs. If someone wants to let us know about a site they think qualifies for IBA designation, we would welcome that information now.”

By the end of 2003, Virginia should have “a preliminary list of sites and several final sites for which we will begin conservation planning,” she says. To nominate a site or learn more about Virginia’s IBA program, visit its website at

Paul Koehler has coordinated South Carolina’s IBA Program since 2000 from headquarters in Aiken, where he is assistant manager of the Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary. Within the next year, he hopes to see the list of 17 IBA sites in the state swell to 50.

“Our 9-member technical committee meets periodically to review nominated sites,” he says. Though the state’s IBA program does not have a website, Koehler is working on a public information booklet that will describe the IBA Program, explain its status in South Carolina, and include a page on each of the state’s designated sites.

“We hope that through this program people will become aware of the importance of these sites to birds and understand that perhaps added protection will be needed for them,” he says.

Of South Carolina’s 17 IBA sites, two (Table Rock State Park and Caesar’s Head/Jones Gap State Park) are in the mountains. “Table Rock State Park was one of the first five IBAs to be designated in the state, while Caesar’s Head/Jones Gap was added last fall. Members of our Technical Committee are pursuing nominations for several additional sites in the southern Appalachians,” Koehler says.

On the map of IBAs on the Georgia Audubon website, you’ll find several individual IBAs listed within the Chattahoochee National Forest. That’s because IBAs — like bird species — sometimes undergo lumping and splitting, Walker Golder says. Though parts of the forest had been designated previously as IBAs, last fall the entire forest received the designation.

Some Southern Appalachian IBAs

• Table Rock State Park, SC: A 3,100-acre park near Pickens. Its mountainous terrain includes cliffs and rocky outcrops. The presence of nesting peregrine falcons, reintroduced to the park in 1989, won the park IBA designation, though more than 175 bird species (including 60 species that breed there) have been recorded for the park.

• Caesars Head/Jones Gap State Park, SC: A 10,600-acre park in northern Greenville County, with elevations ranging from 1,000-3,266 feet on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Nominated for its Species of Concern (Cooper’s hawk, Swainson’s warbler, peregrine falcons), WatchList species, and concentration of raptors during fall migration. 163 bird species have been recorded, including 57 breeding species.

• Great Balsam and Plott Balsam Mountains, NC: A 71,351 acre area along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Sylva, Brevard and Waynesville, the IBA includes parts of Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests up to 6,410 feet. With northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests, this IBA is significant for high-elevation birds, including breeding populations of Special Concern and Watchlist Species (Northern saw-whet owl, red crossbill, black-throated blue warbler and brown creeper). It is also among the state’s most important sites for alder flycatcher, black-capped chickadee, common raven and red-breasted nuthatch.


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