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 ridge top 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 Froest 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 wuold 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 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 protect a network of sites critical to the survival of the world's birds.


The Naitonal Audubon Society, a BirdLife International affiliate, administers the program in the United States and lauched its IBA effort in 1995.  It pioneered a state-based approach through its network 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.


What is an IBA?  According to National Audubon's website, Important Bird Areas "are 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.  IBA'sTo 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 IBA's 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 randing according to their global, regional, national and state significance to help establish priorities for conservational efforts.  A National Technical Committee reviews data to assure credibility of IBAs deemed national, 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.


On the map of IBAs on the Georgia Audubon webiste, 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.



Article by Elizabeth Hunter (Appalachian Voice ~ Late Winter 2003)