Mississippi Audubon at 20: Sure, there’s birdwatching, but conservation is serious business

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Hal Mitchell

Mitch Robinson and Kristina Mitchell watch closely over a Prothonotary Warbler at Strawberry Plains.

Sarah Pacyna was monitoring whale sharks in Belize when she became concerned with migratory species and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“The whale sharks would start in Honduras and make their way up to the North Pole, and they would swim right into the oil spill,” she explained. “Seeing the impact (the oil spill) had on migratory species was really interesting, and really devastating as well.”

When she saw that hundreds of thousands of birds in the gulf region had either died from the spill — or had feathers oiled to the point they couldn’t survive long — she “felt a need to help.”

Audubon Mississipppi

Sarah Pacyna, program manager of Coastal Bird Stewardship Program for Audubon Mississippi

Pacyna joined Audubon Mississippi in 2014 to help guide the new Coastal Bird Stewardship Program. Along the Gulf, from Pascagoula to Waveland, Pacyna, her six-person team and approximately 100 volunteers traverse the beaches to ensure the coastal birds, such as the least terns, are protected from the other local species, specifically humans and their pet dogs, by marking colonies with ropes and signage.  

“(The eggs) are very hard to see,” she said. “They camouflage really well — both the eggs and the chicks — they blend in with the sand, so it’s very easy to step on one if you’re not paying attention.

“By putting up the ropes we’re just trying to help people from doing that, but some people just don’t like the birds being there,” Pacyna added. “We’ve definitely made some headway. I’m very proud of our work to date, but I think it’s still an uphill battle.”

The initiative is funded from the Deepwater Horizon financial settlement, and Pacyna said she hopes some of the remaining dollars scheduled to come to the state from BP will continue to support her work.

Strawberry Plains Audubon Center

A native plant sale at Strawberry Plains’ Hummingbird Festival

The Coastal Bird Stewardship Program is one of the many ways Audubon Mississippi has led a conservation movement in the state that began in 1998.

“We didn’t want this former cotton plantation to be covered up with asphalt and cement — I think eventually Memphis will spread this far,” reads a quote from Margaret Finley Shackelford that hangs by the entrance of Strawberry Plains, the vast forested Holly Springs property she left behind when she died in 1998.

Shackelford and her family feared that Memphis, just 45 minutes north, and its suburbs would branch their way into North Mississippi, rooting out the scenic canopy that defines Strawberry Plains.

“It’s still a real concern,” said Tim Bisenius, the facility manager at what’s now the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center. “You go up (Highway) 72, there’s a whole industrial park popping up. It’s good for the area because of jobs, but it’s also bad because it’s all farmland that is getting converted to factories and warehouses.”

As a protective measure, Shackelford, her husband, John, and her sister, Ruth, deeded the land to the National Audubon Society, securing both the cosmetic and educational value of the 2,000 acres for years to come. Margaret and Ruth also left all of their financial assets (including stock in Coca-Cola) for Audubon, which is the largest gift in the organization’s history and continues to fund its operations.

For its 20th anniversary, Mississippi’s Audubon Society will offer several opportunities for the public to learn about nature and conservation, just as it does every year; now, though, the organization has a reputation throughout the state.

“A perfect example is our Hummingbird Festival,” said Bisenius. “We started that in the fall of 2000. We do the first one, it’s one day, and we had 100 people. Now it’s a three-day event, and we get between 5,000 and 8,000 people here over the three days. They come out and see different things, taking pictures.”

This September, Strawberry Plains will host its 19th annual Hummingbird Festival, the largest of its kind in the country and the largest fundraiser for Audubon Mississippi. 

Mitch Robinson

A Prairie Warbler fledgling at Strawberry Plains

Another example of the organization’s influence is its authority on native plants. Twice a year, Strawberry Plains hosts a native plant sale (the next one is May 18-19) as a way to teach about the importance of native species.

“When we began to plant landscapes that don’t have native plants in the yard — when we plant things for color and even for their tolerance to insects because the insects haven’t evolved with them — what we’re basically doing is the equivalent of planting plastic trees or plastic flowers, if you’re looking at it from the perspective of wildlife,” said Mitchell Robinson, the conservation education manager. 

Mississippi Audubon also consults private land owners and companies on how to be environmentally conscious while building their property. 

“I was able to convert 71 acres of Bermuda grass and fescue to about 40 some species of native grass and wildflowers,” said Tom Heineke, a taxonomic botanist from Hudsonville, who used Audubon’s help to makeover his land.  

“I think what they’re doing is very important, spreading this word because it’s an amazingly strong basis for wildlife conservation to have the habitat mostly, it should be mostly, based in native plants, because that’s how they evolved, that’s the whole game,” he added.  

Mitch Robinson

Tom Heineke’s land near Hudsonville, Miss.

Audubon Mississippi has also expanded greatly since its inception. Through mitigation and gifts, Strawberry Plains now operates 3,000 acres, and the center’s sister location in Moss Point now has a facility that opened in 2015 on an inlet of the Pascagoula River. Next to the largest free-flowing river in the continental United States, the Pascagoula River Audubon Center has an array of biodiversity at its fingertips.

“When (visitors) go kayaking, it’s not unusual for them see an otter or a dolphin out there in the bay,” said Mark LaSalle, director of the center. “We know 327 species of birds are known or suspected of using (the Pascagoula River) out of a state total of about 415 species.”

Like Strawberry Plains, the Pascagoula center offers classes for all ages throughout the year and tours of the surrounding native plants and wildlife.

Sheryl Bowen, the board chair for Audubon Mississippi, praised the growth and influence the organization has had since the Shackelfords’ gift in 1998.

“(The Shackelfords) stipulated that they wanted Audubon to have a place that people could come to that they could learn about conservation work, birds and wildlife, and that was very much the legacy they wanted to leave to Mississippi, and they did,” Bowen said.