Wherever we live, there are birds. From the pigeons roosting on New York skyscrapers to the cardinals and sparrows that visit backyard feeders, birds are the most visible layer of the natural world just outside our windows, and a key indicator of the general health of the ecosystem. But Rich Leppingwell, president of the Henderson County Bird Club, thinks indications aren’t encouraging. “There can be no doubt,” Leppingwell says, “that overall local bird population is declining due to loss of habitat stemming from population growth, pollution and development.”
Leppingwell and his fellow HCBC members, more than a hundred of them, could be considered the advance team of local and regional efforts to preserve the mountain ecosystems supporting increasingly endangered wildlife. Each year, the club conducts regular bird walks at Hendersonville’s Jackson Park along with randomly scheduled walks at Fletcher Park, Lake Osceola, Johnson Farm, the Oklawaha Greenway and Lewis Creek Preserve, and at the Carl Sandburg estate, Connemara. More crucially, the club participates in a number of sanctioned bird counts, including the Henderson County component of the Audubon Society’s annual nationwide Christmas Bird Count and a spring North American Migration count.
Leppingwell, a former board member of Hendersonville’s Environmental and Conservation Organization (ECO) and now beginning a second term as president of HCBC, has been a member of the birding club since its formation ten years ago by local birding enthusiasts Barbara and Jim Neal and noted ornithologist Simon Thompson. “I met Simon when I moved to Hendersonville and started on walks with him, mainly in the Carolinas.” Leppingwell says. “I always had feeders and nest boxes around the house and became involved in serious birding when I retired in 1997.”
Leppingwell and his fellow HCBC members are among the estimated 48 million birders nationwide who, according to past surveys by the National Fish and Wildlife Service, spend about $35 million a year on equipment, tours and entry fees to parks and recreational areas. The figure is impressive when one considers that the only necessary equipment, a good pair of binoculars, may only cost a few hundred dollars. “I recommend something in the 8×45 range,” Leppingwell says. “A good pair isn’t exactly cheap, but whatever the birder feels comfortable with should be the objective.”
The only other requirement for basic birding is patience. Avid birders can spend hours in the field each day, and most keep notebooks in which they mark the date, nature and location of each sighting. “Birding is getting more popular as more and more people take to the outdoors,” Leppingwell says; and traveling to the birds’ natural habitats expands the variety encountered beyond the usual cardinals at yard feeders. Least seen in the area, Leppingwell says, is the Prothonotary Warbler, a handsome, russet-headed member of the abundant warbler clan more usually seen in lower elevations. Leppingwell’s own favorite is the Eastern Towhee, known for its energetic scratching through ground cover for food. Least favorite bird? “I would have to say that, along with most birders, my least favorite is the Brown-Headed Cowbird, which parasitizes other birds’ nests,” Leppingwell says.
Birders all have their favorite stories and experiences in the field; for Leppingwell, it would be one day last spring, when he was among just a few invited to watch the release into the wild of a female Bald Eagle. “The bird had been found injured at Lake Jordan, and it was taken to the Carolina Raptor Center in Charlotte,” Leppingwell recalls. “After about a year, it was released at Lake Lure, with only invited guests there to watch. My sources tell me she is still alive and well. It was a very moving experience.”
Through the end of August, Leppingwell will be hosting an 8am breakfast every Thursday at Season’s Restaurant at Highland Lakes Inn, followed by a one-hour birdwalk. The cost is $25 per person and reservations are required at 828-693-6812.