Rusty Blackbirds at Lake Conestee Nature Park
Rusty Blackbirds breed in wet temperate boreal wetland areas from northern New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces across Canada and into Alaska. They winter primarily in wooded wetland areas in the southeastern United States.
According to the International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group:
“The rusty blackbird is arguably the most ecologically specialized of the North American blackbirds, both in its feeding habits and habitat uses. Throughout the year this species feeds to a considerable extent on animal prey and is one of the few bird species restricted year-round to wooded wetlands.”
A significant decline has been documented in recent decades.
For example, NA Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts indicate a decline of 85% – 98% in the past 40 years.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classed the Rusty Blackbird as a Vulnerable Species in 2007. This is in stark contrast to its earlier classification which was as a Species of Least Concern.
On the Audubon Watch-list the Rusty Blackbird is in the YELLOW category – species that are either declining or rare and typically of national conservation concern. The reasons for this dramatic decline are not well understood. More research is needed to identify the main causes and to propose actions to reverse the decline. An important part of that research started in Conestee, SC in the early part of 2009.
Rusty Blackbirds have been known to winter in the Conestee area for many years. However, reporting of Rusty Blackbirds in Conestee was not started in a systematic way until after the opening of Lake Conestee Nature Park in October of 2006.
Reports start in mid to late October, typically peak in January / February, and then taper off in March with a few late birds in April.
Researchers from the University of Georgia, assisted by several members of the Greenville County Bird Club, observed that the Rusty Blackbirds were arriving soon after dawn to feed on pecans in yards in Conestee village. The birds then moved to different spots in Lake Conestee Nature Park, less than a quarter of a mile away, to feed in the mud and leaves at the edges of the lake and in the shallow wetlands. They have often been observed foraging there in flocks of several hundred birds.
On September 30, 2009, the Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA) Technical Committee unanimously voted to accept Lake Conestee Nature Park as South Carolina’s newest Important Bird Area, based on the park’s important habitat for large populations of wintering Rusty Blackbirds, in addition to its amount and diversity of bird and other wildlife habitat.
Subsequently, on November 15, 2010, Audubon South Carolina, the National Audubon Society and BirdLife International accepted Lake Conestee Nature Park as an Important Bird Area (IBA) of Global Significance. The Global IBA review committee unanimously selected LCNP on the basis of the park meeting the threshold of wintering Rusty Blackbirds. LCNP far exceeds the threshold of ninety birds present during the winter season.