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Protecting Bird Habitat with Conservation Easements

Updated: Feb 20, 2022

by Kathy Parker

Northern Bobwhite, Photo by Richard Hall

“Bob-WHITE! Bob-WHITE!” That’s the cheerful greeting George and Beth Thornton hear most spring mornings on the rolling hills that surround their home in western South Carolina. Encounters with Northern Bobwhites are common on their land nowadays, but that has not always been the case.

Like many bird species that inhabit grasslands and other types of open or scrub habitats, Northern Bobwhite populations have plummeted since the mid to late 1900s. This has occurred as forests have matured, hedgerows attractive to quail have decreased, and habitats have been lost to development. The roughly 450 acres of conservation easements the Thorntons have with the Oconee River Land Trust (ORLT) on property they own in Georgia and South Carolina are helping quail and other open-habitat birds turn the tide on their population declines.

The Thorntons are not new to land conservation for species like Northern Bobwhite and Wild Turkey—or to the hunting that they enjoy on their land and on other reserves. George’s formal training ranged from anthropology and entomology to business administration, including working in the lab of a beekeeper during his graduate studies. He has woven these diverse threads together into a rich career, as he assumed leadership positions in both agribusiness and conservation. This includes nine years as the CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), a non-profit conservation organization committed to enhancing Wild Turkey populations and preserving a heritage of wildlife management that includes hunting. Wild Turkey numbers have rebounded in the last several decades, thanks to the NWTF and other conservation organizations that focus on creating and maintaining habitats these birds depend on. George and Beth are applying similar principles to their ORLT conservation easements.

George and Beth Thornton, Photo by Laura Hall

Their South Carolina land (which they call “Midlands Reserve”) only recently came into the Thorntons’ possession, through a sequence of events George refers to as “serendipity”. He and Beth visited the property last fall as a favor to their nephew and the former landowner, although they were not seriously in the market for land. Like much of the forested Piedmont, the uplands of the reserve were in pine production. Despite the dense forests and low diversity of plants and wildlife in the pine plantation, the Thorntons felt a connection with the land as soon as they toured it. They saw that with proper management, the uplands could become a haven for quail, turkey, and other wildlife. The majestic bottomland forests, canebrakes, and wetlands along the streams, coupled with the possibility of restoring upland pine plantation to healthy pine-oak savanna, inspired the Thorntons to purchase and protect the land.

George and Beth soon began the task of restoring the uplands—a process already well underway on their nearby ORLT conservation easements in Georgia. In the short time they have lived on Midlands Reserve, the Thorntons have transformed their land into a diverse landscape that attracts many different birds, mammals, and other wildlife. Through a combination of limited clearcutting, thinning, and prescribed burning, they have opened the pine forest and created a patchwork of savannas, meadows, wetlands, and hardwood forests. The conversion of dense forest to more open pine-oak savannas allows more sunlight to reach the ground, which stimulates the growth of a diversity of native forbs and grasses that seed-eating birds love, including Northern Bobwhites and Wild Turkeys. Plantings of heavy seed-producers in small openings adjacent to forest augment this natural food supply. Native shrubs left along the forest edge provide cover for the ground-dwelling birds. As a result of the Thorntons’ restoration efforts, quail and turkey have naturally dispersed in from the surrounding landscape as their preferred habitat has become available. No birds have been actively imported or released.

Indigo Bunting, a declining migratory species that breeds along forest edges, Photo by Kathy Parker

Serendipity is evident in another way on the Thorntons’ permanently protected properties. Along with creating a patchy landscape suitable for many gamebirds, they have preserved riparian buffers along their streams and other habitats of concern. Mature bottomland forests, canebrakes, wetlands, and mesic hardwood forests wrap around their uplands—following the streams that meander through their land. During the breeding season, these habitats are home to numerous migratory bird species, like warblers and buntings, that winter in the tropics. Additional species stop briefly in these habitats to refuel and rest before moving on to their breeding grounds farther north. Many of these migrants have experienced sharp population reductions in the last 50 years, with habitat loss as one of the chief causes.

Midlands Reserve pine savanna, Photo by Kathy Parker

By preserving natural wildlife habitats for many species with their conservation easements, George and Beth are providing what many declining songbird populations need to recover. They are helping to ensure that the woods will be alive with birdsong in the future and that their land can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Common Yellowthroat, a declining species that breeds in moist scrubby habitat, Photo by Kathy Parker

Check out the rest of the ORLT Fall 2021 Newsletter here.

Correction: February 20, 2022

In an earlier version of this article, the photographer credit for the photo of the Northern Bobwhite photo, Richard Hall, was accidentally omitted. ORLT apologizes for the mistake.

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