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COLUMBUS, Georgia — A new outdoor educational space and upcoming programs at Columbus State University’s Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center are literally for the birds — but in a good way.
The center held an official “vine-cutting” ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 21 for its new Walt & Frank Chambers Birding Trail. The Chambers trail system adds 2.5 miles of new walking, biking and driving trails to Oxbow Meadows. It celebrates the area’s avian diversity, provides a birding destination for novice and experienced birdwatchers, and offers an outdoor field laboratory for scientists and researchers — especially those studying migratory species.
“Oxbow Meadows offers programs from the birds to the bees and from the gators to the turtles — and likely everything in between,” said Dr. Michael Dentzau, an associate professor and the center’s executive director. “This new addition to our center will hopefully inspire more interest in birding and the species of birds that call our area home, as well as those species that migrate through our area as the seasons change.”
The birding expansion at Oxbow Meadows is possible through charitable donations from the Chambers family in memory of birding enthusiasts Walt and his grandfather Frank. Walt, a local pharmacist, was renowned nationally as an accomplished member of the Southeast’s birding community. After graduating from Columbus State in 1999 with a bachelor’s in chemistry, Walt went on to earn a doctorate in pharmacy from Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy in 2008. He died in 2021; he was 46.
Walt and his grandfather shared deep emotional ties to the local land and fauna. Walt’s love for birding developed over many spent with family, friends and colleagues, and his birding interests frequently brought him to Oxbow Meadows to document the area’s avian diversity. Their family’s memorial gift includes an endowment that will provide perpetual funding for future birding programs and trail upgrades, expansions and maintenance at the center.
The partnership behind the new trail extends beyond the Chambers family to include the Columbus Chapter of the Audubon Society, which developed, produced and placed permanent bird-identification trail signage. Chapter President Priscilla Marshall referred to Oxbow Meadows as a “top hotspot” for birding in the region, noting that more than 250 bird species can be regularly sighted during the year at the center.
“For many years, Walt Chambers surveyed and detailed the numerous species of birds in this region. His observations included many first sightings and state records of birds previously undocumented in this area,” she said, calling Chambers a “birding savant.” “Birders of all ages and paces of life will now be able to walk the trails and enjoy the native and migratory species found at Oxbow Meadows.”
The expansion also benefits from ongoing logistical and physical plant support from the center’s founding partners, Columbus Water Works and the City of Columbus, which jointly own the land upon which the center is located. This includes an enlarged parking area near the birding trails to make the site more accessible for schools and tour groups — thereby increasing the center’s appeal as a birding destination.
“The species and seasonal diversity of the avian world that will be more prominently on display around Oxbow Meadows will be a treasure for seasoned birders and a tremendous learning opportunity for all of those who are willing to grab a pair of binoculars and get outside,” said Steve Davis, president of Columbus Water Works. “Columbus Water Works congratulates Oxbow Meadows for bringing another wonderful nature experience to our community.”
The new birding site will help center staff and researchers alike spotlight birds’ role in a healthy ecosystem.
“This new birding site and trails emphasize birds’ significance to the environment, as well as the importance of preserving bird habitats,” Dentzau explained. “Oxbow Meadows is an increasingly important stop for migrating birds, and as such, has been cited as one of the most diverse birding sites in Georgia for both inland and coastal birds.”
Dentzau said early-September through October is the height of the fall migratory season at Oxbow Meadows, with its spring migratory spike spanning late-February to early-March. Bird sightings at Oxbow Meadows range from native species like the Double-crested Cormorant (Nannopterum auritum) and the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) to rare or exotic species like the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) and the Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). He said the center’s team is already discussing the possibility of an annual birding festival around one of the two migratory periods.
The new birding trails are named for native birds and species, including the likes of Meadowlark Lane and Beaver Boulevard. The area also includes the addition and dedication on Saturday of a new Bill Birkhead Loop — named in honor of the emeritus Columbus State professor who died in 2021. Birkhead served the Department of Biology faculty for 43 years until his retirement in 2011. During his tenure, he taught a variety of courses from anatomy and physiology to vertebrate natural history, and from ecology to ornithology. He was president of the local Audubon Society from 1982 to 1984 and was the department’s chair at the time of his retirement.
“It is so gratifying and fitting that, forever, Walt Chambers and Bill Birkhead will be bonded together in welcoming people into nature,” Frank’s older brother, Alan, said before cutting the grand-opening vine with other Chambers family members. “I know Walt and Frank are both looking down on us today and absolutely tickled to see this come together.”
“To see my dad and Walt working together was magical,” Bill’s son Roger said on Saturday. “I can’t think of any better tribute to them than a place like this that lets people get out in nature and enjoy it. I truly hope it inspires the next Walt Chambers or Bill Birkhead.”
Birding, also known as birdwatching, is popular among hobbyists of all ages, as well as those who specialize in ornithology, or the scientific study of birds. In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are over 45 million birders who track the country’s 1,120-plus native and introduced bird species.
Birds are vital to the ecosystem as they help control insect populations, pollinate plants, and disperse seeds. They are also a food source for other animals. Additionally, birds and birdsong enhance nature, are a source of outdoor relaxation and enjoyment, and inspire arts, literature and music.
Birders may observe birds by the naked eye, with binoculars or telescopes, by listening for bird sounds, or by webcams. Organizations like the National Audubon Society and American Ornithological Society provide printed guides, online resources and mobile apps to aid birding enthusiasts from the novice to the scientist.
Students benefit tremendously from learning about nature and its critical, yet unseen connection to our everyday lives,” said Dr. Troy Keller, a professor and chair of the Department of Earth & Space Sciences whose academic and research interests include zoology. “Oxbow Meadow’s new birding trail will create a unique and powerful immersive learning experience for students within biking distance of campus. These types of experiences can transform students’ perspectives — helping them to appreciate the beauty of nature and to become committed to protecting it for future generations.”
ABOUT OXBOW MEADOWS ENVIRONMENTAL LEARNING CENTER
Columbus State University’s Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center is dedicated to educating, inspiring and engaging people about and with nature and the environment. At the southern end of the Columbus Riverwalk, blocks from U.S. Army Fort Moore and the National Infantry Museum, and integrated with Columbus’ Dragonfly Trails Network, the center offers a view of the ecoregion of West Central Georgia and the Chattahoochee Valley by providing access to samples of the area’s rich communities of plants and animals.
Opened in 1995 as a collaboration among Columbus Water Works, Columbus State University, and the City of Columbus, the center provides exhibits, displays and nature trails, and also offers formal and informal programs about the ecology and natural history of the region. Interpretive and hands-on programming is provided by its professional educational staff, contributing faculty, student assistants, and volunteers. The facility features one classroom-laboratory, an 86-seat auditorium, state-of-the-art instructional media, the Natural History Discovery Center, indoor and outdoor exhibits of living reptiles and fish, a stream habitat supporting various plants and animals, a pollinator garden, beehives, and environmental art.