By Dan Vorisek, Environmental Education Director

On a day that brought the first wind and snow of the season to Athens, a group of Rural Action volunteers were energetically pitching in on a project that brought to mind the end of winter and the return of longer days and brighter skies. Led by Jenny Byers, NestWatch volunteers assembled new nest boxes at the Community Makerspace that are destined to provide homes for Prothonotary Warblers and also the hatchlings of Carolina Chickadees, Tree Swallows, House Wrens, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Eastern Bluebirds.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

All songbirds require specific habitats for optimal reproduction, and the Prothonotary Warbler seeks out tree cavities over water, especially standing water found in wetlands and periodically flooded streams to make their nests. This habitat provides abundant insects for the growth of the young and an added layer of protection from predators because of the barrier that water presents. Predation still occurs in nests located in water habitats, although the depth of the water does appear to have an effect as a predator deterrent. The new boxes, constructed by the volunteers with the help of Environmental Education Director Dan Vorisek, will be carefully located across the county in areas that are best suited to these dazzling songbirds.

In 2017, Rural Action Environmental Education launched NestWatch, a citizen-science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to track and assess the reproductive health of bird populations across the country. In our region, this project is intended to help Prothonotary Warbler populations grow and thrive in spite of habitat loss due to development in prime nesting locations. Since the first 20 boxes were installed by Rural Action in 2018, over 100 nest boxes have since been placed at 12 different locations across Athens County. The most recent data compiled by the Rural Action NestWatch program shows that 334 songbirds fledged from these nests at a hatching rate of 87% with an average clutch size of 4.7 eggs per nest.

“I love checking the nest boxes as the parent birds are building nests, and later as they are feeding their young,” commented Jenny Beyers, a volunteer with the project team that has nearly 20 members. “The boxes are placed in some wonderfully beautiful and peaceful areas. The other volunteers are all helpful and range from expert birders to folks like me who are just happy to be outside and help out!” Citizen science is an important way to support other research work that is shown to be beneficial to bird populations, like this project at Virginia Commonwealth University, which has been ongoing since 1987.

The NestWatch team is getting ready for the 2023 nesting season and will be hosting an orientation for current volunteers, new volunteers, or anyone that wants to learn more from 4:30-6 p.m. on Wednesday, February 22, and Monday, February 27 at Rural Actions’ Kuhre Center for Rural Renewal. Contact Dan Vorisek –

Register for Nestwatch Orientation on February 22

Register for Nestwatch Orientation on February 27