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Hobbyists find feathered friends at McDaniel Farm

DULUTH

Most visit McDaniel Farm Park for a history lesson on the agrarian South, when its land produced soybeans and cotton, not strip malls and cul-de-sacs.

A replica of the Depression-era farm - with a restored barn, chicken coop and blacksmith shop - is the centerpiece of this suburban park, which over the past year has become a haven from the shopping centers and traffic-choked highways just beyond its woods and fields.

About 18,000 people have come here since it opened Oct. 9, 2004, and many toured the historic farm or walked the 2.5 miles of paved trails winding across the nearly 130-acre park.

But Karen Theodorou knows a side of McDaniel Farm many miss, unless they travel the less trodden paths that disappear into privet thickets, briar patches and open fields.

Theodorou is among a small minority who visit the Duluth-area park to enjoy its chief form of wildlife - birds.

"It's so easy to get lost in this - to forget about everything else that's going on in your life," she said during about an hour of bird watching Saturday morning when she identified 32 species, including a cardinal, fox sparrow and red-shouldered hawk.

McDaniel Farm Park is filled with various bird species.

Eastern bluebirds, Carolina wren and robins are prevalent and popular, both to bird watching newcomers and veterans alike.

Cowbirds, which swarm above the poplars and oaks, are not as beloved. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and out-compete the other chicks for food.

Some species don't thrive here, including ducks, geese, heron and swan. McDaniel Farm Park doesn't have a marsh to attract them.

Birds aren't the only kind of wildlife in McDaniel Farm, just its most visible and abundant.

Brent Walker, the park's program supervisor, has seen raccoon, black snakes and deer, and heard a rumor or two about coyote.

It's hard to say how many deer live in the park, or just pass through.

Walker has his reasons for not discussing the size of the herd.

Last week, he removed another salt lick, or deer bait, from one of the fields, which is overlooked by several nearby houses.

Maybe someone only hoped to watch from their living room as deer gathered in the fields.

Walker isn't taking chances.

Archie McDaniel - who farmed the land until he died several years ago - ran off plenty of hunters in his day.

"I know that's the last thing I want to deal with in this park," Walker said.

Gwinnett has other places that attract nature lovers, including the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn. Bird watchers also like Suwanee Creek Greenway and the Fish Hatchery near Buford.

But McDaniel Farm is a remarkably large park for the suburbs, with more than 50 of its 130 acres left, basically, untamed and open to the public.

Even though it suffers the same challenges of any suburban park, where the sound of traffic still competes with the song of the white-throated sparrow, it's nevertheless a refuge for Theodorou and others who "never liked working in an office."

Theodorou left the corporate world in the early '90s to work at Bird Watcher Supply Co. in Duluth, about a mile from McDaniel Farm Park.

"People think 'birders' are a little goofy or old, but I know plenty who got into this in their 20s," she said.

"There's a lot of misconceptions about it. It can be exciting, actually. You go on 10-mile hikes through the woods, often in the dark, looking for rare birds. You have to listen for hours and hours. It takes brains and patience."

McDaniel Farm has no ivory-billed woodpecker, but Theodorou can still find the wood warbler - her favorite bird.

"They're the prettiest," she said. "Like little Easter eggs."