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Aerial Encounters

All trails lead to Alabama’s abundant birdlife.
BY JoBeth McDaniel

Last year, while taking a shortcut to Monroeville, Ala., I rattled down a red dirt road near Burnt Corn. Tall pines crowded the road, stretching up to clear blue skies. A flash of wings caught my eye. Hawks? Buzzards? I peered up at the broad wingspan and smooth, gliding flight, and shook my head in disbelief.

warbler

Above: Left: A Yellow Warbler in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, which is on the North Alabama Trail. Paul Franklin photo

In Title: Eagles can be found at sites across Alabama. ©Gretchen Thompson/Fotolia.com photo

Eagles. Two bald eagles were soaring just overhead, as majestic and breathtaking as the last time I’d experienced a sighting–on a river in Alaska. That eagle-watching trip required long plane rides, a cruise, and a rafting trip in the cold rain. In Alabama, all I had to do was look out my car window.

I followed the pair of homegrown Alabama eagles, stopping the car to fumble with my camera. These regal birds of prey, reintroduced to the state’s forests starting in the mid-1980s, now nest in every county.

Yet bald eagles aren’t the only feathered star here. Alabama, it turns out, is a bird-watcher’s paradise. More than 400 bird species live in or migrate through the state, including 12 species of hummingbirds and a small flock of endangered whooping cranes.

This fall, bird lovers will find even more opportunities to grab the binoculars and follow the tweets. During the past year, a series of eight bird-watching regions was established, linking the state’s numerous existing and potential bird-watching sites. Each region includes a network of birding hot spots. For example, the Appalachian Highlands Trail features 36 bird-watching locations spread across nine northern counties.

Along these designated regions, called trails, birders will find myriad resources for a feathered quest, including maps, birding lists, interpretive signs, and rangers who can direct them to the best viewing for the season. Several trails are being fine-tuned, with new sites still opening.

Funding for Alabama’s new trails came from state and federal agencies as well as universities and wildlife groups, such as the Birmingham Audubon Society (www.birminghamaudubon.org). While advanced birders often prefer more isolated areas, good bird-watching is possible nearly everywhere–and you don’t have to sit in the mud for hours to check off the birds on your list.

“The Birmingham Botanical Gardens has excellent birding, as does Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve,” says Birmingham Audubon Society board member Anne Miller, who helped scout the state’s new trails. “In Gadsden, James D. Martin Wildlife Park is right near the mall, but at times, it teems with cormorants, egrets, and herons.”

Birds also tend to flock to many of Alabama’s most scenic and historical sites. Yellow-billed cuckoos are common near Blount County’s 1930s-era covered bridges, such as Horton Mill bridge, which is on the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail. Red-winged blackbirds fill the grassy hills at Moundville, the prehistoric archaeological site on the Alabama Black Belt Nature and Heritage Trail. Seven bird sanctuaries dot the shores of Dauphin Island, part of the Coastal Birding Trail. On the West Alabama Trail near Marion, visitors at Perry Lakes Park can spy bald eagles from a reclaimed 100-foot-tall forestry tower, as well as from the boardwalks and unusual buildings built by Auburn University’s Rural Studio architecture students. 

So if you want to get in on Alabama’s bird-watching boom, check out the feather-filled spots on the trails, including these four.

JoBeth McDaniel is a freelance writer with a fondness for eagles.

Sep/Oct 2013 Issue

 


 

WEST ALABAMA TRAIL

Jennings Ferry is a rich birding site, thanks to thick hardwood forests surrounding the Black Warrior River. Hawks, owls, bald eagles, and ospreys hunt here; songbirds and swallows dart through the skies during warm months. Wading birds–great blue herons and great egrets–are found here year-round and are joined by snowy egrets and white ibises in warm months. Black terns fill the trees in late summer as they migrate south.

Don’t Miss: Call for information about weekend birding trips, which sometimes include kayaking excursions led by expert birders down the Black Warrior River. (334) 289-3540.

Information: Jennings Ferry Campground, located between Clear Creek and Warrior Lake, has shady wooded and waterfront sites. Located about 40 miles southwest of Tuscaloosa, 1001 Jennings Ferry Road, Akron. (205) 372-1217; www.reserveamerica.com or www.recreation.gov.

Jennings Ferry

 

WIREGRASS TRAIL

Thousands of tourists motor through Conecuh National Forest on their way to Florida’s beaches, unaware that some of Alabama’s best birding is nearby. Hike the 20-mile Conecuh Trail, which winds around cypress forests, carnivorous pitcher plant bogs, and dozens of lakes and creeks frequented by ospreys, swallow-tailed kites, and painted buntings.

Don’t Miss: Conecuh is a great place to spot the red-cockaded woodpecker, best seen early in the morning or late afternoon. Longleaf pine forests hold more than 80 “clusters” of the endangered birds.

Information: Camping sites are available at Open Pond and Blue Lake, and the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center offers moderately priced hotel and bunk lodging for groups. The park is located about 115 miles southwest of Montgomery off State Route 137. (334) 222-2555; www.fs.usda.gov/alabama. In nearby Andalusia, at the Sweet Gum Bottom Bed and Breakfast, you can watch birds the low-effort way: Climb into a hammock and gaze up at the action in the towering sweet gum trees. $125 and up; (334) 222-8007; www.sweetgumbottom.com.

Trail

 

NORTH ALABAMA TRAIL

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur celebrates a big birthday this year: 75 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the reservoir and park into one of the first federally protected havens for migrating birds. Millions of birds, many of them rare and endangered, now fly to or through Wheeler every year. From spring to fall, hummingbirds crowd the feeders and trails. During summer months, thousands of endangered gray bats emerge at dusk from caves located in and near the refuge.

Don’t Miss: From November through February, the state’s largest wintering duck population and other waterfowl fill the waterways. About 12,000 sandhill cranes wintered here in 2013, along with 13 whooping cranes from northern states that recently began wintering in Alabama. Microphones set out in the waterways pick up the birdcalls, which are then broadcast inside the observation building, where visitors using built-in spotting scopes can watch the birds.

Information: 2700 Refuge Headquarters Road, Decatur. (256) 350-6639; www.fws.gov/wheeler. There is no camping within Wheeler, but nearby Point Mallard Park offers more than 200 wooded campsites on 25 acres within walking distance to a water park. (256) 341-4900; www.pointmallardpark.com.

Observatory

 

APPALACHIAN HIGHLANDS TRAIL

Cheaha State Park, surrounded by Talladega National Forest, is a prime spot to see eagles and hawks, as well as a long list of songbirds, including indigo buntings, Eastern bluebirds, towhees, and several types of warblers. The bird-watching is great even if you just visit the Cheaha Mountain Restaurant or its observation deck, which has panoramic views and spectacular sunsets.

Don’t Miss: The Doug Ghee Accessible Trail’s elevated boardwalk takes visitors along the edge of a boulder-strewn cliff, with sweeping views from Bald Rock Overlook.

Information: Visitors can stay in the park’s moderately priced hotel rooms (rates start at $51 per night) or in one of the five spacious chalets (starting at $114 per night). Also popular are the four rustic wood and stone cabins (starting at $93 per night), which were built in 1933 and are perched on the side of Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s highest peak at 2,407 feet. Campsites are also available (starting at $16 per night). Located about 80 miles east of Birmingham at 19644 Highway 281, Delta. (256) 488-5115; www.alapark.com.

trail

 
trail

The Alabama Birding Trails project is funded by the Alabama Tourism Department, with technical assistance from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; the Birmingham Audubon Society, which hosts birding field trips throughout the state; The Alabama Ornithological Society; and local leaders within each region. The University of Alabama Center for Economic Development (UCED) provides project management and oversight.

For information about Alabama Birding Trails, including details about birding events, vist www.alabamabirdingtrails.com. A map of the region is below.

Learn more about the state’s bird population through various programs offered by the Alabama Ornithological Society at www.aosbirds.org.

Mark your calendar for the 10th annual John L. Borom Alabama Coastal BirdFest on Oct. 3–5, which takes place at various sites along the Gulf Coast. For details, visit www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com.

Before your Alabama adventure, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

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