Any Alabamian interested in birding -- or just getting out and enjoying nature -- should make a point of learning about Alabama Birding Trails, a collection of 270 birding sites around the state that are all accessible, to some degree, to the public.
The sites are scattered across Alabama, stretching from the Tennessee line to the Gulf Coast. Birders can watch bald eagles at Waterloo in extreme northwest Alabama or migrating warblers at Dauphin Island south of Mobile. Or they can look for Mississippi Kites at Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in far western Alabama or search for Pileated Woodpeckers at the Alligator Creek Nature Trail in East Alabama near the Georgia line.
The sites range from the large and well known to tiny oases that may be known to just a few hard-core birders and nature lovers.
Great examples of both often can be found within a few miles of one another. Cheaha State Park, for instance, contains Cheaha Mountain, the state's highest point. Thousands of visitors each year tread the easily accessible boardwalk to the Bald Rock overlook, where you can see soaring raptors at the right time of the year and songbirds almost all the time. But just a few miles away in a deep valley is the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area, a beautiful "pocket" park with picnic tables around a small lake.
On a recent visit to Cheaha State Park, I was able to photograph a male Pileated Woodpecker darting among the trees near Bald Rock. As I drove down the mountain, a few miles away I came across Lake Chinnabee, where during a brief stop near sunset I was able to see hawks and photograph beautiful Wood Ducks -- arguably Alabama's most colorful waterfowl.
The birding trail system is actually a collection of eight trails, ranging from the North Alabama Birding Trail to the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail -- which also happen to be the oldest and best established of the eight trails.
However, you need to do your homework to get the most out of the 270 birding sites in the state that are currently on the trails.
Joe Watts, who has worked for the past several years to help pull together the birding trail system, is an avid champion of the birding trails. But even he cautions that no one should expect great birding at all the sites all the time.
"It depends on the time of year and birding migration, and sometimes luck," he said.
However, the Alabama Birding Trails system offers a great website that makes it easy to get the most out of the 270 sites on the trail. The site -- http://alabamabirdingtrails.com/ -- gives directions to each site and offers commentary on what to expect there and the best times to visit. It also tells if a fee is charged, such as at the state parks, and in many cases the times of year or hours that a site may be closed.
Watts is clearly proud of the birding trails system and of the web site. An avid birder himself, he is a consultant with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, one of the lead partners in the development of the trails system. The others are the Alabama Department of Tourism and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Also partnering in developing the sites is the Birmingham Audubon Society.
The sites were chosen with the help of experienced volunteer birders from the Birmingham Audubon Society and veteran birder and photographer Paul Franklin, who provided many of the photos on the trails' website.
Watts describes the trails system as a work in progress, saying that it is a goal to revisit each of the sites at least every two or three years. It's possible a handful will be dropped, and some might be added. Other goals include improving or adding signage at some sites and additions to the website.
I scanned the 270 sites, and believe I have at least visited 65 of them and birded most of those. My favorites are those in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur and those on Dauphin Island.
Wheeler, of course, is a marvel. It is famous for the thousands of Sand Hill Cranes and handful of endangered Whooping Cranes that visit each winter. I have seen as many as 2,000 different ducks of at least six different species at one time at Wheeler. I have been awed when a flock of 2,000 beautiful White Pelicans took flight while members of the North Alabama Birdwatcher Society were watching. I have also seen a raft of at least 400 Snow Geese do the same.
Dauphin Island is marvelous in a very different way. In the spring and fall, it is a hotspot for migrating birds -- and birders, who flock there to see warblers and other birds stopping in their migrations north and south. The Alabama Ornithological Society even times its fall and spring meetings at Dauphin Island to coincide with the migrating birds.
I have only put a small dent in those 270 birding sites listed on the Alabama Birding Trails website. I have already identified a dozen others I want to visit after poring over the website.
The trails are a marvelous resources for birders. But I also recommend the trail sites for anyone who wants to spend time in natural Alabama.
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper writer and editor who now writes regularly for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. Email items for Bird Notes at least two weeks in advance of an event.
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