Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Spring migration brings birds and birders galore to Dauphin Island

Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Spring migration brings birds and birders galore to Dauphin Island

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When members of the Alabama Ornithological Society held their spring meeting on Dauphin Island last week, they were able to spot almost 45 percent of all the birds recognized as occurring in Alabama.

Included in the combined count for the more than 90 AOS birders were several hard-to-spot birds for the state, including a Bachman's Sparrow, a Least Bittern and a Black-Billed Cuckoo.

But the stars of the show were the warblers, many of which had just migrated across the Gulf of Mexico to land tired and hungry on Dauphin Island.

"This past weekend's meeting of the Alabama Ornithological Society on Dauphin Island was wonderful," said Larry Gardella, an avid birder and a Montgomery attorney. "Great birds were all over the island."

Gardella said that he and his wife Andrea "each saw 20 species of warbler -- 21 in all as I missed the Black-throated Green and she the Blackburnians."

The official meeting for the state ornithological group started with an early morning walk on Friday, and ended when many of the birders gathered at noon Sunday for a "compilation" of all the species spotted.

When the count was done, the AOS members had seen 194 different species of birds.

Andrew Haffenden, an AOS member who regularly leads birding field trips here and abroad and who is an ardent champion of birding on Dauphin Island, pointed out to me that Alabama has 450 recognized bird species in the state, almost half of all the 914 recognized species in the nation.

"It works out that over 20 percent of all the birds ever recorded in the U.S. were seen in a 60-hour period in just two counties in Alabama, and the majority of those were seen on an island effectively for birders about seven miles long and half a mile wide," Haffenden said.

That's pretty impressive for anyone. For a relatively new birder like me, it was a treasure trove. I added several new species to my life list and got photos of many of them. In addition to the Least Bittern, Bachman's Sparrow and Black-Billed Cuckoo mentioned above, I saw and photographed several beautiful Painted Buntings, an uncommon bird for Alabama. They were mixed in with Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks galore -- colorful and beautiful birds in their own right but which pale by comparison with the Painted Bunting.

Other colorful birds were abundant. It seemed like Red-Breasted Grosbeaks, Orchard Orioles, Summer Tanagers and Scarlett Tanagers were everywhere, and I even saw -- but wasn't quick enough to photograph -- a Baltimore Oriole.

I did not see anything close to the 21 warbler species spotted by Larry and Andrea Gardella, who are much better birders than I am. But I did see several Black and White Warblers, a couple of Tennessee Warblers, several Hooded Warblers, multiple Palm Warblers, a Cape May Warbler, and lots of Prothonotary Warblers. I was even luck enough to see a Magnificent Frigatebird over the Dauphin Island airport. Usually seen only over open water, the frigatebird may have been soaring over the island because of the strong easterly winds.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds were everywhere. I think I saw about 10 on one Bottle Brush Tree, and there were lots of Bottle Brush Trees, which the warblers, hummingbirds and orioles all seemed to love.

One of my favorite birds was the Least Bittern, North America's smallest bird in the heron-egret-bittern family. It is only about a foot tall. Compare that to its relative, the Great Blue Heron, which can be four feet tall. The Least is an uncommon and highly secretive bird that is usually very difficult to photograph -- though this one, at the Audubon refuge on Dauphin Island, was unusually cooperative.

But the birding for AOS members wasn't just about Dauphin Island. A Friday morning field excursion took members to the Splinter Hill Bog Preserve in northern Baldwin County. This is a magical place -- home to long-leaf pines and five species of insect-eating pitcher plants.

The Splinter Hill Bog Preserve would be well worth visiting if there were no birds at all, but there were birds -- one in particular. Almost from the moment AOS members stepped from their cars, they heard the call of a Bachman's Sparrow, an uncommon and secretive bird that can be difficult to spot even when you know it is there. The Bachman's Sparrow managed to elude the birders throughout most of their walk, but on returning to the parking area Larry Gardella followed the call, and I was smart enough to follow Larry. And there it was -- uncommonly perching on a limb and calling instead of nestling in cover as usual.

The return trip included stops at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center, where birders saw soaring Swallow-Tailed Hawks and a Bald Eagle, and Meaher State Park on Mobile Bay. On Meaher's elevated walkway over a section of the bay, members got a close-up look at a Common Gallinule and Mottled Ducks -- but also two alligators, including one full-sized adult and a juvenile about two-feet long.

After lunch at Felix's Restaurant on the causeway -- with binoculars in common use while waiting on the meals -- birders returned to Dauphin Island.

On Friday evening, speaker Kimball Garrett addressed some of his favorite misidentifications of birds. On Saturday evening, Garrett spoke on how non-native bird species become introduced in North America and how those species that are becoming established are impacting the ecology and native birds. Garrett is the Ornithology Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and is a co-author of the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers of North America. In addition to his lectures, Garrett also accompanied field trips on Friday and Saturday, readily sharing his knowledge with other birders.

On Saturday morning, Andrew Haffenden led birders along the beach to see shorebirds while Garrett led other AOS members around hotspots on the island to see warblers and other migratory birds.

Those two field trips were followed by a gathering of AOS members at the Dauphin Island home of John and Jenny Stowers of Montgomery, who treated the group to the finest homemade seafood gumbo I have had in years.

An anecdote provides another example of how gracious birders can be. I was with several birders at Cadillac Park on Dauphin Island following a rumor that an elusive Painted Bunting could be seen there. We were at the back of the park checking out the yard of a home that backs up to the park when the owner stepped out onto her deck and called out to one of our group that she knew, inviting all of us into her house, opening the windows on both sides of the house so we could look out over her yard, and inviting us to stay until the Painted Buntings showed up.

It turns out that homeowners Dena and Don McKee are members of AOS, and during spring and fall migrations Don regularly spreads food throughout his yard to attract birds so that birders in the park can see them.

In a Facebook post, Larry Gardella summed the two and a half days up quite well -- great birds, good food and "socializing with friends who also love birds."

(To see additional photos from the AOS spring meeting or to find out more about the organization, go to:


-- The Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshop is coming up May 5-8 in Mentone. The three-day workshop is designed to give attendees a broad overview of the natural sciences and regional culture through classes on such topics as animal ecology, beginning and advanced bird identification, stream biology, mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians, geology and fossils and mountain crafts.

This year Birmingham Audubon is offering a one-day option that will allow attendees a chance to sample the workshops wide variety of subjects.

For information on whether spaces are still available, go to:

--  Baby Bird Season, Sunday, April 24, 2 p.m. Part of the Audubon Teachers Nature series at the Alabama Wildlife Center at Oak Mountain State Park. This one should be great for kids and adults alike. No charge for the program, but the usual state park fees apply. Come early, bird the park and tour the Alabama Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates and releases back into the wild injured native Alabama birds.

Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper writer and editor who now writes regularly for Feedback appreciated at

Copyright 2016 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.