Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Some birds seen in Alabama migrate thousands of miles each year

Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Some birds seen in Alabama migrate thousands of miles each year

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The attention of Alabama birders in the spring and fall is focused on migrating birds, many of which travel thousands of miles to follow food or to breeding grounds. But the birds normally seen in Alabama don't hold the record for frequent flier miles -- that belongs to the small Arctic Tern, which routinely flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic in its annual migration.

It wasn't until a few years ago that a tracking transmitter small enough to fit on a bird the size of an Arctic Tern was developed. Such transmitters have allowed the tracking of some birds, and, according to National Geographic, established the Arctic Tern as the current champion of migrators. The tern follows a zig-zag pattern -- probably to take advantage of prevailing winds -- between Greenland and Antarctica each year, traveling as much as 44,000 miles a year. According to the National Geographic, "the birds hopscotch from Antarctica to Africa to South America to the Arctic."

In total distance migrated each year, the Arctic Tern edges out the Sooty Shearwater by about 4,000 miles. But the Sooty Shearwater, which had been believed to be the farthest traveler, is still an impressive migrator, many of which fly from breeding grounds in southern New Zealand to summer feeding grounds as far north as Alaska.

Neither the Sooty Shearwater nor the Arctic Tern are likely to be seen by the casual birder in Alabama. (I have a Sooty Shearwater on my life list, but I saw it from a ferry miles off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada.) The Sooty has been reported in the state, usually offshore in the Gulf. There have been reports of the Arctic Tern in Alabama, but it is listed on the Alabama Ornithological Society "Field Checklist of Alabama Birds" only as a "hypothetical species" -- one that has sightings with acceptable documentation but without photographs or specimens or verification by several experienced observers.

But there are species commonly seen in Alabama that still rack up impressive migration mileage each year.

For instance, in early January I was accompanying veteran Montgomery birder Larry Gardella on the annual Christmas Bird Count that he leads in Montgomery County. We were lucky enough to spot a Tundra Swan at a farm pond near Hope Hull. The Tundra Swan spends its summers each year inside the Arctic Circle in northernmost Canada and Alaska.

However, many species of birds more commonly seen in Alabama also migrate impressive distances.

In my column last week, I focused on the migrating hotspot of Dauphin Island, one of the best spots in the nation for sighting spring and fall migrators.

Here are a few migration notes on some of the species seen there this spring (Background is from the Cornell University All About Birds website):

Painted Bunting: This colorful bird (see photo) was highly sought by birders on Dauphin Island. It regularly summers in east and central Texas and in Louisiana and Arkansas. It is mostly seen in Alabama during migration, but a few birds summer and breed here. It winters in southern Mexico, Cuba and Central America.

Prothonotary Warbler: Lots were seen on Dauphin Island this spring.  This beautiful yellow bird (see photo) summers throughout the Southeast U.S. and as far north as the Great Lakes and winters in Mexico, Central America and northern South America.

Summer Tanager: The only completely red bird in North America (see photo) was on display at Dauphin Island as well as around Alabama in recent days. The Summer Tanager spends its summers through the U.S. Southeast and winters in southern Mexico, Central America and through northern South America.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak: A beautifully colored bird, the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (see photo) is typically seen in Alabama during spring and fall migration -- although occasional summer birds can be found in North Alabama. Most of the species summer across the northern tier of U.S. states from Maine to North Dakota and into central Canada. They winter in southern Mexico, Central America and northwestern South America.

Least Bittern: This well-camouflaged and small bittern (see photo) is a partial migrator. It can be found year-round in southern Florida, along much of the northern coast of South America and the eastern coast of Brazil. Other Least Bitterns summer from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and winter in southern Mexico and Central America.

Common Gallinule: The most widely distributed of the rail family, the Common Gallinule (see photo) can be found year-round along the Alabama coast and other Gulf states, as well as throughout much of central South America. It summers as far north as the Great Lakes.

Indigo Bunting: This beautiful bird (see photo) can be found in the summer throughout the eastern half of the United States and in the U.S. Southwest. It winters in southern Mexico and Central America.

This is just a small sampling of the many birds that can be seen in Alabama during the spring migration. To find out more, sample some of the web sites I have mentioned in past columns that can be found at:

Nature Notes:

-- 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:

--  Exploring Wild Alabama, Sunday, May 22, 2 p.m. Part of the Audubon Teachers Nature series at the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center at Oak Mountain State Park. Larry Davenport and Ken Wills are the speakers. No charge for the program, but the usual state park fees apply. Come early, bird the park and tour the nearby Alabama Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates and releases back into the wild injured native Alabama birds.

-- Make Your Backyard a Birding Paradise, Thursday, May 26, 6 p.m., Lanark in Millbrook. Cost: $5. Ideas on how to make your backyard attractive to Alabama birds. This is part of the Alabama Nature Center's Thursday night nature programs. Other upcoming events include a snake walk, lessons on cooking game, and nature trivia. The center is a project of the Alabama Wildlife Federation. Attendees are invited to bring their own dinner at 5:30 p.m.

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

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