This is the time of the year when the thoughts of many Alabamians turn south toward the beach, and the Lorelei whisper of "beach trip" becomes difficult to ignore. But for many of us, baking in the blazing sun all day gets old pretty quick.
But for birders and other nature lovers, there is a lot more to Alabama's beach areas than just sun and sand.
I recently took a day trip to Baldwin County with friend David McVay of Montgomery to explore some of the better birding areas and nature walks near and on Alabama's beautiful beaches. But none of these were new to me. Over the past 30 years, while family members soaked up the sun at Gulf Shores, I've made a point of hiking at most of these sites as a way of enjoying nature in general.
But now that I'm into birding, I have been revisiting many of these sites with the specific purpose of seeing birds.
Before listing the places David and I visited, let me mention that all of them are on the Alabama Birding Trails list of birding sites. If you're interested in visiting them, I suggest you check out the Birding Trails website and Facebook pages for directions and details. The site lists 270 birding trail locations from throughout the state, and many of them are in Baldwin and Mobile counties. Some sites are better than others, but this is a great web page to go to plan birding trips or nature walks in general. The website is: alabamabirdingtrails.com
Also, let me note that I purposefully am not mentioning Dauphin Island in this column because I focused on Dauphin Island birding in a recent column. Dauphin Island, with several Birding Trails sites, remains my favorite birding area in Alabama during spring and fall migrations, and it is a fabulous birding area year round as well.
Now for our recent trip:
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's bird-watching photos]
-- Fort Morgan: In the spring and fall, Fort Morgan can rival Dauphin Island for migratory birds such as warblers. On this trip, we spotted Black-Bellied Plovers, a Green Heron, several species of terns and gulls, Bobolinks, Sanderlings on the beaches, scores of swallows and Red-Winged Blackbirds, and Brown Pelicans soaring along the Gulf and Mobile Bay. But for me the highlight was spotting three Northern Bobwhites (see photo) in the trees near the fortifications near the entrance to the park.
-- Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge: The refuge is best walked, and the trails can be wonderful spots to see various herons and egrets year round, and waterfowl in the winter. Warblers are common during migration, and ospreys are easily seen here. But even if you don't have time for a trail walk, I suggest you cruise the marshes on both sides of Mobile Street which runs alongside the refuge from the Fort Morgan Road to the beach. I've seen lots of Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets there, as well as Green Herons.
-- Gulf State Park: I did not intend to visit Gulf State Park on this trip, but David was yearning to get photos of ospreys. Even though we had seen several at our earlier stops, he had yet to get what he thought was a good shot. Since there are few better places to see ospreys and osprey nests than Gulf State Park, we swung by there as we left the Fort Morgan peninsula. We weren't disappointed; we spotted at least a half dozen. (See photo.)
(We took a break for lunch at Doc's in Orange Beach. A sign there proclaims it has the best fried shrimp in the "civilized world." I haven't been to the entire civilized world, so I can't swear to the verity of the sign, but since I make a habit of visiting Doc's for the shrimp I can't really argue with the sentiment.)
-- Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve: Located between Foley and Fairhope along the Fish River, Weeks Bay is a wonderful place for nature walks. It has an elevated boardwalk leading through marshes and the estuary to an observation platform overlooking the bay. But this time we took another boardwalk through the Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog to the Fish River. We saw several woodpeckers and Red-Winged Blackbirds, an Eastern Towhee, and a Mississippi Kite and Red-Tailed Hawk soaring above. The highlight was a male Red-Bellied Woodpecker stretched out along a horizontal limb with its wings extended down the sides of the limb, simply just basking in the sun. (See photo.)
-- Meaher State Park: A new favorite of mine. The elevated boardwalk out over a portion of Mobile Bay is a great place to get a close-up look at birds and other wildlife. On a visit there in April with an Alabama Ornithological Society group led by ace birder Andrew Haffenden, we saw two alligators -- one full-sized adult, probably about six-feet long, and a juvenile about 12-14 inches long. (See photo.) This time we saw rabbits -- at least six on the 50-yard walk from the parking lot to the boardwalk. A Great Blue Heron and a Boat-Tailed Grackle posed for us on the boardwalk (see photos), and we saw Common Gallinules and Coots in the water and Least and Royal Terns flying overhead.
-- Battleship Park: A walkway to the right as you enter the park is usually a good spot, but we were pressed for time so we went directly to the northeast section of the park close to the causeway. There we saw a group of about a dozen Black-Bellied Plovers (see photo) and several "peeps" -- I could not get close enough for a sure ID. In past visits here I've seen White Ibis and a wide selection of other shorebirds in the corner of the park north of the USS Alabama.
All in all, a wonderful day.
-- 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. For information: birminghamaudubon.org
-- 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. For information: www.alabamawildlife.org/natureplex/
-- Limestone Park Bioblitz, Saturday, May 28, 8 a.m.- 2 p.m. at the Birmingham Audubon Society's Urban Bird Habitat site, Limestone Park, in Alabaster. Area scientists and naturalists and volunteers will sample and catalogue the biodiversity of the park. Experts will document trees, fish, reptiles, birds, wildflowers, amphibians, and invertebrates. No expertise is needed for volunteers, and helping the experts should be a great opportunity to learn. RSVP to Birmingham Audubon Program Director Andy Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org if you plan to participate. Bring a hat, sunscreen and bug spray.
Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper writer and editor who writes regularly for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated by email at email@example.com. Also email items for Nature/Bird Notes two weeks in advance.
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