MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - I love road trips. Like so many of my generation, jumping in the car and driving here, there and yon is an adventure in itself, so leaving Montgomery to drive from sunup until well after sundown to visit a half-dozen birding sites near Gulf Shores and Mobile Bay is no big deal.
But when I described such a trip in last week's column, I received responses from Montgomery-area readers in which they said they enjoyed the story and the photos but asked where they could bird a little closer to home with less driving. So I'll describe a few of my favorite Montgomery-area birding sites below. (I'll probably address other areas of the state in future columns.)
Don't worry, Alabama is a great birding state, and no matter where Alabamians live they can find good birding close to home.
I'm going to concentrate on a few sites that I enjoy. But there are many others, and a little research can help you ensure that your birding trip won't be wasted.
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's bird-watching photos]
As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of the Alabama Birding Trails System, which includes 270 birding sites around the state. The system's website (alabamabirdingtrails.com) has directions to all of them, as well as which bird species could be expected to be found at each one. A hint: Pay close attention to the website's discussions of what birds can be seen in what seasons. One birding site, for instance, can be wonderful in winter when waterfowl abound, but horrible in the summer. Other sites are great during fall and winter migration, but so-so at other times. Most sites are good year-round, but the birds that you can expect to see change from season to season.
Another great resource is the book, "A Birder's Guide to Alabama." It was published in 2001 by the University of Alabama Press, so some of the references are becoming a bit dated. But it remains a valuable reference book on birding sites in Alabama. Members of the Alabama Ornithological Society (www.aosbirds.org) wrote sections of the book on areas with which they were familiar, so the content rings true. For instance, Montgomery attorney Larry Gardella, one of the more knowledgeable birders I know, wrote the section on the Montgomery area.
Now for a few sites I like in the Montgomery area:
-- The Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Blount Cultural Park: A cultural gem for Montgomery, with the Shakespeare Festival theater and the Carolyn Blount Museum of Fine Art, also is an accessible place for birding.
Serious birders will ignore most of the almost-tame domestic geese and hybrid ducks that make the park home, but mixed in with them can be some surprising finds. For instance, this past winter two Snow Geese -- both a light and a dark hybrid -- spent several weeks in and around the park, mixed in with a large group of Canada Geese. (See photo.) Sea gulls make the park lakes home in the winter, and while most are common species there is always a chance a less common breed will be mixed in. Bluebirds and Red-Winged Blackbirds abound, as do swallows around the bridge. A Belted Kingfisher is a regular there (see photo), and I was able to photograph a Green Heron along the lake banks last year. (See photo.) Last summer Mississippi Kites frequented the trees near the art museum, and I would not be surprised to see them back in a few weeks. (See photo.)
-- Oak Park: This older city park has been a good birding site for me, especially when I can roust myself early in the morning. I've seen at least three Red-Headed Woodpeckers in the park at one time, including a dark-headed juvenile. (See photo.) Other woodpeckers are common, including Red-Bellied Woodpeckers. I've heard but not seen a Great Horned Owl high in the trees, and a Red-Tailed Hawk is often in the trees near Interstate 85. (See photo.) The usual suspects are all present -- Cardinals, Blue Jays, Mockingbirds, Titmice, Eastern Phoebes, etc. -- and an occasional migrating warbler can be found in spring and fall.
-- Lagoon Park: The city recently has cleaned up the park (it had become quite trashy) and opened a nature trail near the lake. This is a great place to photograph Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons (see photos) and Pine Warblers, Bluebirds and various woodpeckers are common, as well as the occasional migrating warbler. I haven't really had a chance to bird the new trail, but a short walk on it right before it officially opened makes me think it holds lots of promise. Keep your eyes open for other wildlife as well; ace birder Lee McElvaine recently saw and photographed a beautiful bobcat along the new trail.
-- The Waters: This residential area in Pike Road, with beautiful lakes and protected natural areas, is a great place to bird. Egrets and herons are common. Look closely along the banks of the lakes for Yellowlegs, Wilson Snipes, Spotted Sandpipers, etc. In winter, myriad waterfowl can be found -- I've seen Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, Redheads, Lesser Scaup, Gadwalls and Northern Shovelers there, as well as coots, cormorants and grebes. A pair of breeding Bald Eagles can sometimes be seen flying high over the lake and or even diving for fish, and last winter I saw four juvenile Bald Eagles in the trees near the lake. Check out the tree line on the lake bank across from the swimming area for an Osprey; one was common there last summer and I would not be surprised to see it back this year. (See photo.) But please be careful to respect private property and not to block traffic.
-- Jackson Island Lake: This is a private island accessible by a causeway from the Alabama River Parkway entrance. For a modest fee, you can access the island to fish (or bird). The last time I was there I was greeted by former Montgomery Mayor and U.S. Congressman Bobby Bright and retired state Judge Lynn Bright, who have become involved in operating the family-owned fishing area. The island has been considerably smartened up, and is great place to bird (or fish or picnic). Woodpeckers -- especially Red-Heads -- are everywhere. Great Crested Flycatchers are common. (See photo.) Look to the left as you cross the causeway for the Osprey nest. And if you tire of birding, check out what remains of the set of the 2003 movie "Big Fish" filmed there.
-- Fort Toulouse National Historic Park: A modest fee gets you access to the park along the Coosa River. I've seen Barred Owls there, and heard but not seen Great Horned Owls calling back and forth to one another. Deer are common along the edges of the park. Look for Prothonotary Warblers, Yellow-Billed Cuckoos, Summer Tanagers, titmice, chickadees and woodpeckers in the trees, and occasionally Ospreys along the rivers. I've heard and caught glimpses of a crow-sized Pileated Woodpecker deep in the woods on the road to the boat landing. About a quarter of a mile before you reach the park entrance check out a marshy area to your right where I've seen Wood Ducks, Belted Kingfishers, Green Herons and lots of Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons.
These are just a few of the good birding sites in and around Montgomery. If you live in the area, you don't have to drive far to see some fabulous birds.