Scattered across Alabama are magical sites where wading birds gather by the dozens and sometimes by the hundreds to build nests, lay eggs and raise their young until they fledge. These rookeries serve as the neonatal units for some of nature's most beautiful birds.
Each spring many species of wading birds -- egrets and herons, for instance -- gather in communal nurseries to raise their young. Called "rookeries" (or sometimes colonies or, if only herons nest there, heronries), these sites are crucial to the very existence of these species. A rookery is so named because rooks -- a Eurasian relative of the Crow -- nest in such a communal manner.
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's bird-watching photos]
While rookeries differ greatly in size and even species of birds, they usually have some attributes in common. For instance, they offer some protection from predators. Many are located on islands in lakes or streams, or in trees that are over water.
In South Alabama and similar habitats throughout the South, it is not uncommon for alligators to patrol the waters under these trees. While the alligators certainly would prey on any nestlings or fledglings that fell into the water, I have read that in the main they provide an advantage to the nesting birds by discouraging other predators, such as raccoons, which raid nests for eggs and nestlings.
In addition to protection for nests, rookeries also have to be near good foraging sites for parent birds, that not only have to feed themselves but continually respond to the insatiable appetites of nestlings.
I have attached more than a dozen photos of nesting birds and their young taken from the edges of a large rookery near the Pea River. About 10 trees, each containing six to eight nests, can be seen from the edges of the rookery. But a friend with the state wildlife agency has flown over the site and says it is far larger than what it readily appears to be.
But I caution anyone who visits the site to view it from a distance and not try to venture into this rookery (or any other, for that matter). First and foremost, it would disturb the birds -- perhaps forcing some adults to abandon nests and sometimes causing excited nestlings to fall out of the nests. Second, disturbing nesting sites is illegal and can bring hefty fines. Third, it is trespassing. And finally, remember those alligators -- I have seen at least three patrolling these waters, and probably there are more I haven't seen.
In following this particular rookery for the past two springs, I have seen Anhingas, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons nesting there, but by far the most common nesting birds are Cattle Egrets. (See photos.) In addition, I've seen many other birds that may or may not be nesting in the area -- White Ibis perching nearby (see photo), Wood Storks and Great Blue Herons flying overhead, Common Gallinules along the shoreline, Wood Ducks, and others.
But the Pea River rookery is far from the only rookery in Alabama.
Carrie Threadgill, a nongame wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, has helped to identify at least 50 wading bird rookeries around Alabama, and knows there are many more.
Threadgill is the point person with the DCNR for an annual survey of wading bird rookeries in Alabama. Starting last year, the agency is trying to locate and monitor rookeries to assess population trends of wading bird species in the state. DCNR is doing this through aerial and ground surveys and solicited sightings from DCNR personnel.
But reports from bird watchers and others are also crucial, so please report any wading bird rookeries to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Threadgill points out that rookeries are not just crucial to the species that nest in them, but also can be "an indicator of an overall healthy wetlands habitat."
She also emphasizes that no one should disturb the birds in a rookery.
Regular readers will notice that I often do not identify specific locations of birds that easily can be disturbed by large crowds -- Bald Eagle nests, for instance. These columns are read by thousands of people (WSFA tracks such data), and if just a small percentage of them gathered around a nesting site it easily could cause harm to the birds.
But I will make an exception for one well-known rookery because it is in such a public and protected location.
The James D. Martin Heronry Overlook in Gadsden (an Alabama Birding Trails site) can be seen from a mall parking lot without any risk of disturbing the colony. The rookery is protected because it is on a small island in a backwater of Neely Henry Lake visible from the Gadsden Mall from late March through early June. Binoculars or spotting scopes and cameras with zoom capabilities are recommended. For details, check out: http://alabamabirdingtrails.com/sites/james-d-martin-heronry/
Other rookeries also can be found by checking out the Alabama Birding Trails website.
Rookeries are special places, and I urge readers to be careful not to disturb active ones. But please do report their locations to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
-- The Alabama Wildlife Center on July 25-29 will host a Summer Day Camp for students about to enter grades 1-6. The Wildlife Center, located in Oak Mountain State Park, rehabilitates and returns to the wild injured and orphaned native Alabama wild birds. The day camp will introduce children to the work of the center, to birding and to nature in general. For information, go to: www.awrc.org
-- Birmingham Audubon will hold two summer field trips to west central Alabama in search of Swallow-Tailed and Mississippi Kites and Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers. The first will be July 30, 7-9 p.m., in the Prattville-Autaugaville area, and Aug. 6 to the Greensboro area. Check birminghamaudubon.com for details.
-- The Alabama Wildlife Federation's Alabama Nature Center will host raptor specialist Maryanne Hudson from the Southeastern Raptor Center for a Thursday Night Event on July 21 at 6 p.m. Hudson will be showing several eagles to attendees, as well as discussing the work of the raptor center. Cost is $5. The program starts at 6, but the center encourages people to come at 5:30 and bring a brown-bag dinner. Located at Lanark in Millbrook. Directions available at: www.alabamawildlife.org
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