If an Alabama nature lover wants to be sure of seeing a black bear, it's best to drive north to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I've never been there without seeing several.
If you're lucky, there is always a chance of seeing one in Alabama, too. The odds -- while not great -- have been getting better.
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's photos]
There have been at least 20 sightings involving six to eight bears reported on the Alabama Black Bear Alliance website this year. Several high profile ones have made the news, including sightings in Oxford and Opelika. Black bears in Alabama are concentrated in remote areas of Southwest Alabama and mountainous areas of Northeast Alabama, but young males exploring for their own territory occasionally can be spotted in other areas as well.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources urges Alabamians who see a black bear to, first, not panic. Black bears are normally shy animals that avoid interaction with humans. But if provoked or backed into a corner, they can be dangerous.
So some words of caution: Do not approach them. Always leave them a clear means of escape. If they approach you, do not run but back away slowly. Never -- I repeat, never -- feed a bear. And never, never, never approach a bear with cubs -- the mother will be very protective. Don't even approach what appears to be a lone cub, no matter how cuddly they look. There is a very good chance mama is somewhere nearby and will defend her cub vigorously. Never shoot at them unless you are being attacked; it's against the law and can carry a hefty fine even if you do not hit them, and possible jail time if you do.
But by following a few simple rules, black bears and humans can co-exist quite comfortably.
In my younger days I backpacked and hiked all over Smoky Mountain National Park, and do not recall a trip where I did not encounter at least one, and usually several, black bears. (I've seen grizzlies in Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Denali in Alaska, but when it comes to danger they are big jump up the scale from black bears.) But by following the rules set out by park rangers, I never had an incident with bears.
But when a black bear is sniffing at your tent in the middle of the night, with only a thin fabric separating you from those claws and teeth, I admit to being more than a little apprehensive. But though bears in my backpacking days routinely explored hiking camps in the middle of the night looking for food, following the rules prevented any harm to me, my fellow campers or the bears.
(Report black bear sightings to: www.alabamablackbearalliance.org)
Some news for amateur nature photographers: The Alabama Ornithological Society has created its first-ever photo contest.
While it is for members of AOS, it only costs $25 to join and that entitles entrants to attend AOS summer and spring meetings on Dauphin Island and winter meetings elsewhere around the state. Each of those meetings includes birding field trips and knowledgeable speakers, and the fall and spring meetings are timed to coincide with spring migration on Dauphin Island, one of the best places in the nation to see migrating birds.
Membership entitles entrants to a copy of the group's newsletter, The Yellowhammer, as well as other occasional publications on birding. Best of all, it allows those interested in birding to interact with some of the best informed birders in Alabama and to be part of an organization that promotes birding and nature protection. I have learned a lot from my membership in AOS.
A special note for young people interested in entering the youth category of the photo contest: Youth membership in AOS is only $10 per year and entitles the member access to everything listed above. Like adults, youth have to be members to enter the contest, but the children or grandchildren of current AOS members who hold a family membership, a sustaining membership or a lifetime family membership would be covered.
AOS member Larry Gardella, a Montgomery attorney who is an avid and knowledgeable birder, found a rarity for Alabama recently. (See photo.) Here is part of his Facebook post:
"Alabama Ornithological Society members keep up with both the common birds in Alabama and rarities. Two weeks ago, John Trent found two calling Inca Doves in Marengo County. The species was first recorded in Alabama fairly recently. It has become regular in Baldwin County, but John's find was the first north of the coast. It turns out that the site is within 10 miles or so of a Forever Wild site in Hale County with the southernmost nesting Tree Swallows and Willow Flycatchers east of the Mississippi.
"I decided to take the morning off work and look for the birds in Marengo and Hale County. One of the 2 Inca Doves was calling from a house at the corner of Cedarcrest Lane and Marengo CR 51 near Faunsdale. The other was approximately 0.1 miles north by a gravel road to a barn. Residents at either side of CR 51 by the gravel road were most friendly. I got photos of one of the doves in a tree at the house on the west side of the road there."
Nice finds, John and Larry.
The Birmingham Audubon Society routinely holds birding field trips throughout the state, and two are on tap for West Central Alabama in the next few weeks. The first will be July 30, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., in the Prattville-Autaugaville area, and Aug. 6 in the Greensboro area.
The trips will be in search of Swallow-Tailed and Mississippi Kites (see photo) and Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers (see photo), as well as other birds in the area.
Greg Harbor, trip leader for both days, pointed out to me that Birmingham Audubon field trips are open to non-members as well as members. While the trip participants will meet at 7 a.m. in Hoover to caravan to the areas, it is possible for people who live closer to the areas to join the caravans in progress.
For information, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org/event/field-trip-autaugaville-and-prattville
A personal note: While it is not necessary to belong to Birmingham Audubon to participate in many of the group's activities, I highly recommend you consider it, especially if you live near Birmingham. I live in Montgomery and find my membership more than worthwhile.
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
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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