MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Alabama Birding Trails System is a collection of eight birding trails with 270 different birding sites stretching across Alabama, and my goal is to one day bird them all. But I've got a long way to go, both in the number of sites I still want to visit and in the miles I have to travel to see them.
So far, I've visited 108 of the 270 sites. Not bad, since I only started serious birding 14 months ago. (To see more information, including how to get to all 270 sites, go to: http://alabamabirdingtrails.com)
To be candid, I'm counting a dozen or so sites that I visited in my pre-birding days and have yet to return to in order to bird them. But those are in my plans.
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's photos]
In earlier columns, I have written about some of my favorite sites -- those at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in North Alabama or on Dauphin Island on the coast, for instance, as well as the Alabama A&M research farm north of Huntsville. I have also written about easily accessible sites in the Montgomery area. (To see earlier Natural Alabama columns, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/category/245234/ken-hares-natural-alabama)
In this column, let me touch on four sites I have visited in recent weeks, including one that is likely to make my Top 10 birding sites list in future columns. The four sites stretch from North Alabama to the Florida line.
Conecuh National Forest
I love this birding "site" -- even though calling it one site is misleading. The national forest covers about 83,000 acres from a point a few miles south of Andalusia to the Florida line. In that forest are literally dozens of good spots to look for different species of birds.
Conecuh NF has a wide variety of habitats -- dense mixed-tree woodlands, swampy areas, small ponds left in their natural state, and larger lakes with well-trimmed edges.
But the highlight of the Conecuh habitats is its large tracts of mature, well-managed Longleaf Pine forests. Longleaf Pines dominated the Alabama landscape 200 years ago, but exploitation dramatically reduced the number of longleaf forests -- especially mature forests. By the way, the Longleaf Pine is Alabama's official state tree.
Where you have mature Longleaf Pine forests you have the possibility of finding Alabama's rarest woodpecker -- the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker once flourished in the South, but the loss of Longleaf Pine habitats reduced its numbers dramatically.
My trek to Conecuh NF in early July was a little late to catch the birds nesting, which is the best time to see them while they are near their nests feeding their young. I only caught distant glimpses of a couple of different birds that I believe were Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, but nothing close enough for a photo. However, I did take shots of artificial nesting habitats cut into the sides of Longleaf Pines (see photo) that have helped to improve the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker's status from endangered to "near threatened."
But the trip was far from being a disappointment. I saw Pileated, Red-Bellied and Red-Headed Woodpeckers in several areas of the national forest. At a couple of small lakes adjacent to the more popular Open Pond recreation area, I saw Eastern Kingbirds (see photo), a pair of Belted Kingfishers chasing one another, and a piebald young Little Blue Heron with its feathers in mid-change from the white plumage of first-year birds to the purple and blue of adult birds (see photo). Lots of other birds were seen as well -- vireos, Green and Great Blue herons, towhees, Eastern Bluebirds galore, and many more.
Return trips to Conecuh National Forest are definitely in my plans -- especially to get a good photo of the elusive Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, but also to check out several other small lakes I have yet to visit. The area holds promise to become one of my favorites.
Paul M. Grist State Park
Grist State Park was one of the victims of a Legislature-created funding crisis for state parks last year and was briefly closed, but a visionary cooperative agreement between leaders of the park system and Dallas County have resulted in it being reopened.
This 1,000-plus acre park about 15 miles north of Selma is focused on an attractive 100-acre lake and campground. I did not have time during my visit to go very far down the several miles of hiking trails in the park, but I did see enough to know they hold promise for a variety of woodland birds. On the lake I saw Wood Ducks (see photo) and a large flotilla of Canada Geese (see photo), and along the shoreline were Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets.
This is an attractive park, not just for birding but for fishermen, hikers, campers and picnickers. Its closing would have been a big loss to the area, and the Legislature's siphoning away funding was shortsighted. Nature lovers should applaud Dallas County and state park officials for working out a way to keep it open.
Sherling Lake Park
This is another small, attractive park with nice walking trails and the potential for good birding, though it clearly is aimed more at fishermen and campers. Built around small lakes, the surrounding rolling hills are dominated by large open pines with mixed woods in the lower areas.
Birders heading up or down Interstate 65 who need a quick birding fix should consider stretching their legs while they check out the park. It's only about five minutes west of the interstate (mile marker 130) and Greenville.
During a brief visit I saw at least three and possibly five Red-Headed Woodpeckers (see photo), as well as Blue Grosbeaks and Eastern Towhees. (A couple of the woodpeckers may have been the same birds I saw earlier.)
If you visit Sherling Lake Park, consider a brief side trip to the Cambrian Ridge golf course, part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The well-marked road to the golf course is just before the turn to the lake park. Even for non-golfers, the view to your left as you approach the clubhouse is breathtaking and well worth a 10-minute detour.
Mallard Fox Creek
The Mallard Fox Creek Wildlife Management Area is almost 1,500 acres of a variety of habitats, including agricultural fields where I saw Eastern Meadowlarks, doves and Bluebirds, hardwood forests with finches and grosbeaks, and backwaters with Wood Ducks and herons.
The management area is about nine miles west of Decatur on the southern shore of Wheeler Lake.
I suspect that this would be a great area for waterfowl from late fall through early spring, but the highlight for me on my recent visit were the songbirds.
The trees seemed alive because they were so filled with titmice, Blue Grosbeaks, house finches and beautiful Goldfinches (see photo.)
This is a definite regular stop for me when I'm in the area.
-- The schedule is complete for the 13th annual Alabama Coastal BirdFest to be held Oct 5-8. The BirdFest has guided trips, speakers, dinners and free activities on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Trips and evening events require advance registration, which opens in mid-August. For details, see: www.AlabamaCoastalBirdFest.com
-- The Alabama Wildlife Center will hold its fifth annual casino-themed night, Chirps and Chips, where guests can "Bet on the Birds," on Aug. 19 from 7-10 p.m. at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The evening includes games, live entertainment, a silent auction and a drawing, plus complimentary hors d'oeuvres, wine, and beer. Tickets are $50 and proceeds will support the work of the center. The event is sponsored by Raptor Force, a group of young professionals that support the center, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned native Alabama birds and returns them to the wild. Information at: www.awrc.org