MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - I'm back from a vacation that was full of lighthouses, scenic views, waterfalls, orchards, wineries, craft beer breweries, pie -- lots of pie -- and, yes, a few birds. While I miss the 74 degree highs and cool evenings we had around the Great Lakes each day, it's good to be back because we in Alabama are about to enter an exciting time for birding here as migratory and wintering birds arrive. (And two weeks is a long time away from the grandgirls.)
I'll focus on upcoming Alabama birding activities later in this column, but first let me write just a bit about Julie's and my driving trip up the east coast of Lake Michigan, across the southern coast of Lake Superior, and up the section of the north coast of Superior between Duluth, Minn., and the Canadian border.
This was not a birding trip. Julie isn't a birder, but she shares my love for being out in nature and for National Parks. While we don't plan our trips around birding, she is real trouper when we come across birds or birding sites on our travels.
Some observations and highlights:
-- When it comes to scenic beauty, Upstate Michigan lives up to those "Pure Michigan" commercials. We actually started our sightseeing in Holland on Lake Michigan, a pretty little town with a strong Dutch heritage -- so strong that it has an operating Dutch windmill; you can buy flour milled there -- in a lovely little park full of flowers. (See photo.)
-- The drive up the Lake Michigan coast is full of scenic overlooks dotted with some beautiful lighthouses. (See photos.) Julie and I have a real affection for the romance and beauty of lighthouses. Maine is a regular vacation spot for us, and we've visited and photographed three dozen or more lighthouses there. To us, Maine remains the king of lighthouses but some of the Great Lakes lighthouses we saw could give them a run for their money.
-- National Lakeshores. The United States has four "national lakeshores" -- essentially national parks along a fresh water lake. We saw two of them on this trip -- Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan and Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior. (The others are Apostle Islands in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior and Indiana Dunes on the southern shore of Lake Michigan.)
Sleeping Bear Dunes is staggeringly beautiful. Over the centuries prevailing winds across Lake Michigan have built up huge dunes 300 to 400 feet high, and a 35-long strip of them are protected by the National Seashore. At one point, a 450-foot high dune has a walkway across the top of it, and the loose sand slopes steeply down to the shoreline. The fittest can trek up and down; down is easy, but it might take two hours to get back up. If you check the photos, look for a tiny speck in the middle of the dune. That's a hiker coming up. (See photos.) Luckily, there is a scenic drive with several overlooks.
Along the southern coast of Lake Superior, sandstone cliffs loom over the shoreline. Groundwater seeping through the porous sandstone carry minerals that have colored the cliffs with stripes of red, ocher, yellow and tan, giving rise to the name of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There is ample hiking and scenic views and even a beach or two available in the park, but the cliffs are best seen from the tour boats that carry passengers on a two-and-a-half hour cruise along the shoreline. In addition to the colors, there are several waterfalls and the waves have carved natural arches into the cliffs. (See photos.)
-- Mackinac Island: I'll admit to having my doubts before visiting Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw). It sounded a little too touristy for my taste. But once aboard the ferry to the island on a beautiful sunny day, I relaxed and enjoyed it immensely. It is touristy, but there are reasons all the tourists flock to the island.
Other than a handful of emergency vehicles, motorized vehicles aren't permitted there. You get around in horse-drawn carriages, by bicycle, or you walk. We took a two-horse carriage around town, then switched to a carriage drawn by three huge and handsome draft horses for a trip through the state park and by the fort that looms over the harbor, and then walked. There are beautiful views everywhere you look, and the absence of cars was refreshing. I prefer more natural areas, but admit that the island was a nice change of pace. (No pie, but we did get fudge at one of the 13 fudge shops on the island. Hey, I said it was touristy.)
-- The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is much less developed than the southern portion of the state, with beautiful forests, waterfalls and state parks seemingly every few miles. We found the people there wonderfully hospitable.
The U.P., as it is affectionately called, is separated by lower Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac. As you leave the Mackinac Bridge (five miles long, 8,600 feet suspended) you come to a toll booth. We pulled up and I held out the $4 toll, but the toll taker said, "No charge. The gentleman in front of you paid and said to tell you, 'Welcome to the U.P."
-- Duluth, Minn., is a port town at the southwestern tip of Lake Superior. Our hotel was on the shoreline in a restored part of town filled with shops, craft breweries and upscale restaurants. We woke there to beautiful sunrises over the lake, and enjoyed the walkway along the shore.
But the real draw was the North Shore Scenic Drive from Duluth to the Canadian border 140 miles away. There are state parks galore along the drive, and beautiful waterfalls and overlooks seemingly every few miles. A highlight was Split Rock Lighthouse on a cliff looming over the lake. While we did not bird very much on this drive, it clearly would be a great place to bird for those who had more time than we did. If you take the trip, check out "Betty's Pies," a restaurant with a full menu that specializes in pies. We ate there going and coming.
By the way, I did photograph some interesting birds on the trip -- Trumpeter Swans and Sharp-Tailed Grouse in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, for instance. (See photos.)
Now back to Alabama birding:
Alabama Coastal BirdFest, Oct. 5-8
There still may be openings for some of the 35 planned activities that are part of the Alabama Coastal BirdFest, and I recommend it to birders and nature lovers. Activities include workshops on birding and nature photography, birding walks, paddling trips, and scenic wildlife cruises around the Mobile Delta and Mobile Bay. The bird walks range from easy to challenging.
It also isn't just about birds -- there will be plenty of opportunities to see and learn about wildflowers and other wildlife.
To see a schedule of activities and registration information, go to: http://www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com/index.htm
Alabama Ornithological Society fall meeting, Oct. 14-16
The Alabama Ornithological Society holds its fall meeting each year on Dauphin Island, one of the best sites to see fall and spring migratory birds and shorebirds in the United States.
While the meeting is for AOS members, it only costs $25 per year to join. That entitles birders to attend AOS fall and spring meetings on Dauphin Island and a winter meeting elsewhere around the state. Registration and banquet fees for the meetings are modest as well.
Each of those meetings includes several birding field trips and knowledgeable speakers. Membership also entitles you 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.
The fall meeting speaker this year is Dr. Erik I. Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana. Johnson also will lead field trips during the weekend, as will Andrew Haffenden, a Dauphin Island resident who leads birding field trips around the world.
For information, go to: http://www.aosbirds.org/
Birmingham Audubon Programs
The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips this fall, including:
-- A Saturday, Oct. 1, field trip to Oak Mountain State Park led by outstanding birder Greg Harbor. See the Birmingham Audubon website below for details.
-- An Oct. 22 trip to Montgomery area birding sites led by Montgomery birder Larry Gardella, who has extensive knowledge of birding in the Montgomery area.
Audubon field trips are open to non-members.
In addition, the new schedule has been announced for the 2016-2017 Audubon Teaches Nature programs at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. You definitely should check out a few of the programs; I plan to attend all I can work into my schedule.
For details, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org/
Wiregrass Birding Trail Tour, Nov. 5
This new program at Lakepoint Resort State Park on Lake Eufaula promises to be an exciting addition to fall birding programs in Alabama. The program is a joint project of the Alabama State Parks system, the Alabama Birding Trails system, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.
The daylong program includes a guided birding field trip in the morning, a "Duckumentary" waterfowl educational program at 1p.m. at the Lakepoint State Park Lodge, followed by a guided birding field trip to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.