MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When more than 70 of Alabama's best birders gathered on Dauphin Island for their fall meeting last week, the odds that a rare bird would go unnoticed dropped precipitously. Still, the sightings of three very different rare or unusual birds for the area had birders scurrying to see them all.
When the Alabama Ornithological Society met on the island last week, members fanned out either individually or on organized field trips across the island, around the Mobile-Tensaw Delta or along the Fort Morgan peninsula in search of birds.
By the time the two-and-a-half day weekend was complete, the AOS members had recorded sightings of 162 species of birds.
Among them was a Red Phalarope, an uncommon bird that summers and breeds in northernmost Canada and along the northern coast of Alaska. In other seasons, it is usually only seen at sea. But AOS members documented and photographed one bird feeding up and down the shore of Dauphin Island. (See photos.) The bird was first seen by Chuck Estes, an AOS member who lives in Tennessee, who promptly alerted other birders by cell phone.
Meanwhile, Janice Neitzel, an excellent birder and photographer who lives near Fort Morgan across Mobile Bay, had spotted what appeared to be a Tropical-Couch's Kingbird on the Fort Morgan peninsula. (A Tropical Kingbird and a Couch's Kingbird, both rare birds for the area, usually can only be distinguished in the field by capturing them or hearing their vocalizations.) She also alerted other birders in the area.
That created a quandary for AOS speaker Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana, and field trip leader Andrew Haffenden. The two had just completed leading a field trip at Meaher State on the Mobile Bay Causeway when they heard of both sightings. So they rushed to the Fort Morgan area where they had just a few minutes to look unsuccessfully for the kingbird, then caught the ferry from Fort Morgan to Dauphin Island, where they did manage to see the Red Phalarope.
"One of the great things about being members of, and attending meetings of, birding organizations such as AOS is feet and eyes on the ground," said Haffenden, who makes his home on Dauphin Island but leads birding field trips around the globe. "You get many to most of the most skilled birders in the state together in a small area, great birds will be found, as happens consistently at AOS meetings around the state."
Sometimes the news of sightings is spread by cell phone, and sometimes just by birders bumping into one another. For instance, on Saturday I was at one location on the island when another birder asked if I had seen the " Great White-Blue Heron" at another location. So I rushed to the Fort Gaines area, where an AOS group was watching a large white bird that was either a Great Blue Heron with leucistic white plumage or a Great White Heron, a subspecies of Great Blue Heron usually seen in South Florida. (See photos.) Great debate developed among the birders over which was the case, but as Erik Johnson said, either way it was a excellent bird to see.
While birding "apps" are helpful in identifying birds in the field and cell phones and social media outlets are useful in notifying others of their locations, it is really about knowledgeable birders sharing their skills.
"Fieldcraft isn't electronic, it's learned from time in the field," said Haffenden. "Mingling with and spending time with expert field birders is what organizations such as AOS are all about."
On Saturday evening, Johnson -- an expert in shorebird conservation -- urged AOS members to champion programs to protect declining shorebird populations, many of which are threatened by loss of habitat and predation.
Johnson said he had a "great weekend" on his first visit with AOS.
"The people are fantastic -- welcoming and hospitable," he said. "Dauphin Island has a lot of different habitats in a small area where you can see a lot of species without driving all over the place."
As always with AOS meetings, there was lots of good food, an excellent speaker, and wonderful conversation -- and perhaps best of all, for three days almost no one mentioned presidential politics.
Members of the Alabama Ornithological Society took time out from birding last week to remember three outstanding members of the birding community who passed away in recent months.
Harriet Wright was a charter member and former president of AOS and the Birmingham Audubon Society and a longtime editor of Birmingham Audubon's newsletter, "Flicker Flashes."
John F. Porter Jr. was president of AOS and the first president of the precursor group to the Dauphin Island Birding Sanctuaries (DIBS), which works to protect birding habitat on the island. He played a major role in the development of the Coastal Birding Trails System, and was editor of "A Birder's Guide to Alabama." When he wasn't working on birding projects, he served as executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education and was research director at the University of Alabama.
John Walter Stowers Jr. also was active in protecting birding habitat on Dauphin Island and worked extensively to facilitate AOS activities on the island. A bench was placed on the Shell Mounds birding site that was dedicated to Stowers at a ceremony Saturday.
(To see more photos of birds from the AOS meeting, go to the AOS Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/aosbirds)
(For information on Andrew Haffenden's nature excursions, go to: naturetravelspecialists.com)
Horseshoe Bend Bird Walk
The National Park Service and the Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail System are sponsoring a bird and nature walk at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park from 8-10 a.m. Oct. 29. For details, go to: alabamabirdingtrails.com/event/fall-migration-bird-walk-horseshoe-bend-national-military-park/
Birmingham Audubon Programs
The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips this fall, including a Nov. 5 field trip from 7 a.m. until noon at Red Mountain Park led by Susan Barrow and Matt Hunter.
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 1 p.m. at the Lakepoint State Park Lodge, followed by a guided birding field trip to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.
For details, go to: http://www.alapark.com/Wiregrass-Birding-trail-event