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Field trips great way to learn about birds

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(Source: Ken Hare) (Source: Ken Hare)
(Source: Ken Hare) (Source: Ken Hare)
(Source: Ken Hare) (Source: Ken Hare)
WSFA -

One of the attractions of birding as a hobby is that you can do it alone. Nothing beats the solitude and peace of a morning walk along a park path or sitting quietly on a bench on the edge of a lake waiting for the shorebirds or ducks to come to you. If you see birds, that's wonderful; if you don't, it's nice anyway.

But as great as that is, birders -- especially beginning birders -- also should seek out opportunities to go on field trips with experienced birders.  Field trips are great ways to build your knowledge of birds and bird identification, and often to get access to birding sites that you could not visit on your own.

An example occurred this past weekend when Birmingham Audubon led a field trip to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Wheeler, a stop on the Alabama Birding Trail System, is a great birding site year round. But in winter it becomes a magical place, with visits from thousands of Sandhill Cranes, some rare and threatened Whooping Cranes, beautiful Snow Geese and White Pelicans, and thousands of ducks representing several species.

The trip was led by Greg Harber of Birmingham Audubon and Dwight Cooley, who recently retired as director of Wheeler NWR. Greg is an outstanding birder, always willing to help identify birds in the field. Dwight is also a knowledgeable birder, and no one knows Wheeler NWR better than him.

Wheeler, like all of Alabama, is suffering from the drought, and many ponds and backwaters that are usually great birding spots simply are too dry right now for good bird watching. But other areas remain outstanding.

For instance, at Arrowhead Landing on Limestone Bay our group stopped for lunch. While we munched, we could look to our left to see a raft of some 400 White Pelicans (see photos) floating in the bay. To our right was a raft of 300 or more Snow Geese (see photos), with both the white and dark morphs of this beautiful bird represented.

Straight ahead and far across the bay were four Whooping Cranes, along with a handful of Sandhill Cranes. These were too far away for photographs, but could be seen in the spotting scopes that many of the birders had. (Another benefit of birding with a group is that most birders with high-quality scopes are happy to let others look through them to see rare or uncommon birds. If you have a scope, you should bring it; but if you don't, you won't be left out.)

Other great birds seen on the trip included four American Avocets, an uncommon shorebird for Alabama; two Merlins; and a flight of Greater White-Fronted Geese (see photo).

While Birmingham Audubon (birminghamaudubon.org) has a wide range of field trips at locations throughout the state, other groups do so as well. For instance, the North Alabama Birdwatchers Society (www.northalbirding.com) does field trips to Wheeler and other spots throughout the northern tier of counties. The Alabama Ornithological Society (www.aosbirds.org) has several field trips associated with its spring and fall meetings on Dauphin Island and winter meetings around the state. Regional support groups for Alabama Birding Trails System  are starting to schedule field trips as well; check in at alabamabirdingtrails.com from time to time for information.

Most birding groups welcome non-members on field trips, but I suggest joining one or more. I belong to BA, NABS and AOS, and enjoy my association with each of them. Dues range from inexpensive to, in the case of NABS, nonexistent.

NATURE NOTES:

BIRMINGHAM AUDUBON PROGRAMS

The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips this fall, including its  81st Annual Birmingham Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count on Friday, Dec. 23. 

Also, reservations can now be made for the organization's annual banquet featuring bird song specialist Daniel Kroodsma, author of "Listening to America Sing." Cost is $42; reservations required. The banquet will be the evening of Dec. 1.

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 attend all I can work into my schedule.

The next scheduled program will be Birds of Prey: Masters of the Skies on Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Alabama Wildlife Center. There are showings at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.

For details, go to: birminghamaudubon.org

NORTH ALABAMA BIRDWATCHERS SOCIETY

NABS is one of the most free-wheeling birding groups around, with meetings aimed primarily at getting out into the field. On Dec. 3, the group will take a field trip to the White Springs Dike and Beaverdam Peninsula sections of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Non-members are welcomed. For details, go to:  www.northalbirding.com

ALABAMA WILDLIFE CENTER

The Alabama Wildlife Center in Oak Mountain State Park does yeoman's work in rehabilitating injured and abandoned native Alabama birds. To help this great work, consider attending the center's annual Holiday Crafts and Bake Sale on Saturday, Dec. 3, in Veterans Park on Valleydale Road in Hoover.

In addition to crafts, artwork and food (for instance, frozen casseroles to feed the family during the busy holiday season), there will be photos with Santa and chances to see glove-trained hawks and owls native to Alabama. It should be fun and a chance to help a worthy organization.

Details at: www.awrc.org

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Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at khare@wsfa.com.

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