MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - On a recent birding outing in Central Alabama, I should have stopped taking photos and switched to videos. Then I could have edited them into a movie and called it "The Day of the Raptor." I saw two Bald Eagles, five Red-Tailed Hawks, two Kestrels, an Osprey (saw it catch a fish), one Northern Harrier, one Red-Shouldered Hawk and my favorite -- a Merlin.
It is not uncommon for a birding field trip to define itself by a certain bird -- especially when it is a rarity -- or even a type of bird. But on any day at any time of the year in Alabama, nature lovers can find enough hawks, falcons, eagles and related species to make an outing interesting regardless of what other birds they see.
On this particular day in early January, I had not planned to go birding. But when the sun came out after several days of rain, I could not resist getting outside.
The hawk theme to the day started before I left home. While riding my exercise bike on our sun porch, I spotted two Red-Tailed Hawks sitting in nearby trees and managed to get a photograph of one of them. (See photos.)
I left my home in Montgomery about 10 a.m. primarily to check on a couple of eagle nests I'm monitoring. (See photos.) I did a swing south to Hope Hull and Pintlala, swiveled to the west to White Hall and then on to Henry Lock and Dam. By the time I got to the area of the dam, the sunlight had been replaced by heavy overcast and drizzle, so I called it quits after just a couple of hours.
I've written about the Bald Eagles resurgence in Alabama several times, so I won't spend much time on them. However, I will note that last spring in one birding day of driving focusing on Bald Eagles, I managed to see nine of them in Montgomery County.
(For prior columns, CLICK HERE)
In a field south of U.S. 80 in the White Hall area, I saw my first American Kestrel of the day. Kestrels are the smallest and most common of the falcon family in Alabama. I managed to photograph this one sitting on a large piece of irrigation equipment. (See photo.)
The Kestrel is one of my favorite birds, and if you drive the back roads of the state you've seen them even if you don't realize it. The birds commonly perch on wires alongside roadways, scanning open fields for the large insects and small rodents that are its primary prey. Because they are about the size and shape of the common Mourning Dove and often silhouetted against the bright sky, most people don't give them a second glance. But if they did, they would see one of the prettiest birds in Alabama. The males' slate-blue head and wings contrast beautifully with its rusty body, and the females' reddish brown body and wings make it lovely as well.
Colloquially called a "sparrow hawk," the Kestrel does not pose a threat to poultry and helps control rodents and harmful insects so farmers should welcome the birds.
Next up was an Osprey, gliding over a small lake looking for fish. (See photo.) The Osprey is common along Alabama's coast, but often can be seen farther inland where there is good fishing. In the Montgomery area, I've seen them at The Waters in Pike Road and at Jackson Lake. The Osprey averages about 23 inches long -- about midway between a Red-Tailed Hawk and a Bald Eagle. With its white head and dark wings, it is sometimes mistaken for a Bald Eagle. Its prey is primarily live fish, and I've heard it colloquially called a "fish eagle" or "fish hawk" in different parts of the country.
I also spotted a Northern Harrier gliding low over an open field. The Harrier is a winter bird in Alabama, and it hunts by gliding just six to 10 feet off the ground, eating its prey on the ground and usually perching on low fences or short, bare trees -- although I have seen them perch on phone lines a few times. I did not get a usable photo this time, but the Harrier can be identified by its owl-like face and its behavior.
Next up was my favorite of the day -- a Merlin. (See photo.) Only slightly longer but stockier than a Kestrel, and also a member of the falcon family, the Merlin is primarily a winter and migration bird in Alabama. I've seen and photographed them in Minnesota and Maine but in my two years of birding recall identifying them for certain only a half-dozen times in Alabama.
My final raptor of the day was a Red-Shouldered Hawk, a regular at Henry Lock and Dam and a bird that can be found year-round in Alabama. (See photo.)
There are many other types of hawks and falcons that can be seen in Alabama. Some of them, like the beautiful Swallow-Tailed Kite and Mississippi Kite, can be seen for just a few months of the year. Most of them can be fairly easily identified, although even experienced birders can energetically debate online for hours over whether a photo is a Cooper's Hawk or a Sharp-Shinned Hawk.
-- Eagle Awareness Weekends will continue each Friday through Sunday from now until Feb. 19 at Lake Guntersville State Park. The popular programs include speakers and field trips. For details on each weekend's events, go to: http://www.alapark.com/lake-guntersville-state-park-eagle-awareness-weekends
-- An update on the live Berry College, Ga., Eagle Cams. The Bald Eagles are still taking turns sitting on eggs. A few days ago I managed to spot two eggs while the eagles were switching out sitting duty. If you see both eagles on camera at the same time, you can probably tell which is the male and which the female. Hint: The male is smaller. See it at: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips on tap, including a field trip to James D. Martin Wildlife Park in Gadsden on Saturday, Feb. 4, from 7 a.m.–3 p.m. The Wildlife Park, behind the Gadsden Mall, is a stop on the Appalachian Highlands section of the Alabama Birding Trail.
The society's Audubon Teaches Nature programs are ongoing 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. The next scheduled program will be Geology and Paleontology in Alabama: a Treasure Underfoot. The speaker will be Dana Ehret. The program will be Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m. at the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Fins, Feathers and Flowers, a weekend waterfowl and wildlife program, will be Feb. 24-26 at Lakepoint Lodge at Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula. There will be field trips each day to the state park and to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, including pontoon boat trips on Lake Eufaula. Speakers will include Carrie Threadgill, nongame wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who will discuss colonial wading birds in Alabama, and the Alabama Wildlife Center will present its live raptor program.