Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Birding road trips are also about freedom

Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Birding road trips are also about freedom

(WSFA) - I love road trips. There is something soul-satisfying about jumping into a car and heading out with only a general idea of where you're going and what you're going to do. It is, to me, a perfect example of freedom.

As a child, our family was into Sunday afternoon drives. (Do people still do that?) Sometimes they involved visiting relatives or family friends, but often they were just a drive with no particular destination in mind -- although it usually involved a stop somewhere for ice cream. Small wonder I grew to love road trips. Once I got my own car in high school, anytime I became bored I'd jump in the car and drive. I even cut school a few times as a senior and just spent the time exploring the back roads and countrysides of Upstate South Carolina.

Now Julie and I plan most of our vacations around road trips, and while we have destinations in mind and reservations where you have to have them (lodging in or near national parks, for instance), we always build in time for unexpected side trips. Some of the highlights of our trips are these unplanned excursions.

When I started birding three years ago, it fit in perfectly with this penchant. Usually at least once a week, I jump into the car and drive. In the past three years, I've birded in 55 of Alabama's counties, and hope to bird in the remaining dozen before the end of the year.

This past Sunday was a good day for it. Beautiful weather, and after spending some Mother's Day time with my wife and mother-in-law, in the afternoon I headed out. My ultimate "sorta" destination was Gantt Lake just north of Andalusia, but if I found something better along the way, no big deal. Limpkins -- a rare bird for Alabama -- had been spotted there, and I wanted to add them to my life list. But they had been around for several weeks, and probably would still be there to see later if I didn't make it that far.

So instead of heading almost due south from Montgomery toward Andalusia, I drove generally southeast. After a couple of stops at likely birding sites along the way, I found myself at a large lake in Geneva County that I had visited before but without much luck. Not so this time.

I quickly spotted two beautiful Purple Gallinules. (See photo gallery.) These wonderfully colored tropical birds summer in the Southeast and usually are found in the southernmost Alabama counties. They winter in Central and South America. They are often seen in marshes where their extremely long toes allow them to easily walk on lily pads, although they are excellent swimmers as well. They have yellow-tipped beaks that are bright red at the base, topped by a white forehead. They have a deep purple head, neck and underside, and in the right light their backs show green highlights.

But because they are marsh birds, photos can be a problem. With these I was constantly trying to get an angle without intervening brush, but never could. I finally resorted to just "focusing through" the brush, with parts of the birds blurred a bit by the vegetation. I also saw Anhingas, Red-Headed and Downy woodpeckers, a Yellow-Throated Warbler, lots of Red-Winged Blackbirds, and heard a couple of Northern Bobwhites. As I was driving away, I flushed a group of Bobolinks that migrate through Alabama in the late spring while going from winter grounds in central South America to breeding areas in the northern United States and Canada.

A short drive farther and I came to another marsh where I had seen gallinules before, and soon found a pair of Common Gallinules with four chicks very close to the roadside -- too close, in fact. They were almost completely obscured by brush. Photos were impossible; in fact, I thought there were only two chicks and one adult from just getting brief glimpses through the heavy vegetation.

So a left them alone, looking for other birds elsewhere in hopes they would emerge from the brush. It worked, sort of. They did leave the brush but went much deeper into the marsh, meaning the photos I now could get had to be long zooms and even those had to be through some vegetation. Still, I got a few usable pics. (See photos.)

Common Gallinules look much like their Purple Gallinule cousins, but are deep black where the others are purple. They also have the yellow-tipped beaks with a red base, but the red extends up the forehead where the Purple Gallinules are white. Their backs are brownish in good light. Their range extends throughout Alabama in the summer.

Eventually, my wandering got me to Gantt Lake. The lake has an extensive backwater and marshy area on its east end where Limpkins  had been seen and heard for a few weeks. But the lake is mostly surrounded by private property and homes, making access difficult. I first approached the marshy areas at the east end on the lake from the south, and fairly soon heard what I thought was a Limpkin. But it was distant. However, after comparing the call to a recording on my phone, I grew more confidant that I had my bird.

But I wanted a sighting, and a photo. So I drove around searching for other places to access views of the marshy areas of the lake, but to no avail.  
Then something happened that is not uncommon when I'm searching for a rare bird; I bumped into three other birders. I had not met them, but knew each of them from online birding posts. I had even exchanged emails with one of them about the Limpkins. (I won't use their names because I forgot to ask permission.) We joined forces, then headed to the north side of the lake hoping to either see the birds or at least hear their calls better.

But we could find no place to access the lake where there were not homes. So we resorted to asking homeowners if  we could use their lakeside to try to spot the birds. We were lucky enough to find a couple who graciously allowed us the use of their dock. (Since Alabama is a small world, I soon found we had a good friend in common.) We spent an hour on their dock until light almost completely faded, and were successful in spotting and hearing scores of interesting birds. We even clearly heard three Limpkins calling back and forth, but never saw them.

However, I had a great time sitting with three other birders beside a beautiful lake watching birds as the evening progressed. Since birders can count birds clearly identified by vocalizations, I was able to add Limpkins to my life list. But I plan to try again soon for photos.
After all, it's a great excuse for another road trip.

The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at:
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for Feedback appreciated at To see other columns, go to:

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