FAYETTE COUNTY, AL (WSFA) - No one has ever mistaken Fayette County as a Mecca for birding. In fact, relatively few birders ever have filed online eBird reports on the birds they have identified there. But a day trip there earlier this month by myself and three of the state's better birders -- note that I did not include myself in that description -- found that Fayette County is far from being a birding desert, even though the number of species officially identified there is one of the lowest in the state.
The Alabama Ornithological Society has joined with eBird in a joint project to target 16 counties in Alabama for special attention because fewer than 150 species of birds have been identified in each of them. That special attention will include field trips there to ID birds and, perhaps more importantly, find good birding sites. (To see past articles on the problem, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/story/34658891/ken-hares-natural-alabama-bird-species-under-reported-in-many-counties)
Our trip this month was the first of these field trips. Fayette County was chosen because it had a very low number of species identified there -- just 110 -- and a paltry 25 checklists of birds seen there had been filed on eBird. Compare that to Mobile County, with 367 species and more than 13,000 eBird lists filed. (Numbers are from February.)
So a team from AOS set out on a recent Saturday morning to try to find good birding sites and, if lucky, add a couple of bird species to the county's species list. The team was led by Greg Harber, who also serves as the field trip chairman for Birmingham Audubon. Helping guide us around the county were two residents -- Van Gravlee and his son Scott. Their knowledge of the county proved invaluable.
We started on some open farm land in Fayette, where we immediately struck pay dirt. Circling over the fields were three Mississippi Kites, beautiful birds that are so agile they feed regularly on insects they catch while flying. Each of the AOS members had seen Mississippi Kites numerous times in many locations around the state, but when we checked our records were surprised to find the species was not listed previously for Fayette County. (Soon thereafter we saw four Mississippi Kites, but it is very possible that three of them were ones we had already spotted.)
Thirty minutes later I pointed to a bird that flew from the brush to land atop a single stalk of vegetation on the edge of an open field. Before I could get my binoculars focused on it, Sue Moske of our group already had identified it as a Lark Sparrow. Greg Harber and Mary Frances Stayton quickly confirmed the ID. The Lark Sparrow is a distinctive bird with a red-brown head, a white curved line over its eye, a reddish-brown patch behind its eye, and black lines behind its eye and breaking up its otherwise white throat. It was a very nice find for Fayette County, because North Alabama is on the extreme southeastern edge of its summer breeding grounds. Again, it was a first for Fayette County.
But those two were far from the only birds we saw in the large field close to downtown Fayette. An hour and a half in the fields and checking out adjoining woodlands netted us 31 species of birds, including Wood Thrushes, Chats, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings and lots of American Crows.
After leaving this area highly pleased with our luck so far, we headed to a much different type of habitat -- a marsh near the Sipsey River. Our luck held. We parked on the side of a road just a few yards from the thick reeds edging the marsh. As one of our members shut her door a little too loudly, a King Rail flushed from 10 yards away and flew about 60 yards deeper into the marsh. While I pulled out by big camera lens and searched in vain hoping for a photo opportunity, the others managed to point out another 14 species of birds, including Wood Ducks, Tree and Barn swallows, and Orchard Orioles.
But we weren't through with the King Rail species. Before we left we were surprised to hear another King Rail in the same clump of reeds from where the earlier rail had flown.
The King Rail is about the size of a crow, with a long bill, a reddish chest and neck, a speckled back and stripes on its sides. It looks much like a Clapper Rail, but the Clapper favors saltwater marshes while King Rails are found in freshwater marshes.
From there we drove back to Fayette to the Guthrie Smith Park, a pleasant public park complete with large water slides and pools, lots of picnic tables and a small lake. We quickly found more than a dozen species of birds here, and while the others walked around the lake I took time out from birding to photograph a Green Heron and one of several Eastern Kingbirds we saw. (See photos.)
But a light rain soon had us thinking about lunch, and the Gravlees led us to a wonderful little Mexican place called Las Palmas. My burrito was excellent, but for me the star attraction was the Salsa Verde. It tasted as if it had just been made fresh for us and had just a touch of heat -- enough to make it interesting but not enough to overpower the outstanding flavor.
After lunch we had just one other quick stop before our birding essentially came to an end as the light rain turned into a monsoon. We checked out a couple of locations for future birding trips, but the rain made real birding virtually impossible.
It also forced us to forgo what promised to be a highlight of the trip -- a visit to Sam's Smokehouse for barbecue. In addition to birding, future field trips to under-reported counties on eBird will include stops at good barbecue restaurants or other local restaurants.
Still, even though it was cut short by the weather we considered the field trip a huge success. We identified four new species for the county. (The Lark Sparrow was a life bird for me.) We confirmed that three sites were in fact good Hot Spots, a designation on eBird identifying good birding sites, and found another one or two that we likely will suggest adding after we have had a chance to revisit Fayette County.
AOS and eBird soon will announce other tactics to improve bird reports from these counties -- a contest for anyone who files an eBird checklist from the counties, and a project to get birders to "adopt" a county and file regular reports from it.
AOS invites all birders of whatever level of experience in birding to join us for future Birds and BBQ Blitzes to under-reported counties. The trips will provide a chance to help improve the scientific research that uses eBird as a resource, and to get to know more about the state -- not to mention to learn more about good barbecue and other types of eateries. New trips will be announced soon, so stayed tuned.
The under-reported counties targeted by eBird and the Alabama Ornithological Society are: Bibb, Blount, Chilton, Choctaw, Coffee, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Fayette, Greene, Lamar, Marion, Pickens, Pike, Randolph, Walker and Washington.
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com. To see other columns, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/category/245234/ken-hares-natural-alabama