MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabamians interested in birding -- or just enjoying nature -- have a great resource in the Alabama Birding Trails System, a collection of 270 birding sites around the state that are accessible to the public. Some are well-known, such as Dauphin Island on the Gulf Coast and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in North Alabama. Others are tiny gems where birds are just waiting to be discovered.
I love to bird such places as Wheeler and Dauphin Island. As I have noted many times, it's hard to beat Wheeler in the winter when rare Whooping Cranes and thousands of waterfowl can be seen there. In spring and fall, Dauphin Island is one of the best places in the United States to see warblers and other migrating birds.
But recently I've been working with a group of outstanding birders on a joint project of the Alabama Ornithological Society and eBird to improve reporting of bird sightings on eBird from 16 Alabama counties that have few bird lists posted online. eBird is an online site where birders can file birding lists, thus building a valuable database for bird science. As ornithological research comes more and more to rely on eBird data, these rural counties where there are relatively few reports could become an issue.
As I have visited many of these counties in recent weeks, I have become a fan of another type of Birding Trail site -- the many public fishing lakes scattered around rural Alabama. As an example of these sites, I am going to focus on three I've visited recently.
Each of these three lakes is also a site on the Alabama Birding Trails System. But there are others that are not trail sites, but still offer relatively good birding, especially at the right time of the year. An example is the Coffee County Public Lake, which is comparable to these three both for birding, fishing, or picnicking.
Crenshaw County Public Lake: Each summer day, thousands of Alabamians driving to the Florida Panhandle beaches on U.S. 331 drive past this small fishing lake just south of Luverne without giving it a second thought. But for birders, it's a great place to take a break and spend 30 minutes birding.
The lake covers about 50 acres, and in the winter is home to a variety of ducks and Pied-Billed Grebes. But year round, you're likely to see herons and egrets around the edges of the lake. On a recent visit, I saw Barn Swallows and Purple Martins swooping over the lake, and a Belted Kingfisher doing its fishing on the far side of the lake from its human counterparts.
But it is in the wooded areas near the lake that I have had my best birding. Early this month I saw Eastern Phoebes, Wood-Pewees, Eastern Kingbirds, Red-Bellied and Red-Headed woodpeckers, and a Northern Flicker on the road as it curves away from the lake before turning back to the lake office. (See photos.)
Also, don't forget to look for birds on the short road from U.S. 331 to the lake gate. Earlier this year I saw a Pileated Woodpecker darting from tree to tree, heard a Wood Thrush in the brush near the small creek that the road passes over, as well as seeing and hearing Titmice and Nuthatches in the trees.
Walker County Public Lake: Again, this is a site that is readily accessible from a heavily traveled highway -- in this case, Interstate 22 between Birmingham and Memphis. The large lake is surrounded by a mixed pine and hardwood forest that provides excellent birding.
I had to start a bird list even before I entered the lake area, since I saw Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks off the entrance roads. I was surprised to see several Tree Sparrows darting over the lake, and Purple Martins seemed to be everywhere. In the woods around the lake, I spotted Orchard Orioles, a Pine Warbler, and heard Tufted Titmice. (See photos.)
But the highlight came after a restroom break. (One attraction of these public lakes to birders are the almost-always clean restrooms.) As I was walking back to my car -- without my camera -- a Bald Eagle zoomed overhead. It was a beautiful sight in the early morning sunlight. While it would have been nice to have a photo, it was also great to just stop and enjoy the moment.
I didn't have time to tackle the trail that encircles the lake -- it probably would take a couple of hours to bird it. But I would bet that it would be a haven for Wood Thrushes, woodpeckers, grosbeaks and buntings and Pine and perhaps Palm warblers.
Lamar County Fishing Lake: While the Crenshaw and Walker public lakes are near busy highways and thus suitable for a quick birding stop if you're nearby, it's unlikely anyone will visit the Lamar County Fishing Lake just on a side trip. It is in the middle of nowhere, not far from the Mississippi state line.
But it is a beautiful spot, and the local fisherman I talked with said it is a favorite fishing hole for locals. The birding is great there, too.
By the time I reached the lake, I was tired and needed a break. So I bought a soda from the store at the lake office and plopped down in a chair on the shaded porch. It was a great move; I did my birding from there. The lake manager and her granddaughter and a fisherman provided good company while I birded.
The lake manager has put out feeders galore, and without moving I saw Chipping Sparrows, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, a Great Blue Heron, a Green Heron, a Red-Headed Woodpecker, a Pine Warbler, Brown-Headed Cowbirds, an Eastern Phoebe and others. The highlight was seven beautiful American Goldfinches. (See photo.)
While these three public lakes and several of the others I have visited around the state are designed primarily for fishing, they are also often good places to bird and also good spots for family picnics and outings. As I mentioned, the public restrooms are sometimes rustic but invariably clean, and the lake offices usually have cold drinks and snacks. But remember that most seem to be closed at least one weekday each week, so I advise you to check ahead of time.
I look forward to visiting other public fishing lakes on future outings, and suggesting them to other birders. And do our AOS/eBird committee a favor -- file an eBird report at eBird.org if you go birding at one.
Birmingham Audubon Society -- While most of the state's birding groups take the summer off from organized field trips, not so Birmingham Audubon. Three of its more popular trips are coming up soon.
On Saturday, June 24, the group will visit Hale County. A highlight will be the Forever Wild State Cattle Ranch. On July 29, the destination will be Autauga and Lowndes counties where the target birds will include the impressive Swallow-Tailed Kite. Then on Aug. 5, the group will head to the Greensboro area. Each of these will be an all-day trip that is open to both members and non-members. For details, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org