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Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Summer brings beautiful, rare spoonbills to Alabama

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Four Roseate Spoonbills (look carefully) South Montgomery County (Photo Ken Hare) Four Roseate Spoonbills (look carefully) South Montgomery County (Photo Ken Hare)
A Wood Stork shows its 5-foot wingspan as it takes to the air. (Photo Ken Hare) A Wood Stork shows its 5-foot wingspan as it takes to the air. (Photo Ken Hare)
Some of the 100-plus Wood Storks in South Montgomery County. (Photo Ken Hare) Some of the 100-plus Wood Storks in South Montgomery County. (Photo Ken Hare)
A Wood Stork in the rain. (Photo Ken Hare) A Wood Stork in the rain. (Photo Ken Hare)
Wood Storks in the rain. (Photo Ken Hare) Wood Storks in the rain. (Photo Ken Hare)
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Montgomery County has had some beautiful visitors during the past week. I saw at least five, and possibly six, Roseate Spoonbills in South Montgomery County.

And while the Wood Stork is not as rare as the Roseate Spoonbill, I was still surprised to see more than 120 of the impressive Wood Storks with wing spans approaching 6 feet at one location in Montgomery County.

There is little doubt where the Roseate Spoonbill got its name. The beautiful pink "rosy" color can't be missed, but that's not close to being its most distinctive feature. That has to be its unique bill, shaped  like two 15-inch serving spoons fitted together. (See photo gallery.)

While the Roseate Spoonbill is arguably one of Alabama's most beautiful birds, it's not one many people see in the state. It is locally common in parts of the southern half of Florida and along the Texas coast where it breeds, but rarely seen elsewhere. However, some birds -- mostly juveniles -- do travel away from the usual breeding areas for the species.

In Alabama, for instance, last year there were about a dozen sightings of Roseate Spoonbills reported on eBird.

All the rain the area has had has made birding problematic, but cabin fever last week forced me to go birding, rain or no rain. One advantage of all that rain is that standing water can turn a cattle pasture into a magnet for certain types of wading birds.

So I drove to a spot where the road overlooks a huge pasture in which a creek had overflowed, parked, and started to scan the field with binoculars.

Birds abounded. In addition to meadowlarks, blackbirds and killdeer that would likely be there regardless of the rainfall, I saw Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons and Great Egrets galore, and even one lone Green Heron. Then, as I scanned birds several hundred yards away, I saw the distinctive pink that signaled the likely presence of Roseate Spoonbills.

However, even with 10-power binoculars, I couldn't say for certain these were Roseates or how many there were. So I set up my spotting scope, and zoomed in on the bunch. These were, in fact, Roseate Spoonbills -- at least four of them. They were so bunched together it was difficult to tell how many. Later, when I put photos on my computer, I verified there were in fact five.

I filed reports on eBird and ALbirds about the sighting. ALbirds is an information-sharing site for Alabama birders, and eBird also has a notification feature where birders can get email reports of the sightings of rare birds. Over the next 48 hours, I saw that several of the state's better birders had visited the area in search of the spoonbills, but it did not appear that anyone had found them. So Sunday afternoon I headed back to South Montgomery County in hopes of another sighting and better photos.

The spoonbills weren't at the first location, but there were three Wood Storks hundreds of yards away at the far side of the field. As I scouted the area a few miles in several directions, I spotted six other Wood Storks at one lake and one single stork in another partially flooded field.  (See photo gallery.)

Then two other birders who had driven down from the Birmingham area called me; they had found the five Roseate Spoonbills about four miles from where I had seen them before.

Fast forward to Wednesday: Again, even though it was raining, I cruised around South Montgomery County hoping to see the Roseate Spoonbills again, or at least the Wood Storks. I did see one Wood Stork and a few other good birds (and had a great lunch at Red's Little Schoolhouse), but no sign of the spoonbills.

While driving back to Montgomery on the Troy Highway, I decided at the last minute to make a quick stop at the fish farm ponds on Meriwether Road. When I drove up, I immediately saw 20 Wood Storks in the pond nearest the road; then, farther back from the roadway, a much, much larger group. (For more on Wood Storks, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/category/245234/ken-hares-natural-alabama)

I parked and, using binoculars, started to count the larger group -- there were 104 in that group, for a total of 124. But about halfway through the count I saw that distinct rosy hue again. Nestled among the much larger Wood Storks was a lone Roseate Spoonbill. 

There is no way of knowing for certain if this Roseate Spoonbill was a new bird or one of the five seen earlier. But since the others twice were seen together, and the closest location was 10-12 miles from the fish ponds, I think it is possible this was a different bird.

A few decades ago, I think I remember seeing Roseate Spoonbills in South Florida. But I didn't bird then, and memories fade, so I can't be sure. But last month I had my first recordable sighting of one in Baldwin County. Counting that one, this makes four sightings in Alabama of at least six birds for me in the past month. In addition, birding friend Sue Moske saw another last week in the Eufaula area and Larry Gardella, who recently moved from Montgomery to Daphne, spotted one at Blakeley Mudflats on Mobile Bay.

All in all, an exciting week for birding in Montgomery County.

NATURE NOTES

-- Birmingham Audubon Society: While most of the state's birding groups take the summer off from organized field trips, not so Birmingham Audubon. On July 29, the destination will be Autauga and Lowndes counties where the target birds will include the impressive Swallow-Tailed Kite. On Aug. 5, the group will head to the Greensboro area. Each of these will be a free, all-day trip that is open to both members and non-members. For details, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org

-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at: alabamabirdingtrails.com

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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. To see other columns, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/category/245234/ken-hares-natural-alabama

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