HALE COUNTY (WSFA) - Hale County
Natural Alabama 6-30-17
Birmingham Audubon field trips great way to learn
By Ken Hare
For those interested in learning about birds and birding, there is no better way than to join field trips led by knowledgeable birders. I took part in one last week that was sponsored by the Birmingham Audubon Society, and the birds we saw were phenomenal.
The field trip -- one of several that Birmingham Audubon will lead this summer -- took us to Hale and Marengo counties in West Alabama, where we found a beautiful Painted Bunting, dozens of Wood Storks, herons, egrets, and -- my favorites -- several Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers. (See photo gallery.)
There are several birding organizations in Alabama that lead field trips, and I advise beginning birders to get involved with one or more of the groups. Birmingham Audubon has trips throughout the year. Some of them are in the Birmingham area, but many range far and wide around the state. (See below for more details on birding groups that lead field trips.) Most birding groups invite non-members to participate free of charge, but I believe it is good manners to join the organization if you are going to go on field trips regularly.
My day started with a drive to Selma where I was a guest on the syndicated radio show, "Gettin' Outdoors with Big Daddy Lawler." Big Daddy's show is broadcast on several stations in West Alabama, and has a large and loyal following.
The Saturday morning show focuses on fishing and hunting in Alabama's Black Belt counties, but Big Daddy is a true naturalist who is interested in a wide range of outdoor activities. I first met the show's host a couple of years ago in Lowndes County at a stopover for the Operation Migration, which for several years used an ultralight aircraft to lead endangered Whooping Cranes on migrations to Florida.
I was joined on the program by Johnny Autery, a truly outstanding nature photographer. Joe Watts, who helped create the Alabama Birding Trails System, joined us by phone for the last half of the show.
It was a lively discussion touching on everything from birding, nature photography, and areas of the state where bird reports are scarce and how that affects ornithological studies. A big "thank you" to Big Daddy for giving me a chance to promote some of my favorite subjects -- the Alabama Ornithological Society, Birmingham Audubon, Alabama Birding Trails, and eBird.
After the show, I drove farther west to Hale County, where I joined the BAS field trip in progress at the Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area, a wonderful area of prairie grassland that was formerly known as the State Cattle Ranch.
I'd never been there, and I missed a good part of the birding there. But I did have a chance to drive around, and the Forever Wild area clearly is a great place to bird. The group saw a wide range of prairie birds, and the many farm lakes scattered around the property had gallinules, a Bald Eagle, and even four out-of-season Hooded Mergansers. The area can be birded only by appointment, so call ahead. (334-624-9952)
After leaving the ranch, we drove south to the small community of Faunsdale in Marengo County, where we had lunch at the Faunsdale Bar and Grill. One of our group likened it to an Old West bar, and said the only thing missing were hitching rails out front. But it was not a kitschy, touristy kind of artificial Old West; in fact, it wasn't really "western," just West Alabama. This is an open old building with bare-wood walls and a worn natural wood floor that creaked when you walked. I had a great cheeseburger and hand-cut fries with very good service for such a large group.
Following lunch we headed a few miles south of town where we searched for, and eventually located, a beautiful male Painted Bunting. We had some good views, but the only decent photo I got showed just his red body and blue head, but not the yellow wings.
After that stop, the group headed back to Hale County for a stop near a catfish farming operation. There we saw one of my favorite Alabama species -- the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher. This would be an 8-inch-long bird -- about the size and shape of its more common relative, the Eastern Kingbird -- except for its extremely long and sharply forked tail, which can make it up to 15 inches long. At first glance the bird appears to be various shades of gray; whitish gray on its head and chest, and darker gray on its wings and tail. But when the bird flies it shows a lovely salmon color on its under-wings and sides. (See photos.)
Catfish farming is a huge business in Hale County, and on every road we took we came across ponds, with many of them surrounded by Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Cattle Egrets and lots and lots of Wood Storks. The storks we see in Alabama mostly breed in Florida, but as breeding season winds down they scatter in search of feeding grounds. (See photos.)
We even saw a large flight of White Pelicans in the distance at one stop.
As usual, the group on the trip was a mixture of experienced birders and newbies, so there was always someone nearby who could answer questions for the less experienced birders. (I originally wrote "old pros and newbies," but some really good birders in Alabama, including some on this trip, are still in college.)
Field trip leaders Greg Harber of Birmingham Audubon and John Trent of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources made it an outstanding birding day.
Birmingham Audubon has other summer field trips to central and west Alabama on its schedule. 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. For details, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org
Other Alabama groups that sponsor field trips include:
-- The Alabama Ornithological Society (www.aosbirds.org): A great group of knowledgeable birders who help do some serious research on birds in the state. AOS meets three times per year -- in the spring and fall at Dauphin Island, timed to see migrating birds along Alabama's coast, and in the winter at different birding hotspots around the state. Each meeting has several field trips associated with it led by such outstanding leaders as Andrew Haffenden, as well as knowledgeable speakers. Membership fees are modest.
-- The North Alabama Birdwatchers Society (www.northalbirding.com): If you're interested in getting out into the natural world on a regular basis, this group is for you. NABS emphasizes field trips, with one or two a month as the norm. While its membership is focused on the Huntsville-Decatur area, it welcomes birders from anywhere who are willing to make the drive for early morning field trips. (I live in Montgomery and belong to NABS, driving up for a few field trips a year.)
-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature- 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
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see other columns, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/category/245234/ken-hares-natural-alabama