MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Advice to new birders from anywhere: Get to know good birders, and go with them on trips into the field to see birds whenever you can. It is one of the best ways I know to learn about birds and birding.
Advice to new birders who bird (or want to bird) on the Alabama coast: Get to know Andrew Haffenden, and go with him into the field every chance you get. It is one of the best ways I know to learn about the birds of coastal Alabama, and especially Dauphin Island.
If you've walked on the beach at Dauphin Island, especially soon after sunrise, there's a good chance you've seen Andrew: A lean, bronzed figure with close-cropped graying hair and a spotting scope on a tripod balanced across his shoulder and a camera with a zoom lens strapped to his side.
Andrew is an Australian who worked as a naturalist and nature researcher there before moving to the United States more than 20 years ago. For almost six years, he has lived on Dauphin Island, and he knows the birds and birding spots on the island and elsewhere in Mobile and Baldwin counties as well as anyone. And in my opinion, he knows the many and varied species of shorebirds of Dauphin Island better than anyone.
I met Andrew at my first meeting of the Alabama Ornithological Society. AOS meets each fall and spring on Dauphin Island, and Andrew serves as field trip chairman for the group. During a typical AOS three-day meeting, members can choose among at least four field trips, and often more; Andrew typically leads two or three of them.
Most good birders I know like to share their knowledge with novice birders, but Andrew takes that to a new level. When he is leading a field trip, it turns into a mobile classroom.
I took my first beach walk with Andrew a couple of years ago, along with about a dozen other AOS members. I've got a bum knee, and explained to him that I probably would fall behind and not to wait for me. But I had little problem keeping up. A typical Andrew-led trip on the beach consists of walking 75 to 100 yards, spotting interesting birds, setting up spotting scopes, and then a brief lecture using the birds in the scopes as examples of how to tell different plovers or sandpipers or terns from one another.
The mini-lectures aren't helpful to just novice birders, however. Most AOS members are experienced birders, but someone who lives in North Alabama who knows warblers and ducks like the back of their hand still may need a refresher course on plovers and gulls.
Andrew has been involved with leading nature field trips for three decades, starting with guiding nature trips in North Queensland. But he started to focus on shorebirds after moving to Dauphin Island.
"I was walking on the beach when I saw a bird with bands on it, and it caught my interest," he said. He identified the banding, and set out to find out what he could about the where and when the bird was banded.
"It had been banded on Eglin AFB, and I thought that was pretty cool," he said. He soon was identifying banding on Dauphin Island birds and reporting the sightings to researchers around the world. His work with Piping Plovers has made important contributions to the island being a Globally Important Bird Area, a key to protecting birds there.
But Andrew's interest in nature field trips extends far beyond Dauphin Island. After leaving the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1986, he started his own eco-tour business. That work led him to work for a large ecotourism company in the United States. In 2003, he started his own company, Nature Travel Specialists.
"We are dedicated to responsible nature travel that helps the areas we visit. We use local guides, and whenever possible locally owned accommodations," he told me. "They have to meet the standards that our guests are accustomed to, of course, and the main thing is to be close to the areas we are visiting. But if those criteria are met then we always try to use locally owned businesses to help the economy of the area."
Nature Travel Specialists focuses on trips to Central and South America, the Caribbean and especially Cuba, Australia and New Zealand, but sometimes goes to other areas such as Southeast Asia. While birding is a major part of the business, general nature tours are covered as well.
"I take pride in not scheduling trips to areas I haven't visited first," he said. "It's tough work, but someone has to do it."
Andrew has posted a brief autobiography on the Nature Travel Specialists website. It's well worth a read.
-- The North Alabama Birdwatchers Society has announced its full schedule of field trips from now through May 2018. They include a trip on Saturday, Nov. 4, to the Beaverdam Peninsula Observation Tower, Arrowhead Landing and White Springs Dike sections of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. On previous trips with this group there I've seen hundreds of White Pelicans and Snow Geese and several species of waterfowl. You do not have to be a member to participate.
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society also has many field trips each year, and several of them are well out of the Birmingham area. Despite its name, Birmingham Audubon is really a statewide organization, supporting ornithological research around Alabama. It also has several outstanding seminars on nature and birding during the year. Its website is: 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