Natural Alabama 11-3-17
Boat trip into Mobile-Tensaw Delta is magical
By Ken Hare
For more than three decades, I've driven on Interstate 65 across the massive and towering Wilson Bridge over a portion of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta northeast of Mobile. Virtually every time I drove across that bridge, I thought: "One day, I'm going to take a boat ride to explore that delta."
Finally, late last month, I had a chance to do just that, and it was all I hoped it would be, even though my four-hour excursion only made a small dent in my desire to explore the delta (it's really huge).
On the boat trip we saw a myriad of birds -- Bald Eagles, Ospreys and Northern Harriers and other hawk species, Tri-Colored Egrets, ibis, gallinules, terns, hundreds and hundreds of Tree Swallows, White Pelicans, and many more species. We saw alligators and wonderful plant life. And when we cut the motor on the boat to coast up to a bird or plant, we experienced a soul-refreshing quiet and calmness that is difficult to find in today's world.
A big part of the sheer joy of the trip came from my companions. Patsy Harris Russo invited me on the trip and our guide and boat captain was Jimbo Meador, a legend in outdoor circles in Mobile.
Patsy is an outstanding nature photographer who recently became the events coordinator for the Alabama Coastal Birdfest. Each fall the Birdfest gives birders and nature lovers a chance to see the varied and beautiful natural areas of Mobile and Baldwin counties, from the Fort Morgan Peninsula and Dauphin Island beaches to well into the delta.
What can I say about Jimbo? You know that series of beer commercials that feature "the most interesting man in the world"? Jimbo makes him look sort of blah -- and Jimbo is real.
When Jimbo was 12 years old, he was trapping small animals in Mobile County. People my age may remember the Davy Crockett mania of the mid-1950s when every boy had to have a "coonskin hat." There's a chance that young Jimbo trapped and sold the raccoon whose tail ended up on one of those hats. He won a local nutria rodeo when he was 15. (Nutria rodeos are designed to reduce the population of this invasive animal species, which damages both native plants and animals.) When Jimbo was in his mid-teens, he and friends spent much of their time on a small houseboat anchored in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. As an adult, he spent almost all of his working life around the water, first in shipping, then as a spokesman for the Orvis outdoor company.
"About the only job I ever had away from the water was when I worked for Beretta," he said. His work there focused on the arms company's custom shotguns. Now the only thing he uses to shoot wildlife is his camera.
His friend Winston Groom dedicated his novel "Forrest Gump" to Jimbo and fellow boyhood pal George Radcliff, saying: “There’s more than just a little of Jimbo and George in Forrest Gump. These guys are the two biggest idiots I know.”
But I found nothing of Forrest's slow-thinking in the real Jimbo, who was as sharp as a fishhook and a fascinating conversationalist. He knew the birds we were photographing as well as some of the best birders I know, and he also intimately knew every species of plant life we asked about.
Jimbo now uses his boat that launches from the Mobile Causeway to take tours into his beloved delta. He can carry 4-6 people per trip. But I got the feeling that the guiding was more about getting up into the delta as it was about income.
In addition to his own tour business, Jimbo is a trip leader for the Alabama Coastal Birdfest. I can't imagine anyone who would be a better guide into Mobile Bay or the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. (Google Jimbo Meador to find out about his guided trips and the Alabama Coastal Birdfest for information on next fall's festival activities.)
The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is a vast wetland area north of Alabama's Mobile Bay. It is a web of rivers, streams, swamps, bayous, lakes and mudflats -- interspersed with forests -- that was created from the flow of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers.
The delta is 45 miles long and six to 16 miles wide. Its more than 300 square miles is home to a huge number of species of animals and plants.
Though the delta is created by the Alabama and Tombigbee, once they flow into the delta area above Mobile Bay they split into several other rivers, emerging into Mobile Bay as the Tensaw, Mobile and Blakeley rivers.
It was a cloudless and crisp day for our trip. We started by going into the bay to a small islet near the Battleship Alabama where I had seen White Pelicans that morning. Jimbo cut his motor and poled the boat closer to the White Pelicans and hundreds of birds congregated there.
Then we headed up the Tensaw River, eventually cutting up a side stream to a Bald Eagle nest where Patsy and Jimbo had photographed the eagles sitting on exposed limbs just a few days before. This time the eagles were not around, but along the way we saw a Northern Harrier cruising low over the marsh and an Osprey higher up looking down for prey. And a mile or so from the nest we spotted our first adult Bald Eagle soaring high overhead.
After that, we cut across to the Blakeley River, stopping to photograph Common Gallinules and Little Blue Herons along the way. On the Blakeley River, Jimbo took us to our second Bald Eagle nest, and this time the breeding pair of birds were perched in a tree just a hundred yards away. Jimbo got us close to the tree, and maneuvered the boat for different angles to photograph the birds. But the leaves were so thick that it was hard to get both birds in the same frame. Being so close to such imposing birds in the wild is an experience I wish everyone could share.
After that, we headed down the Blakeley River and back into Mobile Bay to photograph White Ibis and more Ospreys. Then it was back to Jimbo's landing on the causeway after we realized our planned three-hour trip had unknowingly stretched to more than four. A late -- and great -- lunch with Jimbo and Patsy at the nearby Bluegill Restaurant (don't miss the gumbo) was the finishing touch to a great day.
I have long understood the ecological and economic impact of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and knew the need to protect it and its resources from environmental harm. But to truly grasp the importance of protecting it, I recommend a boat trip into the heart of "America's Amazon."
-- The 71st Annual Banquet of Birmingham Audubon will feature Dr. David Haskell, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of the South. Haskell is a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book, The Forest Unseen. The banquet will be at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 7, preceded by a social hour and book signing at 5:30 p.m. For details and ticket information, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- 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. 11, to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and Garth Slough and the Tennessee River. Sandhill Cranes will almost certainly be seen, and possibly rare and endangered Whooping Cranes. You do not have to be a member to participate.
-- 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
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 Ken's page.
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