NA road trip
Natural Alabama 11-17-17
Bird species abound in Northwest Alabama
By Ken Hare
There are all sorts of ways to bird. Some birders travel thousands of miles to far off lands to see exotic birds. (Exotic to them, of course, but often common to the people who live there.) Others are content to bird a patch within walking distance of their home, and sometimes just in their backyard.
Me? My favorite is the road trip, and I had a great one last month with fellow birder Neil Gilbert, a graduate student at the University of Alabama and one of the better birders I know.
Our targets were the counties bordering Mississippi in extreme northwest Alabama. I especially wanted to visit Colbert and Lauderdale counties. One of my birding goals for the year was to get an eBird list from the remaining 32 counties in Alabama where I did not have one, and Colbert and Lauderdale were the last two on my list. We also wanted to bird in Pickens, Lamar, Fayette, Walker and Marion counties. Those are five of the 16 counties that are on the Alabama Ornithological Society's target list of counties that are under-reported on eBird.
I picked up Neil at about 7 a.m. in Tuscaloosa and we birded until sunset, spending the night in Florence. On Sunday we started at about 6:15 a.m. and went until sunset. On Saturday, Neil was able to identify 93 species of birds, and on Sunday, 95 species. I got a handful fewer than that, since Neil is able to hear and identify by ear a few birds my older ears simply don't hear. Combined for the two days, he had 112 species for the weekend. In all, we birded in 10 different counties.
There were some great stops along the way. At Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River, we saw literally thousands of Double-Crested Cormorants, and hundreds of American White Pelicans and gulls. I finally got to visit Leighton Ponds in Colbert County, a site where I regularly see online reports of great birds. There we saw Snow Geese, Northern Shovelers, Hooded Mergansers and a Northern Harrier, plus many others.
Perhaps our best species of the weekend came at Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River, a site that was bristling with birds: cormorants, white pelicans, loons and gulls -- thousands of gulls. A handful were Herring Gulls, which stood out because of their size. There were a good many moderately sized Ring-Billed Gulls. But most -- perhaps 2,000 -- were Bonaparte's Gulls.
Then there, flying with all those Bonies, was one lone Little Gull. After 20 minutes with the binoculars, Neil was able to pick it out from the crowd. Once he pointed me in the right direction, I also was able to see it because of the much darker under-wings of the Little Gull compared to the Bonaparte's Gulls.
While the Tennessee River reservoir dams were awesome birding sites because of their sheer numbers of birds, my favorite site for the weekend was a large embayment near the small village of Waterloo. (North Alabama Birding Trails Site 11). This large inlet off the Tennessee River reservoir is a birding mecca, because of the variety of habitats available -- deep water, mudflats and upland woods.
We set up our observation point at picnic tables overlooking the inlet, with woodlands all around us. The woodlands provided chickadees, kinglets, Pine and Yellow-Rumped warblers, juncos, towhees, American Pipit, woodpeckers and sparrows. Then we set up our spotting scopes for the open water and mudflats. On the water we saw Northern Shovelers, Gadwalls, Green-Winged Teal, American Wigeons, Canvasbacks, Redheads, Ring-Necked Ducks, Scaup, Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers and Ruddy Ducks. On the mudflats and in shallow water there were coots, herons, white pelicans and a lone Greater Yellowlegs. And to top it all off, as we were leaving two Bald Eagles put on a brief show for us.
In less than an hour, this one site served up 55 species of birds.
Birding road trips also offer a chance to see the beauty of Alabama's back roads and to sample some of the state's cuisine. My favorite of the weekend was the Court Street Grill in Moulton, which is on courthouse square in an older building that has been modernized while retaining its original charm. I had steak fingers with fried potatoes and grilled peppers and onions, and Neil had a shrimp and grits entree which he said was outstanding. For dessert he had a huge concoction of brownie, ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce which he said he could never finish. He did. I had the house specialty, a fried fruit pie. I had cherry, but other fruits were available. I recommend it; the crust was crispy, unlike many such pies, and the inside was gooey and warm and filled with fruit.
All in all, a great road trip.
HELP WITH CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNTS
Ken Ward, president of the North Alabama Birdwatchers Society and a recent past president of the Alabama Ornithological Society, writes: "The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is the oldest and largest citizen science event in the world. For more than a hundred years, people have gathered during the winter holiday season to identify and count birds. In the process, they have created a vast pool of bird data that is a valuable source of information on the status and distribution of early winter bird populations.
"Parties of birders are assigned to different parts of a count circle 15 miles in diameter, often centered around an important natural area, such as a state park or wildlife refuge, to identify and count all birds seen or heard from dawn to dusk. Afterwards, birders convene at a central location for the compilation. There are currently 10 active count circles in Alabama and more than 2,000 nationwide. Birders of all skill levels are welcome and needed. Counts can be held on any day between Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, through Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.
"There is a list of CBCs for Alabama, plus a few nearby ones in neighboring states, posted on the AOS website (www.aosbirds.org) which has dates and contact (for count leaders) and other pertinent information. If you are interested in participating in a count, please contact the count leader. Typically, you'll need binoculars (for sure), a spotting scope (if you have one) and lunch (depending on where you are). If you'd like to participate but can't stay the whole day, it's often possible to make arrangements to do that through the count leader.
"We hope you'll consider helping out with a count; they are lots of fun and a great way to further develop your birding skills and connect with our birding community. Additionally, if you're into photography, your skills could really come in handy, as photos are often important for confirming identification of rare or unusual birds, not to mention documenting nature's beauty and promoting citizen science and birding and nature study in general."
-- 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, Dec. 9, to Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area. You do not have to be a member to participate. www.northalbirding.com
-- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To see other columns, go to Ken's Page.
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